Learning Search

Anatomy of an Information Trap, Part II: Setting Up and Sharing Google Alerts

Hi! This is part two of a three-part series on monitoring the Internet for information about a topic, going from almost no knowledge to a steady stream of information sourced from all over the Web.

In part I, Anatomy of an Information Trap, Part I: Starting From Scratch, I walked through the process of gathering data on a topic I knew very little about (drones) until I had seven solid candidates for Google Alerts. In part II, I’m going to be going through the process of creating Google Alerts for these topics, as well as showing you how to share the fruits of your findings without blowing up someone’s e-mail or just tossing everything in a text file.

Monitoring the Web: There Are Options

A number of companies offer services to monitor the Internet – the Web in general, news sources, forums, social media, and so on. Unfortunately most of these have fairly restricted free offerings, and subscription prices which aren’t friendly to the small or penny-pinching researcher. That’s why I’ll be sticking to Google Alerts for this article.

If you’re not a small researcher or you don’t have to pinch pennies, I’ve been using the free version of Mention with pretty good success. I’ve noticed it does tend to find news coverage that I don’t quickly get through Google Alerts. If you’re very interested in social media you might want to try TalkWalker. I use the free service as its cheapest pay service is $700 a month (!) It’s okay, though with the free account I’m not getting a full spectrum of results so I can’t make a good assessment. If there’s enough interest I’ll do a review of these services in the future. But right now let’s look at Google Alerts.

Meet Google Alerts

Google Alerts is available at https://www.google.com/alerts. It’s a service offered by Google to monitor both the Web and subsets of the Web for whatever information you like.


In part I of this series, I created a list of seven searches I wanted to set up as Google Alerts and saved them in OneNote. Here they are:

“Immersionrc” “FPV Freerider” drone
realflight aeroflight drone
aeroflight “heli-x” drone
“heli-x” “fpv freerider”
“heli-x” RealFlight drone
best review “quadcopter simulator” -intitle:”google play” -intitle:APK
best review “drone flight simulator” -intitle:”google play” -intitle:APK

Google Alerts use the same syntax as Google search, but there are options to narrow down the kinds of results you get. Let’s walk through creating an alert for “Immersionrc” “FPV Freerider” drone .

Just plug it into the search at the top of the page and Google will give you the option for setting up an alert. Click on the Show Options link to get a list of the possibilities.

Google Alert Options

Let’s look at the options, but let me be clear here: we are going deep into personal preference territory. I loathe digests, for example; can’t stand digging through a huge e-mail to find a few useful things. On the other hand, you may hate getting an additional 50 emails a day for your topic and may want them put together in one chunk that you can review at your leisure. I will give you thoughts about each option, but don’t feel like you have to do it the way I do it. I want your Web monitoring to be useful to you, not maddening.

Google Alerts Options

How Often: You can get alerts as they happen, once a day at most, or once a week at most. I prefer to get my alerts as they happen, but you may want a digest. I do not recommend you use the once a week option unless you’re getting a very low volume of results (1 or 2 a day.) You might end up with an e-mail so large you don’t quite get around to reviewing it.

Sources: The default option is “Automatic,” which I’m pretty sure means “Everything Google monitors,” but you have the option to narrow your search to News, Blogs, Web, Video (which is YouTube, basically), Books, Discussions, and Finance. Because we took the time in part I of this article to get focused search queries, I’m leaving this as Automatic.

I do find that narrowing down my searches to one type of result works well when I can’t use specific queries. In my quest to keep abreast of social media, I have a video alert set for “how to” (facebook | snapchat | instagram | twitter | “social media”), which alerts me to YouTube videos on how to do various things online (with some pretty eyebrow-raising results, but I digress.) I could not use that alert for all Google’s sources; it would be overwhelming.

A tip: it looks like from the way this option is set up that if you don’t choose Automatic, you have to choose news OR blogs OR Web OR video, etc. You can choose multiple sources; just click on them so a checkmark appears beside them. If you’ve got a search that is too general for monitoring everything but too specific for a single source, check out the quality of an alert that searches everything but the Web. The news sources should tip you to useful Web sites, and you’ll be able to use the alert while maintaining your sanity.

Language: You can choose “Any Language” or a specific language.

Region: This basically allows you to restrict your search to a certain country. You can choose Any Region or a country. Unfortunately it does not look like you can choose groups of countries. I’d love an option for “Everything but the US” so I could do broad news searches without my results being US-centric. I do use this to monitor news sources for fairly general searches (intitle:database) in specific countries.

