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 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 so you can clone it and play with it.

Let’s test it out, shall we? I’ll send an e-mail to .


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!

Anatomy of an Information Trap, Part I: Starting From Scratch

EDIT: Leo asked me to define Information Trap. So here goes: it’s a trap for information. HA! No, seriously, an “information trap” is a monitor placed on the Web in general or on specific Web site or network to grab new or updated information. I use the term “information trap” instead of “Web monitor” because often people think that a Web monitor monitors a Web server in case it goes down.

My husband, Phil, is into drones. He has a couple, and likes to spend summer evenings flying them some of the time and crashing them into the backyard fence most of the time. Just kidding, sweetie.

So I wasn’t surprised when he came to me and asked me to help him set up Google Alerts for drone flight simulator software. He wants to keep up with new offerings and developments and he doesn’t want to have to run regular Google searches.

Here’s the thing, though: I know very little about drones. I know they fly, and it makes sense there would be flight simulator software for learning to fly them better. But I don’t know any software titles, developer brand names, etc.

Trying to do a “patron interview” with Phil didn’t work; he said his information was “out of date,” which is why he wanted my help. I really was starting from square one.

The good news is I realized this would be a perfect opportunity to build an information trap / web monitor from scratch – from an absolute minimum of knowledge to a set of useful Google Alerts. And I’m gonna write it down so you can follow along. It’ll have to be in multiple parts – so let’s start by learning some topic-specific vocabulary and brand names and assessing it for good ongoing search results.

I need two things to make good search queries for drone flight simulators: the brand names, which describe the companies making and selling the software, and the actual vocabulary that is used to describe what the software does.

Get the Names

We’ll begin with brand names. Let’s start with drone flight simulator, which hopefully will find me lists of simulator software.

First search - Drone Flight Simulator

Excellent, the second search result is a comparison guide at . Exactly what I need.

Now I need a place to store the information. Depending on how complex I want to get, I can use a text editor, a Google Doc, Evernote, etc. There has been a lot of curiosity about it, so for the purposes of this article I’m using OneNote, from Microsoft. It’s free and available at . If you want a bunch of tutorials and tricks, try . For the purposes of this article I’ve created a OneNote “notebook” called “Drone Research” and I’ll be doing all my work there.

Okay, back to the searching. With this first search I’m trying to develop two things: first, a list of vocabulary words, and second a list of brand names. In my notebook I’m going to start a page called “Vocabulary Words,” and start it with the URL I’m examining.

Next I’m going to go through and pull out all the words and phrases that look specific to my topic. I’m not doing brand names yet, just trying to get a feel for what this software is called. When I find likely words or phrases (all phrases in this case) I paste them into OneNote. When I’m done going through the page I’ve got a nice list of vocabulary words:

Vocabulary Words

Now I’m going to create a OneNote page called “Brand Names,” go through the article again, and pull out brand names. The important thing here is not to grab anything that’s too generic. There’s one software called “Liftoff” that I’ve decided to skip because I’m afraid that name won’t find me good results.

And at the end of that I’ve got seven good brand names.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.11.22

I have gone from being completely ignorant about drone flight simulators to completely ignorant with a hatful of vocabulary words, which is a big step up! Now let’s use those words to find queries which will make good Google Alerts. We’re going to start with the brand names.

Use Your Words

In 2006 I wrote a book called Web Search Garage, which in addition to providing information on search resources had an entire section on philosophy – it was my attempt to provide guidance on how to think about searching via a series of principles.

One of those is called the Principle of Mass Similar – the idea that if you search for many of the same brand name you’ll get results that are heavily (overwhelmingly) oriented toward your topic. So let’s try that with this list of flight simulator brands and software titles. We’ll plug this into Google:

Simpro Dronesimpro RealFlight Aerofly “Immersion RC” “Heli-X” “FPV Freerider”

Notice I’m not adding any non-brand words like “drone simulator” or software. It’s not necessary; we have seven brand names here. That should be more than enough to keep our search results focused.

It sure did keep the results focused – in fact a little too focused:

Learning search vocabulary

The only result we got was from the page we originally got the brand name from. We might infer that page was really thorough, and that it mentioned brand names and software titles that perhaps aren’t very popular or well known. Great for our initial research, lousy for this step. So let’s try using just a few brand names:

Simpro Dronesimpro RealFlight

Learning search vocabulary

Meh. The search results here aren’t driving me wild with excitement, but I’m getting one important signal from Google. See the note about Dronesimpro at the top of the results page? Sometimes Google is wrong about spelling corrections but not in this case; a quick comparison of searches tells me the software name is Dronesim Pro, and not Dronesimpro as I pulled from the first page where I was doing research. Let’s fix that in my keyword list in OneNote and start the search with all the brand names again, using the proper spelling:

Simpro “Dronesim pro” RealFlight Aerofly “Immersion RC” “Heli-X” “FPV Freerider”

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.25.44

I’m still getting only one page here, which reinforces my belief that the original page was pretty thorough, but it’s not moving my research forward much.

Okay, let’s try a small set of brand names again:

Simpro “Dronesim pro” RealFlight

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.27.49

Three results! Not enough.

Now, how many is too many and how many is not enough is a matter of personal taste. I know my husband is going to want a cross-section of results and I know he’s going to want a pretty thorough overview of the topic, so I’m going to want a search to review that’s at least 10-20 decent results.

Simpro, I think, is too generic. Let’s throw that out and put something else in.

“Dronesim pro” RealFlight Aerofly

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.37.41

Much better: about 134 results. Plenty, but not overwhelming (and this time Google’s search correction is, in fact, wrong.)

But I’m getting too many commerce-related results in this search. I need to get rid of those.

