How Alltop Works


Alltop.com's landing page gives you a quick view on the latest news.
Alltop.com's landing page gives you a quick view on the latest news.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

There's no question that search engines are really useful tools. If you need to learn more about a vacation destination or if the sports bar down the street serves great burgers, a quick query into your favorite search engine will probably pull up the info you need straight away. But when it comes to reading the latest breaking news and blog posts about a particular subject, search engines aren't always the most effective tool at your fingertips.

That was the thought that spurred Will Mayall, Kathryn Henkens and Guy Kawasaki to create Alltop in March, 2008. They formed a company named Nononina and began to design a Web site that could aggregate news items from their favorite Web sites and blogs. A visitor to Alltop could choose a specific topic and then see the latest headlines from dozens of sources organized on a single page.

The difference between Alltop and an RSS reader service like Google Reader is that the pages focus on topics and sources rather than just news providers. Instead of subscribing to a source like The New York Times' technology section to learn more about what Apple is up to, you can search for the topic "Apple" on Alltop and see the most recent headlines from dozens of sources. You get access to relevant news without having to scan through everything else.

In a way, Mayall, Henkens and Kawasaki have waded through the search results on these topics for you to separate the virtual wheat from the digital chaff. In other words, you no longer have to sort through dozens of responses to weed out irrelevant links.

Let's take a look at how Nononina organized Alltop.

Alltop Organization

Clicking on a category like Tech brings up a selection of subcategories.
Clicking on a category like Tech brings up a selection of subcategories.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

Alltop has a simple but deep taxonomy. A taxonomy is a classification system. The purpose of any taxonomy is to organize ideas -- or things, animals, et cetera -- into a logical system. The basic taxonomy for Alltop organizes topics into broad categories: work, health, culture, interests, tech, people, good, news, geos and sports. The "geos" category refers to geographically-oriented news and blog posts.

There is, however, some overlap between certain categories. Should stories about Britney Spears go in culture or people? You can find her nestled in with the culture stories. But the Jonas Brothers are in the people section. You might think that the classification system is arbitrary, capricious or completely subjective. The founders would probably agree with that. They've organized topics in a way that makes sense to them -- it's not an automated system.

Within each category are dozens of topics. For example, a click on the culture tab will bring up more than 30 subcategories. The tech category has more than 90 topics. A click on any topic will bring you to its Alltop page. This is where you'll see news stories grouped by provider.

For each provider, whether it's a big name in journalism or a relatively obscure blog, Alltop will list the five most recent relevant headlines. Alltop lists more than 50 feeds for some popular subjects, while other topics may only have a few dedicated news sources.

Within each topic, Alltop uses a subjective system to determine where on the page each news provider's section will appear. The founders organized the layout through a combination of personal preference and common sense. Trustworthy news sources with a long history of reliability tend to land higher up on pages than lesser-known sites or blogs. But if a blogger provides high-quality, relevant information on a topic, there's a good chance the founders of Alltop will rank the blog higher than more established sources.

Making the Cut on Alltop

Once in a subcategory, you can scan headlines from multiple news sources on a single page.
Once in a subcategory, you can scan headlines from multiple news sources on a single page.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

How does Alltop determine which news feeds to include on any given topic? Is there a complex ranking system like Google's PageRank, which takes into account factors such as the site's history and popularity?

As it turns out, the answer is much simpler. The news feeds that appear on Alltop are there simply because the site's founders think of them as reliable, informative and entertaining news sources. If a new site or blog pops up that's innovative and useful, there's a good chance it will show up somewhere on Alltop. And if you contribute to a blog that isn't represented on the site, you can write to Alltop and ask the founders to take a look at your work. If they find it interesting, you may see your site listed among others on important subjects.

The founders make no secret of the fact that they're also happy to help out friends. If a site or blog supports Alltop, it's a safe bet to assume that the site will appear higher up on relevant topic pages. While some people may accuse Alltop of favoritism, the founders have made their methods transparent. They outline their approach clearly on Alltop's Web site and make no apologies for their philosophy.

