Learning Search

Google News Alerts: the Coronavirus / COVID-19 Edition

I hope you won’t think I’m being flippant or trivializing anything when I say the last 24 hours have been one hell of a ride; they have, but not in a good way. Suddenly there’s a whole new class of materials that people will need to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic — remote learning tools, telework, social support, and plain old mental health services because this is scary.

I want to find those resources and when relevant include them in ResearchBuzz, but needless to say my current Google Alerts are not up to the task. I thought you might find it interesting to see how I put together a new set of Google Alerts to help keep informed during this — the word “crisis” seems inadequate. With so many things converging at once, I think I’ll use “whirlwind of WTF” instead.

Defining Your Terms

Very early on, this disease was called Wuhan pneumonia and coronavirus. Then it was called coronavirus. Now it’s being called COVID-19. Unfortunately I’m seeing the latest term expressed several different ways on social media: COVID-19, COVID19, “COVID 19,” and so on. The problem is that I can’t limit my search to just one of these iterations or I’ll miss something, so my first priority is to create a root search query that will encompass all these terms. It looks like this:

(intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

The | symbol, called a vertical bar, means OR to Google. So the search above means find coronavirus OR “covid 19” OR “covid19” OR “covid-19” in the title of Google News articles. Setting out all the permutations like this means I won’t miss any stories no matter how they describe the disease.

I just tried this search, limiting my results to Google News stories published in the last hour. At this writing I got 61 results, and that number will only get higher. That’s too many an hour to even quickly review. Let’s use this base query to create more specific Google News alerts about COVID-19.

What’s (Not) Happening

The first alert I set up (a couple weeks ago) was to monitor for pandemic-related cancellations. That Google Alert is now a very fat email I get a few times a day. Just add (intitle:cancelled | intitle:postponed) to your root search query:

(intitle:cancelled | intitle:postponed) (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

Location Location Location

Google News used to have a location: syntax. You could add that to your search and find results in a specific state or country. It doesn’t appear to work anymore, so I can’t tell you to add location: to your search result to get results specific to your state or country. As a workaround I recommend you use two inurl: search operators, separated by a pipe, that include your state’s postal abbreviation and name. For example, say you wanted to watch for news about Oklahoma. Here’s a full query you could turn into a Google Alert:

(inurl:ok | inurl:Oklahoma) (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

What that first part of the query is doing is looking for the string “ok” or the word “Oklahoma” in the URL of the news article. Since a lot of news outlets use the title of an article as its URL, this works really well. You won’t get results just from news outlets in the state, but I find the majority of the results relevant. Note that two-word states should format their query slightly differently; I live in North Carolina, so my query modifier looks like this: (inurl:nc | inurl:”North Carolina”)

If you want to monitor news about a country, use its country code and name in the same way you’d use the state postal code and name. Here’s a Google News query to find COVID-19 news for South Africa:

(inurl:za | inurl:”South Africa”) (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

Catching the Press Releases

Google News also has a source: syntax. That limits your search results to the sources you specify. I find that useful especially for finding press releases. If you search for source:prnewswire or source:business_wire you will get results limited to PR Newswire or Business Wire respectively. However, I found when I tried to search these two at the same time using an OR syntax, it didn’t work. It gave me results for just PR Newswire. I would recommend that if you wanted to follow press releases, you do two separate queries:

source:prnewswire (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

source:business_wire (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

Free Free Free FREE!

Many companies are offering freebies to help people through the pandemic. This might be something like U-Haul offering free storage to students whose university campuses are closing, or a videoconferencing company offering free services. Unfortunately you can’t use the base query and then just add the word free; that’ll get you irrelevant results referencing “free fall” or proposed legislation from the government. I found the best way to find free offers was to search for the word free in the title, and “affected by” anywhere in the article. Like this:

intitle:free “affected by” (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

That search still finds some irrelevant results, but adding the “affected by” finds sentences like “Big Corp is offering its Widget Master 5000 for free to people affected by coronavirus.” If you really want to make sure you find as much as you can, add the phrase “impacted by” as an option. Like this:

intitle:free (“impacted by” | “affected by”) (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

Federal Government Information

I have mentioned before some credibility issues with Google News. I no longer place a high level of trust in the results I find. Sometimes I like to restrict my search results to top-level domains that are more restricted than the regular TLDs, specifically .gov and .mil. Google News supports the site: search syntax to restrict results to a particular domain or top-level domain, so this search works fine:

(site:gov | site:mil) (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

Note this will get you a lot of state government pages, so if you’re interested in restricting to a certain state you can just add that state as a keyword:

“North Dakota” (site:gov | site:mil) (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

That search seems to quickly surface state-based announcements.

Get Educated

.edu is another restricted top-level domain that can work well as an addition to a Google Alert, but I recommend you add a state or even city name to your .edu query. Otherwise your search results are going to be a) massive and b) all over the place.

Boston (site:edu) (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

Mix and Match, or Add Keywords

It will take some experimenting, but you can mix and match these different Google Alert queries into what’s right for your needs. Try adding keywords first. Maybe you’re looking for free resources to help you with remote work, for example.

(telework | “remote work”) intitle:free (“impacted by” | “affected by”) (intitle:coronavirus | intitle:”covid 19″ | intitle:”covid19″ | intitle:”covid-19″)

I’ve written this after an unprecedented, historical 24 hours. (I don’t want to imagine what might happen next because I’m not into scaring myself.) I suspect I’ll have to adjust these searches, either by adding more keywords or adjusting what the pandemic is called. You can do the same with just a little experimenting. Make the most of special syntax and you can get Google News’ firehose of information down to a reasonable — and useful — flow.

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