Eight great, simple ways to hack the Web

You may not feel the urge to microblog your every thought using Twitter, and not every news story that tops the list at Digg.com adds value to your life. Fortunately, there are enough great Web innovations to please everybody. Free services from Google and other companies large and small mix and mash nicely, allowing you to get your business organized, share and synchronize calendars, or create special-purpose maps. You don’t even have to know what an API is (I’ll tell you anyway) or how to write JavaScript or XML (though you may want to learn). Naturally, Google isn’t the only game on the new Web — our favorite mashable services let you create custom news feeds, widgets and other tools for applications, limited only by your imagination.

Mark your map with Google My Maps …

In just minutes, you can add maps to your Web site that highlight all of your company’s locations, or create a map that shows your favorite roadside diners and cheap gas stations. Google Maps’ API (application programming interface) allows anyone to link text and images to any Google Maps location, but you can do the same thing without writing code or knowing anything about the API. Visit Google Maps, select the My Maps tab, and click “Create new map.” Navigate to the spot you want to annotate (zoom in if necessary), and click the blue “placemark” button to add a marker; drag the marker to set its location. Right-click the marker to change its title or enter a description. To insert a photo, choose “Rich text,” click the Insert Image icon on the far right, paste the image’s URL into the dialog box, and click Save. Choose “Link to this page” at the right of the Google Maps page to copy your map’s URL for sharing via e-mail.

… Then mash it up with other content

Not content to limit your creativity to map markers, Google also lets you easily merge a select number of other people’s Google Map mashups — in the form of widgetlike maplets — with your custom maps. To add a maplet, click one of the content items listed below your personal maps, such as GasBuddy.com’s database of local gas prices or Panoramio’s collection of geolocated photos. Or click “Add content” to choose one of the dozens of other maplets available. By combining maplets with placemarks, you can create and share a map of your favorite locations along a particular route, annotate each with your own photos and text, and include other people’s photos too, as well as the cheapest gas along the way, for example. Or you might build a map of your burg that plots your most frequently visited destinations along various transit and bike routes. As Google adds more maplets, this feature will only become more useful.

Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, is a great way to get your Web content read. Because nearly all browsers, e-mail programs, Web portals and search engines support RSS, you can push your site’s offerings to readers who are interested in the subjects you cover. An RSS feed is a text file that lists your site’s title and individual articles, along with the URLs. For simple sites, you could create this file by hand, using a text editor and the RSS 2.0 specification. The RSS Advisory Board’s Web site provides an RSS playground where you can plug in feed values and variables to test your feed. However, it’s much easier to use one of the many automatic RSS feed generators that “scrape” your site’s HTML tags for likely feed items and generate an XML file. Of the dozens of such services (most of which are free), start with FeedYes, which not only scrapes sites for feed content automatically, but also helps you construct feeds manually. Once your feed is done, check it for errors at Feed Validator or use the RSS Advisory Board’s validator. When it’s ready, submit it for syndication with FeedBurner’s free service. And while you’re at the FeedBurner site, consider letting the Google-owned service monetize your feed via Google’s AdSense program.

Filter feeds through Yahoo’s Pipes

News feeds help you stay current, but they’re time-consuming to read. If you’re looking for a needle in the RSS haystack, Yahoo’s powerful and free Pipes construction set enables you to pour feeds through dozens of prefabricated logic modules that search, modify or analyze them and then pump the result through other modules and services to output the fine-tuned result. Popular pipes cough up the YouTube videos of the top 10 songs on iTunes, deliver Flickr photos related to stories in The New York Times and display the favorite photos of your Flickr contacts.

Building your own feed is a drag-and-drop affair. Click the Documentation link on the home page to reach a tutorial, online help and sample pipes that show you how to mix and match modules.

To build a pipe, use your Yahoo ID to sign in at the Pipes home page, and click “Create a pipe” to open the Pipes editor. Select a module from the “User inputs” or “Sources” categories (such as “Fetch Feed” to add an RSS feed) on the left side of the editing screen, and drag it onto your page. Next, pick a module from Operators, String or another data-manipulation category and drag it onto the page. Enter the necessary filtering information. Then drag from the “port” on the bottom of the box to connect the output of the first module to the input of the second, and the output of the second to the input of the Pipe Output module at the bottom of the page.

