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When I was a little boy growing up in the city, the newspaper was the main source of information for everyone. Understandably, the sources of information were limited and it didn’t take long for one to finish the comics or the sports pages. Today, the scenario is different. We simply have too much information at our disposal. If you are like me, you like reading articles and newspapers online, but you also know what a mess it sometimes can become. Before you know it, you have 10 browser windows open and your eyes are going nuts trying to read it all in one go.

Some clever souls realized this too and came up with smart online solutions for such things. The smart people I am referring to here are the ones at www.spotback.com [1]. What is so special about this Web site? Simply said in one line, these folks do a very efficient job of getting together content from all over the Web. They also find the information that will interest you the most. Let’s take a quick peek. To do away with the technicalities right away, Spotback will work on most of the browsers that one is likely to use on the Windows platform.

I started with registering for an account with Spotback, which is quite a breezy affair. You just need to enter a username and password. This is probably the only registration I have gone through in recent years where entering your e-mail address is optional. It took me barely a few seconds to set up the account and Spotback had me logged in once we finished with the sign up. As soon as you log in for the first time, a pop up window will come up and ask you to enter the topics of your interest. It presents you with four empty fields in which you can enter the things that you would like to read about. Here you need to enter tags or keywords like NFL, Israel War or Elvis Sightings (whatever you’re interested in). Once you enter your interests and click Continue, Spotback instantly redirects you to a homepage. The homepage interface is pretty simple, as you can see in the screenshot below.

Spotback lists your tags on the left panel under the heading “Watched Tags.” You can click on either of your tags to see the news items related to them. However, the first thing I’d suggest you do is click on the “Customize your own news page” link on the top. This is a very efficient feature in my opinion. It lets you completely alter the look of your homepage, not just in terms of how it looks, but you can also change what content appears on it.

It lets you add different category boxes that contain news pertaining to a particular category. For example, I added the category called Sports Box and as a content. In that box, I selected the different sports that I want to follow and specified how many top stories should be displayed in that box. Thankfully, the user has total control over everything, with occasional recommendations from Spotback.

Similarly, you can add more content with different kinds of category boxes. Once you click OK, Spotback updates your homepage instantly. You can add multiple layouts like this for your homepage. Efficiently done, this could be a pretty nice good morning alternative to your newspaper for you.

The main functionality of the site remains the Watched Tags. As I earlier mentioned, they are listed in the left panel and a simple click on a tag takes you to all the related stories. The personal tag tracker tracks single keywords or a combination of two keywords for related stories. If you select the highlight option, the personal tracker will also highlight the tag words wherever they appear in a story. The good thing is that the tag tracker is not just limited to the tags specified by the author of the story, but it searches the complete text of the story for your tag keywords.

This page is pretty self-explanatory. Toward the left, you can see the tags I chose to keep a watch over and toward the right, the related news stories are displayed. Click on a story and a pop up window will appear, giving you a few options. For example, the ability to e-mail the story, save it or comment or rate it. This window also contains an excerpt from the story. So, if you find it interesting, you can click on the main link to read it in full or you can just ignore it if it’s not that important to you. Pretty clever preview trick, isn’t it?!

You can also set up Spotback to send you e-mail alerts once any new stories connected to the topic that interests you appear. This is quite a handy feature. I have it set to once a day, so I don’t have to log on unnecessarily to Spotback only to find that no new stories have been added. If you want, you can set it to “Immediately,” which means they will send you an e-mail about a new story before the CNN anchor can say, “Now, we go live to our correspondent.”

If you’d like stories from a particular feed to appear on your personalized homepage, you can suggest one or more feeds to Spotback. Spotback will go through the feed and add it to their list if deemed worthy of it.

The above discussed topics are pretty much most of the core functions of Spotback. There are a couple more like “history,” which shows all of your history, whether it’s comments you have made, ratings you have given or the stories you have saved. The top stories tab on top of the page lets you go through many stories under different categories as well. Note that these can be any categories and not just the ones you had specified earlier.

Spotback recommends that you simple play around with the settings to get a feel for it and I would second that. If you end up disturbing something, you can always reset your profile and start from scratch again. So, does it sound like a service you might be interested in? Well, for me, it’s a big relief from weeding out the silly classified pages from the good old newspaper. This personalized news service is the way for a tech savvy geek like me to go!

Again, you can check out Spotback for yourself here.

~ Yogesh Bakshi