It's a "true beta" (as opposed to non-true betas? (-:) but expect much more about this service in the future. The company is very outfront about that. I'll likely have more to say in a longer post once I have more time to spend using Inform and new features are added.
However, I thought I would toss out some observations from the outset.
One of my favorite things about the Internet is the competition it causes which, in most cases, can only mean good things for the searcher. Like most of what I write for SEW, I'm going to look at Inform from searcher/user perspective. For more from the ad side, take a look at this Clickz article by Zachary Rodgers.
Again, I hope to write more about Inform and similar news aggregators in the future.
First, three things I'm not thrilled about:
+ Inform will work with Firefox. However, unless you use Inform with IE "...you will not have the benefit of some of the unique navigational aspects." That's disappointing as a Firefox user. Inform will also work with Opera but once again some of the advanced features are unavailable.
+ You must register to take full advantage of some services. Yes, it's quick and easy but it might be a drawback for some users.
+ Finally, RSS types will be sad to learn that their is NO RSS of any type available at this point from Inform. However, Inform CEO, Neal Goldman, told me that RSS functionality will be coming "soon."
+ At the present time (and another main reason to give Inform more time to grow) the database provides access to under 1000 sources and even fewer blogs. That's not a lot. Also, I'm still looking for a good definition of just what a blog is these days. And differentiations between how one site counts a source vs. another, is old news and one for future posts.
+ The current set of blogs were chosen are picked by hand based on what's popular in a subject area.
+ Inform does NOT crawl RSS feeds (a good thing, IMHO) but goes directly to the source and crawls the actual HTML.
+ Techies, Inform uses lots of AJAX
Let's Open Up Internet Explorer
OK, to get to the full-featured Inform service, I open my IE browser.
Registration and login was not an issue. Then a NEW Inform browser window opens (make sure your pop-up blocker is ready). Now, let's take a look.
At the top of the "front page" you'll find top stories listed in various categories and from various sources. The only advertising I noticed was an ad on the right side of the page. You'll also find links to go to individual subject categories near the top of the page. Btw, related articles are grouped together.
Clicking a story link takes you to the content. But first, notice the two icons next to each story. One allows you to save the story ("flag it") to save and look at in the future. The other, icon, opens up two windows in the Inform browser. The "left" window is a dynamic search of all Inform articles having to with the topic that can be sorted by relevance. The "right" window has related topics, people, places, etc. drawn from the various articles. Clicking on the arrow icon opens a new window for that topic, person, or organization. You can also click the "plus" button and begin creating a detailed search string "ANDing" names together.
One thing I don't like is when I finally found an article that I want to read, it's a challenge to find the actual URL of the article.
Taking a Look at an Actual Article
Ok, you've done some browsing and searching and now it's time to read some articles discovered via Inform. You'll notice
that above each article is a set of boxes (I'll let you decide if it's a frame) that offer various info options. Inform calls it the "Discovery Area" One box lists people related to the story (sometimes very tangentially), another lists organizations listed in the story. Each name, company, etc, is hyperlinked to find related info in the database. Lot's of stuff here but in a few searches I ran, it needs to improve. I found several suggestions in these pull-down menus that appeared to make little sense.
Here's a look at the other tabs beyond."Top Stories".
+ Hot Channels
Direct links to pre-built "dynamic" pages on various topics. Goldman said they have "millions" of channels but only a few are listed here. Clicking a "channel" takes you to a list of current articles (various sorts available) and the full text of the top article. Of course, the Inform "Discovery Area" is also visible above each article.
+ My Channels
This is where RSS might be very useful. Use the Inform knowledge base to create "channels" based on a specific interest or topic. Channels are based on terms that come from a controlled vocabulary which, if used correctly, can really aid in precise searching. For example, a search for "boxing" asks if I want (any/all) of boxing, U.S. Boxing Federation, Boxing Figuerora, etc. As you can see the vocab needs work because many other organizations and people should appear. If I'm interested in London, Ontario I find nothing when searching "London." Again, the vocab needs to expand.
+ My Sources
Again, expansion, and a large one is needed. To find sources simply search by keyword and add. When I searched for sources using "search" as the keyword, all I found was the Yahoo Search Blog. It's also possible to browse sources by geographic region of publication. Another feature that's quite interesting and useful is the fact that you can limit (if available) to specific parts of a publication. Here's an example: Search for The New York Times. Then, on the left side of the Inform browser, click "edit". Now, a new window should appear allowing you to check/uncheck what sections of The Times you want to look at.
+ Flagged Articles
This is where you'll find links to the articles you've saved while using the service.
Searching is very basic but does work nicely in some cases. I searched for "MLS" and it correctly found and created the correct "Discovery Path" of Major League Soccer. I could then create a channel "AND" more to this channel, etc. I was also given other possible topics like soccer and sports teams and clubs The only thing that looked out of place was the listing in the "organizations" section for "Massachusetts Association of Realtors." Btw, it's possible to enter a term and get a result from the controlled vocabulary. However, it's also possible to rerun the search as a true keyword search. May be to complicated for the typical user, you bet. Finally, I didn't spot this "true" keyword search option in the "My Channel" builder section.
Final Thoughts (for now):
+ Needed, Addition of more sources
+ Needed, of Expansion of knowledge base, controlled vocab. They should talk to Tom Holt and leverage in his knowledge base from News Accumulator and other services that sell vocabularies.
+ Needed, Alert Tools. Let me know via RSS, mobile, email, etc. when something of interest is published.
+ Advanced Search (I wonder if some power news searchers would be willing to pay a small amount for a proximity operator and other features.
+ Needed, User Training
First, Inform needs to get the word out. Then (much harder) they need to show the typical searcher that this service adds value and not difficult to use. That's a big challenge.
Let's give Inform some time and check back. Btw, I made an effort to not mention an Inform competitor, Topix.net in this article. Let's Hopefully, SEW can do a head to head comparison of both services in the future. That said, Inform doesn't offer a feature that people seem to love with Topix, local news pages for every Zip Code/Postal Code in the U.S. and Canada. I entered my current and several past Zip Codes and was offered zilch when trying to create a channel.