When you’re done, click Save and then Run Pipe to use your finished pipe. Finally, click Publish to share your pipe with the world. Depending on which modules you connected, your pipe might actually do something useful, such as find feeds on an arcane subject, though fine-tuning the output can be a lengthy process. By connecting several PCWorld.com news feeds to the “For Each: Replace” module (which contains the Flickr source module), I built a pipe that illustrates what many of the products reported on look like, along with some occasionally unexpected results. I even managed to filter out duplicate images by introducing the “Unique” module. The really ingenious pipes are much more complex, however.

Owning and operating a Web domain — not to mention setting up the e-mail servers, user accounts and hosting — used to be a pricey affair. Not any longer. If you already own a domain through another registrar, you can use it with Google Apps, which allows you to configure Gmail as the mail server for your domain, and to set up subdomains for use with other services, such as Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Calendar and Page Creator. Go to the Google Apps page, click “Get Started,” choose “Sign Up” under Standard Edition, and either enter your existing domain name or purchase an available one for $10 a year through the registrar GoDaddy. Google Apps will then prompt you to create an administrator account for the new domain — and that’s it. You’ll see your Google Apps Dashboard page, where you create additional user accounts (up to 200) for your co-workers, family members or other domain denizens, and configure chat, calendar sharing and document settings, among other options. It doesn’t provide everything you need to get your organization online, but it is an excellent (and free) foundation for your group’s Web activities.

Sync your local calendar with Google’s

Where would I be without my online calendar? My whole life is in there. Unfortunately, I’m often not in front of my computer when an appointment alarm goes off. That’s why Google Calendar and its SMS notifications are handy. I also like having my calendar available online so that family members and collaborators can check my availability. If you work the same way, you can keep your local and Web calendars synchronized by using one of two tools. If you use Mozilla Thunderbird and its Lightning calendar extension, Provider for Google Calendar lets you create a new calendar in Lightning/Thunderbird that syncs with an existing Google Calendar. Outlook users should try Calgoo Software’s $25-per-year Calgoo Apps, which not only allow you to synchronize your Outlook and Google calendars and contacts, but also give you access to your Google Calendar offline.

Pimp your Facebook

Facebook is a handy, general-purpose place to connect with co-workers, neighbors and friends, but its bio, photo and messaging features are bare-bones. Fortunately, the service’s applications feature allows you to install widgetlike programs into your profile that ramp up your ability to link with other Facebookers and even stay productive while hobnobbing. To browse Facebook’s gallery of more than 1,500 applications, click Applications and then Browse More Applications. Select “For Facebook” at the right to see a more manageable list of categories, and skip the more frivolous ones. Some of my favorites include My Flickr, which displays your Flickr photos; Zoho Online Office, a link to your free Zoho office-suite account; and the My Company’s Hiring widget from LinkedIn.

Get stylish

Bored with the look of your favorite sites? If you use Mozilla’s Firefox, you can spice things up or chill them out by installing the Stylish extension and downloading predesigned styles for individual sites and the browser itself. To install the extension, choose Tools > Add-ons > Get extensions. Search for Stylish at the Firefox Add-ons site. When you find it, click its link and then the big, green Install Now button. Stylish will run the next time you launch Firefox, but it won’t do anything until you download and install styles from Userstyles.org. You can turn Google’s bright white background a cool dark blue, improve Wikipedia’s readability, or change the look of Facebook, Gmail, YouTube and other sites. You’ll also find Stylish styles that alter the interfaces of Firefox and Thunderbird.

Make your own widget

Nothing substitutes for programming expertise when it comes to crafting the handy miniprograms that run on your iGoogle page or through Yahoo’s Widgets. You’ll find excellent XML and JavaScript tutorials online, and in print at your local bookstore. Making a simple Google gadget, however, takes no programming skills at all. Log into iGoogle and click “Create your own gadget” at the bottom of the page. Pick one of the seven (as we went to press) gadget templates, and click its “Get started” link. After customizing it with online content, text and other options, click “Create Gadget.” Google adds the gadget to your iGoogle page and offers options for sharing it. The WyaWorks Widget Creator service lets you create and share a database widget (think contacts or customer service) that works with iGoogle, Netvibes and Pageflakes. Yahoo Widget builders can get help with XML widget coding via Harry Whitfield’s Widget Maker.

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