When a visitor suggests a new topic not yet covered by Alltop, the founders will send out feelers to the community to find the best resources related to that topic. For example, if you write a compelling and informative blog about the developments in the robotics industry, you might want to suggest that Alltop add a robotics topic. If the founders agree, they'll look around for other sources to build a full page on robotics.

If the founders decide to build a topic on their own, research duties fall to Neenz Faleafine. According to Guy Kawasaki, Faleafine's powers of research enable her to create a topic page from scratch in a matter of hours.

Grabbing Headlines on Alltop

Moving your cursor over a headline brings up a preview of the story, courtesy of that story's metadata.
Moving your cursor over a headline brings up a preview of the story, courtesy of that story's metadata.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

Alltop grabs headlines using RSS technology. Depending upon whom you ask, RSS stands for really simple syndication or rich site summary. If you've ever subscribed to a Web site or used a portal service like iGoogle, you've taken advantage of RSS technology.

Basically, RSS is a Web feed format that facilitates syndication across the Web. With an RSS reader, you can look at the most recent information on dynamic Web pages. An RSS feed can include metadata, too. Metadata is information about other information. It often takes the form of a short summary of the link. When you put your mouse pointer over a link on Alltop, you'll see a display of the relevant metadata.

The site updates the RSS feeds about once an hour. If a news source goes without an update for 28 days, Alltop will drop it from topics pages. This policy helps ensure that only the timeliest information about the subject appears on the page at any given time.

Because Alltop uses RSS technology, it can only grab information from news sources that enable RSS feeds. If you think you have the best blog about a subject and you want it to appear on Alltop, it must use RSS or the site will be unable to pull links to your site. But RSS technology is nearly universal -- most blog services incorporate RSS into the basic structure of the blog.

While you can use one of dozens of RSS readers to access headlines, Alltop makes it easy for people unfamiliar with RSS feeds to access information. As Alltop evangelist Guy Kawasaki puts it, "we provide aggregation without aggravation by using a curated [system], not computer heuristic or wisdom-of-the-crowd voting scheme, to build magazine racks."

Customizing Alltop

What if you have an interest in several topics but don't want to surf back and forth between them or create numerous tabs for each one? Alltop has instituted a customizable system to address those needs.

To get started, every user must create an Alltop member account. It's a simple process that includes creating a user name, password and providing a valid e-mail address. After you respond to a confirmation e-mail, Alltop establishes your member account.

Members can then list the topics they're interested in to build their customized page. This means that people with diverse interests can view the latest news for several topics all on the same page.

Members can choose which news sources they want on their pages. They can also reorganize the feeds in whichever order they prefer. Members can edit their page at any time, adding, removing and reorganizing feeds as often as they like.

Alltop also supports widgets. Think of a widget as a chunk of code that gives you access to a small application. With Alltop, that application is a customized news feed. If you blog about a particular subject and want to incorporate a relevant news feed as part of your site's structure, you can include an Alltop widget on your site. When users click on a story in the widget, they go to the news source.

And if your blog site appears on Alltop, you might want to grab one of the badges the site offers. Displaying the badge on your site shows your visitors that Alltop considers your work to be relevant and interesting. If you create your own Alltop page, you can grab a badge and display it on other sites. The badge acts as a link to your personal Alltop page.

As the Web becomes more complex, sites like Alltop make it easier for users to filter out all the noise and concentrate on the topics they're most interested in. According to Kawasaki, the site doubled in user visits from August 2008 to August 2009. It's possible that the future of the Web will rely heavily on the sites and services that can simplify the user experience.

For more information on Alltop and related topics, take a look at the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Alltop. (Sept. 2, 2009)
  • Kawasaki, Guy. Alltop Marketer and Evangelist. Personal interview conducted via e-mail. Sept. 4, 2009.