November 4, 2003

What is an Aggregator?

An aggregator is client software which reads content from all of your favorite blogs and let's you organize it in one place for easy reading. There are a number of decent aggregators, but how one reads one's news is a matter of personal taste.

Blog authors often publish their content in (at least) two ways. The main way is, of course, what you see on my blog's main page. A second, machine-readable "feed" is often published in some format using XML. We call this "syndication." You can find the link to my syndicated feed in my sidebar under "Syndicate this site (XML)." I haven't made the link very prominent because my feed is extremely rudimentary (it only publishes an unformatted excerpt from my blog entries). Better feeds contain the whole entry, including links and formatting. These feeds are often referred to as "RSS feeds." Don't ask what it stands for.

Adding a syndication feed to an aggregator client allows you to see when new stories have appeared on a number of sites at once by simply launching (or visiting) your aggregator.

I have tried a number of aggregator clients, and if you're looking for an aggregation solution, you might be interested in some of them.


First, there is NewzCrawler. I bought this shareware product because it is so full-featured. It can keep track of sites that do not have a syndication feed. This is handy. It also can allow blog authors to post to their blogs. It's got a "publish" feature which lets you generate HTML pages almost as if it is a blogging client itself. I haven't figured that bit out yet. NewzCrawler is the most full-featured aggregator I've seen. It will even grab RSS feeds automatically while you're browsing the web (if you use Internet Explorer... I don't think it works with my darling Mozilla Firebird). One problem with NewzCrawler is it is a little daunting. It does so much. To its credit, it is not difficult to use. (Windows Only)

Recently, a friend recommended the SharpReader aggregator client. I've only dabbled with it a bit, but it is nice and simple. It's slow to start up on my machine for some reason, which made a bad first impression, but I htink it is an excellent choice for something small which gets the job done. And, it lets you use your favorite browser to view pages.(Windows Only)

AmphetaDesk has one advantage over some of the other aggregators. It's cross-platform. It uses a server running on your machine to server HTML to your browser, so you usually don't see the client running. I tried it on my Mac, but I think it was a bit overkill for what I wanted.

On the Mac, the best news aggregator appears to be NetNewsWire. I think it's quite good, actually a lot like SharpReader. It supports RSS autodiscovery, so you don't have to track down that feed link. All you have to do is give it the website's address.

Another cross-platform solution is to use software running on someone else's machine. A web-based solution. One I recently discovered is BlogLines. Bloglines has the advantage of not installing anything on your machine, and you can use it from multiple locations because all the info is stored on their server. My feed looks really crappy on it, but that's the fault of my feed (another reason for me to get off my butt and improve the feed).

No matter how many aggregators I try, however, the service I use the most is "blo.gs" Blo.gs watches for signs that a weblog has been updated (via a ping mechanism, or if that site appears on the weblogs.com updated list) and lists your favorite blogs in the order that they have been updated, from most recent down. I've found this very useful, except that there are a number of blogs which do not notify blo.gs, and therefore do not show up as updated, even when they are. Also, some sites aren't known by blo.gs (though you can ping them yourself and get them added to the list). You can view your blo.gs favorites in a tiny popup window, or (my favorite method) in a Netscape sidebar which acts as a little navigation bar -- linking blogs into your main browser frame. The best thing about blo.gs is that you're always viewing the blog through the blog author's main page. But it doesn't break out the stories for you, because it isn't an aggregator, just a notification service and a place to store your favorites.

Well, there's a not-very-in-depth summary of the aggregators I've tried. I haven't decided which I like best. None of them seem to really offer what I want -- a simple way to sort stories across blogs by date (mixing the content of multiple blogs). For now, I'm sticking with blo.gs and perhaps Bloglines.

Posted by James at November 4, 2003 11:10 AM
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Not to push the one I use, but Sharpreader lets you sort stories across blogs. I discovered it by accident after clicking on the main "Subscribed Feeds" folder. The only problem with that is some sites update far more often than others.

And I use blogrolling.com's sidebar in the same way you use blo.gs to see which sites have been updated.

Posted by: Mike at November 4, 2003 1:10 PM

Push away. It's not like you're their paid spokesmodel or anything.

Posted by: James at November 4, 2003 2:45 PM

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