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Web Design and Development
Getting Started

Lightweight Portals with Meerkat

by Rael Dornfest

Editor's note: Meerkat predated the popularity of syndication, feed services, and feed readers. Now that other groups are providing this service, we have removed Meerkat in favor of their better solutions. We maintain these articles for the sense of historical interest.

Meerkat's Open Service API and powerful feed-building tools provide a simple framework for building lightweight portals or bringing fresh syndicated content to your web site.

Some of you may not know this, but quite a bit of what you see on the O'Reilly Network is built out of Meerkat's RSS database. Some, such as our Weblogs and Forums boxes, are automagically generated via a combination of profiles, search patterns, and programmatic wizardry. Others, like our Digests, pull in stories from various channels, some of which are hand-picked for display on our pages.

Meerkat makes building lightweight portals a snap! Whether you want to hand pick stories or set up profiles and filters for automagic feeds, Meerkat will flow fresh content to your pages with little effort. If you can point and click (or the equivalent) and have even minimal experience with HTML, you're on your way. Even programmers should find this pretty easy. ;-)

This article takes you step-by-step through the rather simple process of:

  1. Borrowing an existing feed profile

  2. Point-click-and-dragging your own hand-crafted feed

  3. Embedding the feed in your web page(s)

    And, for the more adventurous among you,

  4. Adding two or three lines of programming magic for some advanced(ish) fun(ctionality)

We'll build the mythical "PHPerlthon" (that's PHP, Perl, and Python), a site for the language agnostic programmer. And it'll all be done with only a feed or three, a touch of HTML, and a pinch of PHP. Along the way I'll (re-)introduce you to Meerkat's misunderstood mobs, simple, yet powerful profiles, and the beauty of one line of JavaScript.

To begin, point your web browser at http://meerkat.oreillynet.com/. For access to features we use a little further on in the article, you'll need to be logged in to the O'Reilly Network. To do so, click Login in Meerkat's black toolbar; if you've not already signed up, now would be a good time to do so.

Borrowing a feed

We'll start simply by using a couple of the "global" profiles provided out of the box for your convenience. The "Python" and "Perl" profiles are composed of some rather nice sources and don't need any fine-tuning for our purposes, so we'll borrow them.

Selecting the Python Profile

Selecting the Python profile in Meerkat.

  1. From Meerkat's Profiles/Mobs popup-menu, select Python. The screen will refresh, pre-setting Meerkat's "Category" to "Lang: Python" and "Show me" widget to "7 DAY".

  2. Now the thing we're most interested in is the URL for the "Python" profile. Copy it from your browser's Address/Location bar and paste it somewhere for safekeeping -- don't forget to note what it is. ;-)

    Copy the URL for Meerkat's Python Profile

    Copy the URL for Meerkat's Python profile.

  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 for the Perl profile, copying the associated URL.

These URLs will provide us with feeds of the latest stories in the "Lang: Python" and "Lang: Perl" categories' associated channels. This works nicely for solid feeds, but sometimes you'll want to tweak a little here and there, hand-crafting a feed to suit your particular slant.

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