How Many: I hate this option. You can choose from “Only the best results” or “All Results”. I always choose “All Results” because I don’t have a good answer to “Best results” according to who? Google Alerts’ help page says Only the best results means “We send results that are high quality and relevant to your search terms,” which still doesn’t tell me much. If you take the time to build a good search query, you won’t have to worry about too many junk results. I recommend you leave this on “All results”.

Deliver to: You can choose to have the alerts delivered to your e-mail address, or you can get them as an RSS feed. For the purpose of this article I’ll be getting them delivered to my e-mail address.

You’ll notice that as you change your options, the preview underneath might change a bit.

Google Alert Preview

Keep an eye on that, but don’t worry if you see There are no recent results for your search query. If you went through the steps in part I of this series, you know there are recent Web results, at least, that have information you want. I worry more when my alert preview is too extensive; then I know I have to rework my query.

All seven of the queries I want to use are pretty specific. For all of them, I’m getting all results from all regions, in English, as they happen. And I’m getting them delivered to my e-mail. Let me go off-camera and set up all seven queries.

Okay, all done. And if you’re just setting up these monitors for yourself, you’re done too – you’ve got the information you want and it’s coming to your e-mail or into your RSS feed. But remember, I am setting up these alerts for my husband Phil, so I need to find a way to get him the relevant data. I need to take an additional step to share the Google Alerts I’m getting.

A GOOD QUESTION: Why am I setting up these Google Alerts instead of just having my husband do it? A few reasons: I go through Google Alerts every day anyway, these alerts will be low-volume enough that they won’t be onerous, and my reading speed is fast enough that it’s not a big deal. A little extra time for me, lots of extra knowledge for him. He’s more than worth it.

Sharing the Results of Your Google Alerts

Your Google Alerts will never be 100% useful. There will always be something off-topic, something not-quite-useful, or a person named Arthur Q. Paleobiology who sneaks in with a completely irrelevant news story.

For that reason I’m not going to set up a GMail filter to just automatically forward the results to my husband; I need to filter them first. The problem is, he doesn’t do a lot of Web curating. If he used Evernote, for example, I’d share the results with him that way. Or if he used OneNote, I would just create a new notebook for my drone alert results and share that with him. But that doesn’t work because he doesn’t use those kinds of resources.

So I came up with a way to create an ongoing list of culled data that doesn’t require the person you’re sharing with to have any subscription or account on any particular service. They’ll need access to the Web and that’s it.

You’ll be using Google Docs and IFTTT. (And no, the person you’re sharing with will not have to have a Google account to see what you’re doing. More about that later.)

Building a List of Curated Resources With Google Docs and IFTTT

Do you know about IFTTT? It stands for “If This, Then That,” and is a way to automate tasks between different Internet-connected services. I wrote an article in May about using IFTTT to monitor Reddit if you want to get a sense of how it works. For a beginner’s guide to using it, check out the extensive guide from MakeUseOf. I want an easy way to add to a curated list as I go through alerts delivered by e-mail, and IFTTT is perfect for that.

IFTTT is broken down into channels:

Screenshot 2016-07-26 at 20.58.34

300+ channels is pretty intimidating, but you’re only going to need two: email and Google Drive.

CONCERNED? If you don’t have an IFTTT account, you’ll have to create one and connect your e-mail address and Google Drive account to use those channels. And that might be a little scary if you’re worried about privacy. I have used IFTTT for years and I trust them. If they violate that trust we’ll get together and sue the bean dip out of them. Okay? It’s a date.

What we’re going to do with IFTTT is create a “recipe” that takes an e-mail from us and turns it into an entry on a Google Docs spreadsheet.

Start by going to your IFTTT email channel and clicking Create a New Recipe.


You’ll be prompted to choose your channel again (this is annoying; just search for email and you’re all set) and then you’ll be asked to choose a “Trigger”, the This part of If This Then That. You have two options: to have your recipe activate whenever you send IFTTT an e-mail, or only when you send an e-mail with a certain hashtag in the subject. I strongly recommend that you choose the trigger that has you specify a hashtag in the subject, because if you want to do this technique with multiple sources it’s the only way you’ll be able to funnel them to where they need to go.

