Google Alerts is one of Google's hidden gems. It's a really powerful tool to keep track of trends, interesting topics or anything really new that appears on the web. If you're not using it already, here are a few creative ways to get started with it.
Google Alerts may not be one of Google's most popular services, but it's definitely one of the most useful. When the service gave us a scare earlier this month, many worried it was on the chopping block next to Google Reader. I put out the call on Twitter to see if anyone actually used it, and was surprised by some of the ways many of you put it to good use. Alerts is back now and working better than ever, so Google was probably just monkeying around under the hood. If you're not using it though, now is a great time to start. Here are some clever ways to put it to work.
Perform Automated Vanity Searches and Find Out Who's Talking About You
One of the best uses for Google Alerts is to keep track of how often people are talking about you on the web and what they're saying. One common refrain I heard when I talked to people about how they used Google Alerts was that they used them to find out what people were saying about the company they worked for or about them personally. One startup founder I spoke to even said it's a great way to get a service that PR companies charge for entirely for free.
Whether you're trying to find out whether people are gossiping about you personally or you want to know what people are saying about your company, Google Alerts makes performing automatic vanity searches a snap. All you have to do is type in your name or your company's name in the search query field. Tell Alerts whether you want all results or just the high quality ones, when you want them delivered, and how you want them sent to you (you can have them sent via email or have Alerts generate an RSS feed for you to subscribe to. If you're really obsessive, you have all results delivered to you as they happen, but depending on your popularity, you may want some mail filters set up in advance.
Stay Up to Date On News from Far Away
If you're an expat living far from home, or just someone who's moved away from their hometown but still wants to know what's going on in your old neighbourhood, Google Alerts can help you with that too. Just modify the search terms for the name of your hometown, your home country, or if you want really specific results, your zip code. Like any Google search, you can add as many search terms as you like to narrow the results, and put long names in quotes to get exact matches.
One of my friends living in New York uses Alerts to stay on top of the news where he grew up (and where his family still lives) so he can get crime alerts for his parents' neighbourhood, and he finds out whenever someone he went to school with makes the news -- for good or ill -- before it's plastered all over Facebook.
Follow a Trending Story or Get a Snapshot of Events On Your Own Time
Right now, many of us are absorbed with the investigation into the bombings in Boston. Others of us are following the ongoing conflict in Syria. However, watching the news all day or being inundated with a never-ending stream of reports -- some of them inaccurate and bound for retraction -- is just too much to deal with. Google Alerts lets you take control of the news stream and get up to speed on a specific topic when you're ready. Tweak the search terms for the issue you're following, and change the "How Often" to once a day for a simple digest. Once a week may be too much for a story that's actively developing, but once a day is fine for those of us who don't have the time to stay glued to the latest news reports.
Prefer to drink from the fire hose? "As-It-Happens" is always an option, and Google Alerts will feed you new news stories and search results of all types as soon as they index them. It's not as fast as social media like Twitter or Facebook, but it's pretty quick. To stick to reports from news agencies, make sure to change the "Result Type" from "Everything" to "News" or "Blogs". You may also want to change "How Many" to "Only the Best Results" to weed out the cruft. One friend on Twitter noted that he uses Google Alerts to deliver a kind of "morning snapshot" of events that occurred overnight, which I thought was pretty creative.
If your news-gathering has less to do with current events and has more to do with entertainment, tech news, or you have a specific public figure, politician, actor or personality you want to follow (without being creepy), Google Alerts is perfect for that as well. You can even set up a Google Alert for new videos released by your favourite comedian or YouTube channel, get them delivered via RSS, and watch them as they come out without having to check their channel manually. Of course, you can also use it to harvest as much information as possible about your favourite celebrity's public statements and appearances, but don't make it weird.
Search for Coupon Codes, Discounts and Promotions
Google Alerts is great for information gathering, but it's also a great bargain-hunting tool. You can set an alert for coupon codes or discounts to your favourite retailer, and then sit back and let the bargains come to you. Not all of them will be of particularly high quality, and you'll still have to sift through the results to find something useful. Even so, you'll hear about new coupon codes as soon as they hit the web, and you'll get first dibs on using them.
This is especially useful if you're trying to grab a discount code that's only valid for a few hundred uses, or if you want a 10 per cent off code for your favourite web-hosting company or domain registrar. Just set the search term for the type of discount you want (taking care not to be too specific), set the result quality as broad as possible, and let Google do the work for you.
Go Job Hunting
If you're unemployed or just looking for a better gig, you can use all the help you can get. Google Alerts lets you search for job openings and have results delivered right to your inbox so you can jump on them and apply immediately. Sure, you can scour job boards, but the benefit of using Google Alerts is that you can target your alerts specifically to the companies you're interested in working for. You can even tailor them directly to the types of jobs you're looking for -- and since every job site and public company website is indexed by Google, you'll probably be the first person to hear that the listing has been posted.
There's a great guide to doing this over at The Undercover Recruiter if you're thinking about giving it a try. After all, your job search will see more success if you target specific positions and specific companies with targeted resumes and cover letters that are relevant to the opportunity you want. Google Alerts lets you stalk your future gig with minimal effort, then strike first when the time is right.
In any case, Google Alerts is probably one of Google's must under-utilized tools, but it's also one of the most powerful. There are alternatives and competitors you can use in lieu of (or in addition to) Google Alerts, like Talkwalker Alerts (which earned high praise from Search Engine Land) and Mention. If you can think of a useful search that you perform on a semi-regular basis, Google Alerts can automate it for you.