If you publish my name publicly online, I’ll know. Or, more precisely, when Google indexes the character string “Andy Wolber”, I’ll know. Google Alerts is a contemporary digital version of the oldfashioned clipping service. Choose your search queries and get notified when Google finds a match. Unlike clipping services, Google Alerts is free.

Google Alerts has hundreds of uses. Know when your company’s name – or your own name – appears online. Receive alerts containing specific product or service names. Set a Google Alert for “Nexus 7” to learn whenever that term appears online, or to get the latest news on “Windows Server 2012”. Google Alerts also helps track much broader tech topics. For example, I have Google Alerts set for the search terms “Google Apps” as well as “Cloud Computing”.

People who work in marketing, sales, or politics should use Google Alerts. There’s no better way to stay up-to-date on what your customers, potential customers, or political opponents are publicly up to online. Nonprofit leaders might set up Google Alerts to track the names of their funders, board members or prominent volunteer leaders.

Google Alerts can’t find everything, though. The information has to be publicly indexed on the web. Notably, Google’s search results do not include major data streams from Facebook or Twitter. Twilert.com provides a free service similar to Google Alerts for search terms on Twitter, while HyperAlerts.no provides a similar service for terms on Facebook.

Set up an alert

Setting up a Google Alert for a keyword (or words) is easy.

  1. Go to google.com/alerts in your browser.
  2. Enter your search query. Use quotation marks to search for specific nouns. You can also use the “-” to exclude specific results. For example, use the search “Chromebook -Chromebox” to search for articles where the term Chromebook appears and the Chromebox is not mentioned.
  3. Choose the result type. Typically “everything” is just fine. You may also limit the results to news, blogs, video, discussions or books.
  4. Choose how often you wish to receive an alert. The “As-it-happens” setting is best if you need immediate notification. I typically recommend this for marketing or public relations professionals. I’d guess that folks in both the Obama and Romney campaigns use the “as-it-happens” notification setting. For most of us, though, “once a day” or “once a week” will suffice.
  5. Choose whether to receive “only the best results” or “all results”. If your search terms are frequently used or return hundreds of results, choose “only the best results”.
  6. Choose to receive the results by email or an RSS feed. If you’re likely to receive an alert containing a keyword that will require urgent action, send it to email. If you receive the results in Gmail, you might set up a filter to automatically sort or process the alert. I recommend you send non-urgent, non-actionable alerts to your RSS reader.

Start now

When you have five minutes free, choose five keywords. Go to google.com/alerts and setup an alert for each keyword. After a week, go to http://www.google.com/alerts/manage to manage your Alerts. Drop those that aren’t useful; add new ones as needed.

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