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Web Watch by Leslie Walker

Microsoft Deploys Newsbot To Track Down Headlines

By Leslie Walker
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page F06

Microsoft Corp. wants to be your electronic paperboy.

The software behemoth debuted a pilot service at MSNBC.com Tuesday that automatically assembles news summaries, partly personalized for each visitor.

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MSN Newsbot (newsbot.msnbc.msn.com) looks a lot like Google News, another automatically generated headline-gathering service. Google News continually scans 4,500 online sources to find fresh news articles; Microsoft scans 4,800 sites and updates its summary pages every 10 minutes.

Like Google, MSN Newsbot groups together headlines about the same topic from a variety of sources, making it easier to compare alternate accounts.

MSN Newsbot, however, also remembers what you read (using browser cookies to track use instead of requiring you to sign in to Microsoft's Passport service) and presents stories it thinks might interest you in a special box. Moreover, it shows what other stories earlier readers of a news item clicked through to.

"As you read the site and click on more articles, the Newsbot will start to learn your habits and offer up more information related to what you have read," said Justin Osmer, MSN product manager.

Another key difference between the Microsoft and Google services is that Google's story-selection formula doesn't favor any particular new source. MSN Newsbot, by contrast, gives favorable placement to articles from Microsoft's own MSNBC.com news site -- late Friday afternoon, half of Newsbot's 22 front-page stories came from MSNBC.com.

Osmer didn't appear aware of this preferential treatment in an interview, but an MSN spokeswoman later confirmed it in e-mail. "As Newsbot resides on MSNBC and is branded as such, MSNBC is considered a first among equals, meaning that if they and another top-tier source offer the same story, information, etc., MSNBC will be listed first, followed by other sources," wrote Elizabeth Herrera Smith.

Osmer said MSN is collecting feedback and fine-tuning other aspects of the site, such as how many headlines should be personalized and how many should appear to each and every visitor. For now, customized headlines appear only in a box labeled "Personalized News." But over time, MSN hopes to expand the amount of space devoted to personalized news.

New Tools for Traveling Cheapskates

The Internet travel service Expedia added a new savings calculator to show what users can save buying a vacation package instead of booking the same airline ticket and hotel room separately. This information is often hard to calculate on your own, since Expedia and other travel agents don't typically disclose individual prices in package deals.

The site also unveiled a new hotel rate calendar that shows which nights of the week cost less at each hotel.

www.expedia.com

Web Page as Scrapbook

Busy Web surfers have another tool to speed up their browsing. Called Amplify, this software lets people stitch material from different Web sites into a single Web page for use as a super-bookmarks list of favorite Web sites, or maybe just a way to share things that they've found online with friends. The Amplify browser toolbar runs only in the Windows version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but the New York-based company says it hopes to support Macintosh and Linux users soon.

www.amplify.com

E-mail Leslie Walker at walkerl@washpost.com.


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