I’m setting up my recipe to trigger on the word #drones. I did a little testing and it doesn’t appear the triggering hashtag is case-sensitive.

Create Trigger Fields IFTTT

Once you click Create Trigger you’re asked to choose your Action Channel (the That part of If This Then That.) Search for Google Drive:

IFTTT Choose Action Channel

Click on that and you’ll get four different action options for that channel.


The options relevant to us are appending information to a document, or adding a row to a spreadsheet. Personally I prefer using a spreadsheet, as I like to have my information somewhat formatted. So I’ll choose Add row to spreadsheet.

TIP: Note that you cannot add on to a spreadsheet forever; IFTTT will create a new spreadsheet after 2000 rows. Since it’s going to be quite a while before I manage to find 2000 items of drone-related interest that I think my husband will find useful, I’m fine with that. If you are worried you’ll fill the spreadsheet up rapidly, you’ll have to make a point to check it periodically.


This is the tricky bit. You’ll need to name the spreadsheet (IFTTT will make the spreadsheet for you if it doesn’t already exist) and specify the cells for the row of the spreadsheet you’re populating. The three pipe symbols (|||, Shift-Backslash on your keyboard) separate the different cells. You can also create a specific file path for your spreadsheet.

In this case IFTTT has a very basic row already in place: the date the item was added, who it was from, the subject, the body, and the URL of an attachment.

I’m going to adjust this. I don’t need the From or the attachment URL so I’ll get rid of those. My plan is to describe the resource in the subject of the e-mail, and put the URL in the body. My tweaks for the recipe end up looking like this:


I renamed the spreadsheet, trimmed down the formatted row, and eliminated the folder path so the spreadsheet will be at the top level of my Google Drive.

After you click Create Action, you’ll get a summary of what your recipe will do. Click Create Recipe and you’re all done!


I’ve published the recipe on IFTTT at https://ifttt.com/recipes/445006-send-emails-tagged-drone-to-a-google-spreadsheet so you can clone it and play with it.

Let’s test it out, shall we? I’ll send an e-mail to trigger@recipe.ifttt.com .


TIP: If you have a lot of contacts in your e-mail, I recommend creating a contact name for the IFTTT e-mail address – something like ZZTrigger, for example – so you don’t accidentally e-mail a friend when you’re trying to populate your spreadsheet.

(Don’t forget to erase your email signature if you have an automatic one like I do.)

After this I went into Google Drive to see if IFTTT had created my spreadsheet. It had, in an IFTTT folder (Which I already had, so maybe that’s why it ended up there.) And it looks great!


Here’s a pro tip if you’re planning to aggregate data from multiple spreadsheets: you can add static data to the rows populating your Google Spreadsheet. For example, I could add my initials to the last column of every row. I’d just have to add TJC separated by three pipes to my Google recipe, like this:

Screenshot 2016-07-26 at 22.10.28

That will create a column reading TJC at the end of every row to my drone research spreadsheet. That way if I was collecting information from other spreadsheets, I’d have a mark to denote my research.

Sharing Is Caring

This is a Google Doc, but my husband doesn’t have to have a Google account for me to share it with him. Instead I would need to click Share and then Create Sharable Link. Google will generate an URL I can send to him. Anyone with the URL will be able to look at the spreadsheet whether they have a Google Account or not.


Of course, if he does have a Google account, I can simply share with his e-mail address.

TIP: This is research about drones and not anything I consider sensitive, so I have no problem creating a sharable link to it. But bear in mind: anybody who gets the link can see the spreadsheet. ANYBODY. If you have anything on your spreadsheet that’s the least bit private, think very carefully before using the Sharable Link option. I personally would not use it in cases where the spreadsheet had sensitive data.

BONUS TIP: You’re doing all this work, so of course you want someone to actually see it. If you’ve shared your spreadsheet with a specific e-mail address (I’m not sure this works with the Sharable Links), have the person you’re sharing it with go to Tools -> Notification Rules. They’ll be able to set up an e-mail alert for when the spreadsheet is updated.


What Do We Have Now?

In the first part of the series, we did some searching and testing to come up with good candidates for Google Alerts. Now, in the second part of the series, we’ve created those Google Alerts and made a way to put the relevant data from those alerts into one place and share them, no matter what kind of accounts the person we’re sharing with has.

The final part of the series will cover assessing the alerts and creating a core set of ongoing resources — news sites, forums, and blogs – that we want to monitor more generally. See you soon!

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