Beyond search engines


There is no easier way to keep up with your pet topics or follow a developing story than by signing up for news alerts. Just enter your keyword(s), and the service sends you email with links to new items containing that word from all kinds of journalistic and PR sources, several times daily if you think your Inbox isn't stuffed enough. I have no idea how many such services are out there, but here are three I find indispensable.

The ever-expanding Google has had a News Alerts service in beta for what seems like forever. But as far as I can tell after months of regular use, the free service has long been ready for prime time. And don't forget that Google has quite a nice news search page.

The New York Times employs a somewhat klunky sign-up system for emailed links to its stories on up to ten of your topics, but the worst news is that, sob, its news alert service is no longer free. A yearly sub is now $19.95. This fee also buys you a perk: your keyword stories continue to be available at no additional charge for 90 days, although much of the rest of the paper vanishes into the paid archives after a week. It's been worth it to me to be sure I can scoop up the Times's slant on news I need (or want) to keep up on without having to actually read the paper every day. Your priorities may vary.

I wrote enthusiastically some years ago about my first news alert experience, at Yahoo!, but it's still swell. You can set up your news alert — and your stock alert, your best fares alert, even your horoscope alert. It's easy to turn these off and on as your needs change. If you have email access when you travel, local weather alerts can be handy. Alerts can even, Yahoo! says, go to your mobile phone or pager, but those I haven't tried.

It would be convenient if you could sign up for just one news alert service and be sure of seeing everything. But you can't. These three services are remarkable for their degree of non-overlap. Yahoo! sends me mostly wire service hits. The Times, of course, sends the Times and nothing but the Times, and now expects 20 bucks as well as my gratitude. Google's service ranges far and wide, covering not just US media outlets large and small, print and broadcast, but also lots of foreign sources and even a few somewhat technical ones. It's rather a kick to open a Google alert and encounter a link to a piece with my own byline.


Speaking of Yahoo!, the mother of all search engines is about far more than news alerts. It has been around so long that, while comfy, it's also near-invisible. But it's time to acknowledge that Yahoo! comes by that exclamation point honestly. Ever-inventive, Yahoo! has expanded far beyond its original search directory to offer many other useful services. The ones described here are all still free, although some can be spiffed up for a fee.

If it's news you want, eat your fill. News alerts are only the beginning. Yahoo! maintains a searchable archive of recent news. You can customize this page to present you with categories of news you want in the order you want them. There are also topical directories for science (gene therapy, Hubble telescope, and many others) and health (AIDS to West Nile). Ideal for catching up on a subject quickly, and they include links to stories from sources other than wire services and to related topical Web sites.

I wish they'd change the too-cute name of the service known as My Yahoo!, if only because when I praise it, people look at me funny. I had a brief, frustrated fling with My Yahoo! when it was getting started klunkily some years ago. Last year I returned to it for a reason that had nothing to do with work: I needed a way to keep track of a satellite television schedule that was far more complex than my daily newspaper acknowledged. I recalled vaguely that My Yahoo! could do that — imperfectly, but I hoped it had improved. Well, it has — now offering your choice of up to 60 channels and a searchable program schedule more up to date than anything in print. But wait, there's more.

I don't know exactly what to call my My Yahoo!, but I use it as a supplementary daily newspaper — or, considering how much I rely on it, perhaps co-newspaper would be nearer the truth. Your My Yahoo! can be custom-stuffed with assorted modules of Yahoo! content, arranged in any order you like, in the colors you like, and a fresh version awaits you every day.

In addition to the TV schedule (with a link to the Internet Movie Database so I can check reviews of the movies on TV tonight), my My Yahoo!, (baby blue, with soothing seashells in the background) is loaded with links to news, most of it about science and technology, and also material from computer magazines. These are different from the Yahoo! news alerts emailed to me daily, which are based on keywords.

Since I can get to it from anywhere with a 'Net connection, my My Yahoo! is heavy on stuff useful when I travel. That includes a weather module, with forecasts from locales of my choice anywhere in the world, which can be clicked to take me to more details than I need, including radar and satellite maps. I also have City Guides for places I'm at or about to go to and a search box for Yahoo!'s MapQuest service so I'll know how to get there and get around once I'm there. I also have tacked up Yahoo's regular search box, plus a specialized search box linked to dictionaries and other reference sources, plus a calendar. Yahoo! would like to keep your datebook, so you can enter appointments into this calendar if you choose, but I find the idea of parking my life entirely online pretty scary. Even with password protection.

This is a tiny fraction of the sort of material that can enliven your My Yahoo! There's an array of financial items, travel material, entertainment news, and other. Some of this is designed blatantly to lighten your wallet, although much of it strikes me as potentially helpful, if not to me, then perhaps to you.

But the big reason My Yahoo! is so usable is that changing the content to fit your life at the moment — from checking the forecast for the city you're visiting tomorrow to jotting a note when no paper is handy — is klunky no more. They've made it intuitive, easy, and fast. Just Yahoo!, and click on the "personalize" tab at the top of the page.


If you are relying on search engines alone to find information on things biomedical, you are probably getting a lot of hits on commercial sites hawking particular docs and particular nostrums, where the sound of grinding axes drowns out the clear bell-like tones of actual information. Paid ads proliferate, some of them looking deceptively similar to regular hits, and even the supposedly noncommercial hits seem more and more to direct your gaze away from the straight scoop.

Even my beloved Google quite often downgrades the very best starting place: MEDLINEplus, a valuable service from your fellow taxpayers via the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Enter your search terms, or browse the directory, and come up with links not only to reliable background on a topic from government and nonprofit sources, but also to the latest news, to advocacy organizations, and to related subjects. There's also drug info, a medical encyclopedia, a medical dictionary, and links to NIH's clinical trials site. Go to MEDLINEplus when you're on square one. But even if you think you already know a lot about a medical topic, you will probably find new sources and new information at MEDLINEplus, because it's updated frequently.

Of course, you already know all about PubMed, right? That's NLM's bibliographic search service, quite simply the best in the world, an immensely valuable cornucopia of citations and abstracts from journals and another gift from your fellow taxpayers. But did you know that you can now link directly through from PubMed's journal abstracts to full text of many journals? Usually full text is not free, especially for recent papers, but more and more journals are making older issues (in many cases just six months older) available at no charge, and some journals are free from the get-go. Always worth a shot.

And did you know that you can get definitions (and correct spelling) of technical terms by consulting NLM's medical subject headings? And did you know that you can store and update searches you run often by signing up for the Cubby via a link from the PubMed home page?

Now you do.

Long-time freelance Tabitha M. Powledge, aka Tammy, specializes in genomics, neuroscience, and science policy. Since 1997 she has written The Free Lance, a regular column in ScienceWriter; this article appears in the Winter 2004 issue. She joined NASW twenty years ago and is serving her second term on the NASW board.

Jan. 1, 2004

Drexel University online