I read a recent blog post at Search Engine Roundtable noting that Google Alerts had had its algorithm tweaked and because of that fewer alerts had been going out. (There was also a pointer explaining what to do to loosen things a bit so more alerts go out.) I had noticed that I wasn’t getting as many alerts as I had been, but I was comfortable that I wasn’t missing too many stories.
As I thought about it though I realized that if you are using Google Alerts — and only Google Alerts — for keeping track of new stories and new resources, this change to the algorithm might have thrown for your a loop. So to make sure that doesn’t happen again, and potentially to give you some new ideas, here are six tips for making the most of alerts for information trapping purposes.
1. Allow for Overlap — When I wrote Information Trapping a few years ago, there was plenty on Google Alerts and Web search, but nothing on Facebook or Twitter. One thing I did mention, though, holds true for both of them: build in some overlap. If you’re using a set of tools that provide alerts for the same kind of resource — like, say, Google Alerts, Tracerlock, and Yahoo Alerts, you might be tempted to create unique, non-overlapping queries for each one.
Don’t do it. Instead, duplicate your queries with the idea that you’re going to have a 10-20% overlap in the results you get back, and that you will be doing some duplicate reading. That way if you do lose a resource, or it gets tweaked, you’re not going to miss much. Evaluating your volume of overlap might tip you to when a story or resource is getting an extra-large amount of play.
2. The Right Tool for the Right Job — Google Alerts provides alerts by e-mail, but you don’t have to get all your alerts by e-mail. In fact, you may feel a little overwhelmed if you do. Instead, you might want to take the most critical alerts you’re following — the ones where you want to know immediately — and get them by e-mail or even text message. Items of secondary importance, e-mail or RSS feed. And items of lesser importance, perhaps just RSS feed. I monitor at least a hundred queries via Google Alerts — but I also have several hundred RSS feeds in my feed reader. The tools are complementary. (I have never understood the “e-mail alerts vs. RSS” controversy. Isn’t “both” a legitimate answer?)
3. Constantly Reevaluate — It’s easy to imagine that Google has always been the biggest search engine, that RSS feeds have always been around, etc. But that’s wrong. AltaVista was the dominant search engine for a long time, and RSS didn’t become popular until well after 2000 (I’m thinking maybe 2003 or 2004.) Stay aware of the resources you’re using. You may find that over time the alerts you’re getting are becoming less useful, or that the resource is going off in a particular direction, or even that it goes defunct. There’s always going to be a certain amount of churn in Web sites and alert services; be prepared for it and don’t be afraid to switch, or at least to try new resources. (Otherwise you might find yourself still using Feedster and DayPop!)
4. Expand Your Horizons — I am a confirmed text-crawler, but now more than ever the Web is about multimedia. So don’t confine yourself to Google Alerts, Twitter, or other text-based alert systems when you want to keep up! You can get alerts or keyword-based RSS feeds from YouTube, Flickr, Slideshare, and other non-text Web sites. I have an RSS feed for Flickr photos tagged flowchart and it gets me some crazy stuff, but not in overwhelming amounts. If I tried to monitor Google Alerts for the word flowchart I’d be buried in results.
5. Remember there are People on the Other Side of the Screen — You’re not going to get alerted to everything in your sphere of interest. You’re just not; you can’t keep up. Don’t feel bad; this has been true since about 1994. But you might get a little more information if people know what you’re interested in. I have plenty of people who send me terrific sites that I had not heard of, and I try to return the favor when I know what someone’s interested in. So if you find a great resource that you think someone you know would like, pass it on. And maybe you’ll get that back in good karma when someone sends you a link to a great new search engine, database, or whatever you’re interested in.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Get General — If you have a very specific interest, say forensic accounting, it may be that you can articulate all the topics you want to follow via several well-crafted queries. And if you can that’s terrific and you’re doing a lot better than me. But it may be that your interests are pretty far ranging and you can’t put them all in a query. In that case, don’t try. Instead, monitor resources that are focused on your topic but which aren’t narrowed as far as specific keywords. Twitter lists (which you can find by the thousands at Listorious) are one example. Another would be Facebook “Like” pages — did you know they have RSS feeds? So do Facebook groups.
7. Enough is Enough — It would be easy to follow all these tips and create for yourself a huge firehose of information useful, relevant, and interesting to you. There’s only one problem: IT’S STILL A FIREHOSE. Having all that information flowing to you does you no good if you can’t ingest and use it. So don’t feel compelled to create alerts for every last site out there. Instead, focus on generating keyword-based RSS feeds and e-mail alerts that are as specific as possible, and if you feel yourself unable to keep up with alerts, cut back. It’s better to have 100 alerts and be able to fully read and use them, than to have 1000 that you barely look at because you’re constantly overwhelmed.