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Attack of the Web Ninja

No, it’s not a badly dubbed karate flick. Web Ninja is a little utility written by Bill Tudor and distributed as a MacUser Exclusive, which means it’s free, but can only be downloaded from MacUser’s Web site.

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I’ve looked at almost every bookmark manager available on the Web (see the four-part series of reviews beginning in TidBITS-323), and although Web Ninja offers some of the same kind of functionality, it’s not precisely a bookmark manager. Instead, it watches where you go on the Web in the background (assuming you use Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, or Spyglass Mosaic), and records your path. Even this isn’t an entirely new feature; several other bookmark managers offer record modes.

Yet Web Ninja is a bit different. First off, it’s a complete no-brainer. You drop a faceless background application in your Extensions folder and forget about it. You don’t have to turn anything on or launch any special applications for it to work its magic, nor do you have to decide what you want to record. It captures every Web and FTP URL you visit using a Web browser, and if you have more than one browser window open at a time, it captures the URLs in each. It can’t capture URLs from multiple Web browsers at the same time, if you’re running several simultaneously, which I do on occasion. If you visit the same URL more than once, Web Ninja merely increments a counter rather than recording the entire URL again.

That’s the data collection part of Web Ninja, and it’s performed that task well for me. Then comes the Web Ninja application, which provides access to the collection of URLs. It lists URLs you’ve visited and enables you to sort the list by URL, by number of visits, by date of last visit, and by the amount of time you’ve spent at the site. Double-clicking on a URL (or dragging it to the browser window) sends it to your preferred Web browser and resolves it. I enjoy sorting by number of visits, although it’s not tremendously useful since it mainly tells me that I go to Alta Vista, my home page, and sites that I’m writing about for some article – as if I didn’t know that. Most Web pages I visit once and only once. Similarly, the date of last visit and time spent at the site aren’t terribly useful to me, especially since I don’t shut my Mac off all that often and I tend to leave my Web browser running, which means that Web Ninja thinks I’ve spent hours perusing some Web sites when in fact my monitors were off and both me and my Mac were resting quietly.

You can also export your list of URLs as an HTML file or as a tab-delimited data file, should you think of some need to perform either of those tasks. New in the 1.0.4 release of Web Ninja is a command to empty your log file, although I’m not entirely sure why you’d want to do that, since your log file increases in value as it grows.

More interestingly, you can drag URLs from Web Ninja’s list to an Items to Download window, and when you click the Download button in that window, Web Ninja will try up to a user-specified number of times to retrieve those URLs. Web Ninja supports both Web and FTP URLs, so it could be a good way of breaking through a busy site, but since it only retrieves the HTML part of a Web page (not graphics), it doesn’t compete with a utility like WebWhacker from the Forefront Group, which can download an entire Web page, complete with graphics and fixed links.


All this is nice, but the killer feature in Web Ninja is its filter field. Type a couple of characters in that field and Web Ninja quickly narrows the list of URLs to those that contain the characters you typed. Forget the URL to Apple Internet Mail Server? Just type "aims" in the filter field. If that’s not good enough, you can just expand the filter term slightly, to say, "" to find all the Apple Web pages you’ve visited. You don’t have to be accurate – you just have to zero in on a couple of characters in the URL you want and hopefully not too many others. I’ve been doing some research on directory services recently and visiting a page about Ph servers. When I wanted to find that site again, I typed "ph" into the filter field, and got every URL with a word that started with "ph," like "" Still, there weren’t so many hits (Web Ninja tells you how many it has found, 26 in my "ph" example above) that I couldn’t quickly scan for the URL I wanted.

I’ve taken to visiting some Web sites quickly just to get their URLs into my Web Ninja list. Sure, I could search in Alta Vista, but it’s faster to do everything on my Mac, especially if I know I’ve been to a page before and merely need to find it in my log file. Of course, at some point URLs will start disappearing from the end of my log file, but since I’ve only racked up about 1,100 URLs visited in three weeks of use (Web Ninja holds a total of 4,096 URLs at a time), I suspect this technique of recording potentially interesting URLs will work fairly well.

One tip – on my 660AV, Web Ninja’s response time to typing in the filter field is much slower if you have your list sorted by URL than if it’s sorted by any of the other columns, like number of visits. Filter first, then sort by URL if you want.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what makes for good software recently, and I think Web Ninja hits quite a few of the necessary criteria. First, it’s dead simple to use. It comes with documentation, but for the most part, you can figure out everything it does from simply looking at the menus and windows. Second, it solves a specific problem – wanting to go back to a site you’ve visited once before – and solves it well. And, at least for me, the problem turns out to be a real one. I find it hard to predict when I will need a bookmark to a site, but I know that Web Ninja has saved the last 4,096 URLs I’ve visited, and whatever I need is probably in that list. Third, Web Ninja does most of the work itself, without requiring any extra attention from me. I have enough to do with my time – I don’t need to maintain more utilities.

MacUser deserves kudos for commissioning useful utilities like Web Ninja and releasing them for free. In the past, the MacUser Exclusives were only available on ZiffNet/Mac via CompuServe, which limited their audience significantly. Now that everyone on the Internet can download these utilities (check back – there are a bunch of great ones) from MacUser’s Web site, the Macintosh utility world has been greatly enriched.


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