News Ox: Building a Better News Aggregator

Faster. More Relevant.

Posted 9 months ago by Tom Maiaroto.


News aggregator sites and feed readers are broken. In fact, so broken and worthless that Google even canned its reader. This led to some people saying "RSS is dead" ... But that isn't true either. In fact, RSS is extremely important and great tools like Feedly, Flipboard, and Pulse are making RSS sexy again. While people are rushing to replace Google Reader, the simple truth of the matter is we need a better tool.

Feedly, Flipboard and Pulse are great, but they are limited to RSS and you knowing about the source. The innovation to just another RSS reader here is that these tools try to group a few together for you and classify them so you can search for broad categories to add to your feed. They also allow you to search through feeds.

Still not good enough. Why? Because you still need the RSS feed in the first place, you need to be aware of the publication, and you need to subscribe the entire publication/feed. There are many sites that these tools don't suggest to you. Yes, you can add feeds yourself, but that's asking a lot of the user. More than I think is necessary for good usability. Then there are many sites that all cover the same story as well. So you're left to scroll through tons of content that you don't care about. Over and over again.

You're busy. It simply takes too long to scroll past a bunch of stuff you don't care about. Now think about all those feeds that you aren't a subscriber of that may actually have content you'd like. If you aren't subscribed to their feed, then you're missing out. Sometimes sites can cover a broad range of topics and really surprise you. Sometimes they can even have the scoop that other sites ... your favorite sites ... don't have. You could be reading about something that's quite old by the time your feed grabs it.

We need a better way to discover content without bringing in all the noise.

So content discovery and usability is probably the biggest problem with all of these tools. They're just too slow and getting to the content you really want takes time. Sometimes a just few minutes and sometimes much longer. Sometimes you miss out completely.

Second, the next major problem is relevancy. When you take in "everything" you also get a fair amount of junk. Not just content you may not care about, but others do...I mean plain junk. Remember that sites will run stories on what makes them money. Sometimes this means publishing content that no one really cares about, but they were paid to publish. Sometimes this also means content that is designed to get a lot of clicks and attention, but holds nothing substantial (this is the model of Buzzfeed, etc.). While the content may provide a great way to kill some time and scroll through an image gallery (each page showing a different ad by the way), it isn't necessarily that important.

So this relevancy I speak of is not so much relevancy by "topic" but relevancy by "quality" and value to the general world. Sure, relevant search results matter too, but none of these tools speak to the value of content.

This "value" can easily be seen by looking at what ends up being "viral." If content is being shared, then it is more important (in general) and therefore more relevant. In fact, if you look at the top shared content, you essentially get a listing of important news by popular vote. It is a built in rank and we don't need to "upvote" at all. The story need not be put to trial on Reddit or Hacker News. The ranking systems in those sites don't tell us anything we don't already know. You probably already look at the share counter badges on stories and allow that to influence your decision to keep reading past the byline.

The last part of "relevancy" here comes in with the scope of the content. Sometimes these tools have their hands tied. They sometimes are limited in the content they show you because of partnerships with the sources. They simply may not show you news from another source because it would be a conflict of interest. This is a business decision getting in the way of actually producing a useful tool. I'm not saying all paid content and partnerships are bad...But if your content parter stinks, well...That stinks for your users.

The Solution

News Ox. Or rather, a news aggregator powered by Virality Score. The Virality Score measures how viral any piece of web content (anything with a URL) is. It does a very good job of filtering out the noise on the internet and discovering content. Far more than just an algorithm for ranking, it also carries with it a set of rich meta data including semantic data. This allows us to not only filter out the less important and relevant content, but also search for exactly the subject matter we're interested in.

The algorithm in Virality Score can be used for many things, but above all it is a ranking algorithm (not unlike PageRank). Can it evaluate the value of content for advertising? Sure. For content marketing? Yup. For content discovery? You bet! So it only made sense to take the data set and turn it into a way to get your news.

As I built Virality Score, I often found myself looking at the top content trying to figure out why it was ranked so high. It turned out to be compelling. That's why. The content was so compelling, in fact, that I started to read news and keep up to date on the world by looking through my database. Obviously this wasn't great for usability and only I had access to the data, so I fixed that. I built News Ox. Now everyone can sift through the top content on the internet to stay informed. Informed quickly as that. The site was designed to be super usable and to the point.

More importantly, this is a brutally honest system. News Ox has no publishing partners. It answers to no one. It isn't paid to promote content. So you're seeing a true representation of how real people value content. This is viral content. Not curated. Or perhaps, if you want to be technical, crowd sourced curation.

News Ox goes a step farther than the existing tools and not only weeds out the noise of the internet, but allows you to search and sort by Virality Score or date. All content. You aren't just searching within your known network of feeds or sites. You're searching new places. Sites you probably didn't even know existed.

You can also get a sense for how the stories are trending by looking at the little graphs. The filtered results combined with these graphs and the headlines give you enough information to either A. pick up some new knowledge immediately or B. make the decision to continue reading.

All this saves you valuable time. News Ox was designed for people who don't have time to read large feeds and manually weed out content. Get your news quickly and move on. Share it even. But don't sit there spending 30 minutes trying to read your news. Your employer may start to worry. Or your bus ride may be over and you'll have wasted your time. We don't have a lot of time for wasted time these days.

All content links out immediately to the original content. This is why News Ox is more like a search engine than a reader. The reasoning here was that you don't always get the full story in an RSS feed. So why try? Sometimes there just isn't enough contnet in the RSS feed. This is precisely why people say "RSS is dead" or "broken." It's not though. RSS still remains the best way to get your content discovered and crawled.

However, this is also another pain point of reader tools. You hit that intermediary page or view only to get part of the story. So all of them have to link out anyway. More often than not I find myself clicking "visit website" in all the existing tools. So why have this intermediary page? Just get on with it. I don't have time to read part and click some link to only have to read part of it all over again.

The intermediary page is designed to keep people on the site/tool longer. It's a great opportunity to stick in ads. It's a great way to keep eyeballs on your site or tool longer. It's a gimmick and a hassle to the user. Nothing would make me happier than to profit from News Ox...But I didn't make the tool with money in mind first. I made the tool as a demonstration and with usability in mind first. Call me crazy, but shouldn't we be using tools that make things easier?

The best part about all of this is that News Ox is fully autonomous. You may find other "viral news" sites out there on the web as well as news aggregators. They're extremely popular. However, all of these sites are manually curated. They require a staff to operate. This makes them slow and inaccurate.

Do you want to be kept up to date on the most imporant headlines? Quickly? Then use News Ox. If you like to pass a gallery of cute cats on your way to reading the news, then there's plenty of sites out there which will help you do that too.

 


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