Each morning, the President of the United States gets briefed on the day’s news by some of the smartest advisers around. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. We have to sift through newspapers, magazines and websites to find out what’s going on around us. Now, thanks to a free iPad app called Zite, the news-gathering process may get a lot easier for those of us who aren’t leaders of the free world.
Zite, by a Vancouver company of the same name, crawls over half a million Web domains to find specific reading material that would be of interest to you, according to your social network and/or online reading behavior. It evaluates this potential content by tracking signals (like tweets, comments, tags and sharing) from stories that indicate a certain level of social interest and momentum in the story. The result is a personalized magazine that gets more accurately targeted toward its reader the more it’s used.
Wednesday, Zite launched in Apple’s App Store, and for the past week I’ve been testing an early version of it. As someone who is regularly overwhelmed by information overload, just on technology news alone, I found Zite to be a huge help. I realized every time I grabbed my iPad, I anxiously checked this app to see what new content it gathered for me. And I found myself reading stories from sources I don’t usually read.
Zite joins the ranks of other personalized digital magazines, like Silicon Valley-based Flipboard, which came out last July. Flipboard differs in that it takes data from your Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as other topics or people you can manually choose to set up, and builds a personalized digital magazine with this content.
Zite isn’t just a mirror of your social-networking account. It figures out what you consider interesting according to your Twitter or Google Reader accounts, then fills your magazine with stories about similar topics.
It also tracks and learns from user behavior as people open stories (or don’t), so if users just read a story on Zite, its personalization still works. With each story a user reads, he or she can opt to indicate they like a story, want to see more of one or all of the individual topics covered in that story, or want to see more from the source of that story. Zite then makes suggestions according to that knowledge. So your Zite magazine will never be exactly like mine.
By now, you’re probably wondering what Zite does with this knowledge about your reading preferences. Zite CEO Ali Davar says the company won’t sell user data to third parties, but may use it internally on an anonymous basis for advertising purposes. The company will share aggregate data with publishers (like number of clicks on a story), for ad-placement purposes, but this won’t include a user’s individual data.
Flipboard is more polished than Zite, including images that take up the entire iPad screen and clever animations that mimic real pages turning. Zite’s animations are limited to more straightforward gestures like swiping from right to left to turn to a new page of content, though there is a cool animation on Zite’s home screen that swings several images from stories onto the magazine’s first page. Both Zite and Flipboard pull text and images from sources, but Flipboard usually just displays a portion of a story on its digital magazine pages with the original website on which content was found displayed below it.
Above, ‘Top Stories’ compiles stories Zite thinks a user wants to read. Top, a Customize option lets users add favorite sections.
Zite displays entire stories on its own formatted reading-mode pages, though some stories, like one I read from the New York Times, appeared in the article’s original Web-page format. Mr. Davar said this is because roughly 3% to 5% of articles are tagged in a way that doesn’t allow for reformatting in Zite.
There are currently no ads in Zite, but Mr. Davar said the company will begin to put ads from publishers in the reading-mode pages of the magazine in a few months. He said the site may have ads that aren’t from publishers, but publishers have control regarding ads that appear on their content.
Setting up Zite was a cinch. I entered my Twitter username (not the password) and Zite took a minute to churn and grab content that interested me, setting up sections of my magazine according to topics I follow in Twitter. I didn’t enter my Google Reader account. Users who don’t have Twitter or Google Reader accounts can skip those steps and still use Zite by selecting sections of the magazine that interest them.
Upon opening Zite, a section called “Top Stories” appears first. This is a compilation of the stories Zite thinks I’ll find most interesting, and its content refreshes about every 30 minutes depending how often I use Zite.
My auto-generated magazine had a list of topics including Gadgets, Mobile, iPhone, Google, Mac, Social Media and Technology. I tapped a Customize icon to pick some additional sections for my magazine. I could choose from over 2,000 topics ranging from Wedding Photography to Gardening, from Wine & Mixology to Celebrity Gossip & Industry Rumors. A search box lets users look for even more topics, like “Martha Stewart,” which I added to my Zite. Topics can’t be manually added.
I ran into a couple bugs while using my early version of Zite, which Mr. Davar said are being fixed. A Mashable.com article crashed the app four times in a row when I tried to read it. And though videos from major providers like YouTube and Vimeo are watchable in Zite, I had trouble playing a video that used HTML-5 playback.
For now, Zite is limited to Apple’s iPad, just like Flipboard. Mr. Davar said he plans to get Zite on other tablets by this summer and on mobile devices and Web browsers before the end of this year.
If you’d like a smarter way to handle information overload, Zite can do the dirty work of amassing relevant content for you. It’s designed to get more personalized over time and I certainly plan to keep using it to see what it uncovers for me.
Watch a video with Katherine Boehret on Zite at WSJ.com/PersonalTech. Email her at email@example.com.
Write to Katherine Boehret at firstname.lastname@example.org