News Junkies Can Custom-Design Online Channels

By Leslie Walker
Sunday, March 13, 2005

One of the Internet's busiest paperboys got a bit more personal last week: Google News, which culls headlines from 4,500 news sources across the Web, added a custom feature letting people design their own news channels.

Users can zap Google's standard sports section off the page, or move those headlines higher. They can add a personal section called, say, "Wacko Jacko," to display the latest trial headlines about the PJ-clad defendant, or "Condoleezza" to fetch news of the jet-setting secretary of state.

To create a custom channel, enter keywords describing any topic into a special search box, as if doing a regular Web search. Google News saves each query as a menu button, which you can click later to see more news about that subject. On the main summary page, you can mix and match your own topics with Google's standard categories.

Big deal, you say; Yahoo News has long done something similar in its "My Yahoo" area, which also features weather, stocks and other content besides news. In fact, all the big Internet services -- Yahoo, America Online, Microsoft's MSN -- let people save personalized home pages.

Google's new service, though, is more tightly focused on news and pulls up articles from a wider variety of sources than its rivals. News junkies may love this hyperactive paperboy because it lets them save a lot of custom topics -- up to 20 at once -- and access them using brightly colored menu buttons.

Our tests showed it was a snap to create and modify any custom channel, but not so easy to create the short labels required to avoid messing up the news page layout. That requires clicking the "advanced" button beside each keyword box and filling in a separate label form.

Since Google lacks unified registration across all of its services -- though it is moving in that direction -- for now it saves individual custom news pages with cookies, small files stored on user's computers. To let people access the same custom page on multiple computers, Google lets them save a string of code and e-mail it to themselves or friends.

Unlike Yahoo, Google News does not permit custom news sections using a content distribution system known as RSS. But Marissa Mayer, Google's consumer product manager, said that could change if enough consumers ask for RSS, which makes it easier to pull articles from blogs and many traditional news outlets.

Also unlike Yahoo News, Google News still has no advertising, more than two years after it first launched in test form. But that's likely to change when the service eventually emerges from its long-running trial. "We will find a way to monetize it," Mayer said. /

Virtual History Museum

Next time snow keeps you and your kids from trekking to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, try the museum's Web site. A 15-month redesign yielded a new site this month that includes a "History Explorer" feature, which presents detailed pictures of the museum's many historical artifacts on a timeline dating to 900 B.C. Users can zoom through the timeline and click on any object to explore it further. The site also features many at-home history projects for kids.

E-mail Leslie Walker

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