Changing the Focus Of Your Search Results With Specialized Vocabulary

In November 2015 I wrote an article about focusing searches with specialized vocabulary, and noted that you could exclude words to move your results focus away from things like shopping sites. These are not words that are related to your topic but rather are related to other general topics that might overlap with your subject of interest. Shopping words, for example, or forum words, or teaching words.

In this case we want to get rid of shopping words because want to exclude ecommerce sites. Let’s see what happens when I try this search:

“Dronesim pro” RealFlight Aerofly -shipping -auction -“buy it now”

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.43.40

Wellll, it’s better, but it’s still junkier than I prefer. I need to spend some time cycling through the different brand names, excluding vocabulary related to shopping when appropriate, and see what I get. And as this article’s already over 1000 words long, let me do that “off camera.”

Okay, I’m back. Let’s quickly compare the search results above to the search results from this search:

Aerofly “FPV Freerider” “heli-x” -shipping -auction

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.46.49

953 results here, and they’re much better quality. Look what you can see just in this small set of results on the front page. Blog posts, forum discussions, and another product page. Clicking through to a few of these pages showed me these were rich results, and not just spam. I could, in these search results, learn about which flight simulators are best and why. I’m acquiring drone flight simulator knowledge, which is what Phil wants.

Doing a regular Web search gets me good results here, but what about a Google Alert? Will this search keep me informed about developments in drone flight simulators? Let’s find out.

The first thing we should do is try the search for the last 24 hours. Use Google’s Search Tools to limit your searches to pages from the last 24 hours, sorted by date.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 11.47.40


That didn’t work, did it? Zero results. Let’s try results for the past week.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 11.48.44

No good. Searching for things from the past year is too long, but let’s find things from the past month:

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 11.50.48

No results. Except there are two results, and you can’t see them. I’m going to show you a trick. Change the sort by date option to sort by relevance. Ping!

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 11.52.41

Magically, search results appear.

I like to sort by recent search results by date because it gives me an immediate insight into whether a recent set of search results (as would be provided by an alert) will be useful. But if you’re doing repeated recent searches and are getting very few results, try changing the sort from date back to relevance. You may find some hidden results.

Unfortunately these hidden results aren’t getting me anywhere – they’re not useful. I need to change my focus and find out which of these brand names are most likely to get me plenty of search results.

SIDE NOTE: You might ask yourself, “Why are you trying to find the best combinations of brand names? Why not just set up Google Alerts for each brand name?” Two reasons. Reason one is I’d drown in Google Alerts, most of which would not be useful to my husband. Reason two is that by finding an active Google Alert with multiple brand names, I’m guaranteeing that products of that alert will have a certain density of information that will be useful. Using multiple brand names in a search is the easiest way to pointing my alerts toward information-rich, relevant pages.

Checking Brand Name Popularity

There are many, many keyword tools out there, including a lot of tools used in SEO – Search Engine Optimization. That’s the opposite type of search work I usually do, and not my expertise. In a future article I might explore some SEO keyword tools, but in this case we’re going to stick to a basic tool called Google Trends, which is available at .

Google Trends

At Google Trends, you can take five searches at a time and compare them to see what their search popularity has been like over time. In the search box, enter your search terms, separating them with a comma. You’ll get a results page that looks like this.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.06.23

The first thing you’ll see is the search result page giving you additional options. I do not, for example, need search popularity from 2004 when drones were unheard of, at least as a popular hobby. I probably also don’t need trend information from all over the world. (You can also limit your search results by category and by type, but I don’t trust Google Trends to do category coverage well, and I’m looking for Web search results so that’s fine.) I’m resetting my search to cover just the United States for the last 12 months.

Once you’ve narrowed the focus of Google Trends you’ll find the results page looks a lot different.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.20.12

There are some spikes, but nothing dramatic. Glancing at this, though, tells me that for search volume the front runners are probably RealFlight and Aeroflight, followed by Immersion RC, Simpro… and Dronesim Pro’s down in there somewhere. Which explains why the first set of searches using Dronesim Pro were so miserable.

NOTE: I had multiple brand names, and I’m searching only five in Google Trends. I am not doing it for the sake of keeping this article a manageable size, but ideally what I’d do is cycle through all the brand names through multiple Google Trends searches, and keep the most popular results for my Web search testing.

Let’s see what happens when we do a Google search with the two most popular brand names, RealFlight and Aeroflight.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.33.05

Now, this is more like it! Plenty of results from all kinds of sources. But peeking at a few of them it looks like they’re more skewed toward RC (Radio Controlled) flying objects, which is not what we want. Let’s add the word drone to see if there’s a simple fix to get our search focused the way we want.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.41.53

Oh boy, Google’s being stupid. Look at the search result count. Note in our first search we had less than ten thousand results. Now we’ve added a word, and suddenly Google’s giving us over 110,000 results! Instead of narrowing the search down, adding a word has actually opened it up!

I’m going to have to use the search tools again and change the search from “All Results” (Google takes your search terms and does what it likes) to “Verbatim” (Google actually searches what you tell it to search for.)

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.43.55

You don’t get a results count here but I’ll tell you it’s 30. A quick glance tells me that these are actually pretty good results. So I’ll check and see what the 24 hour, week, and month results are like. Here’s the week:

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.52.38

You’ll note that once you narrow your search results to a certain time span you can no longer set your search results to Verbatim. If you try Google will give you full search results.

But what I’m seeing here is pretty good. I might want to do a little tweaking the search terms to exclude some of the shopping results, but I think we’ve got our first candidate for a Google Alert: realflight aeroflight drone . I’m going to create a new page in my OneNote “drones” notebook and call it Google Alerts. This will be the first entry.

SIDE NOTE: Should you refine your searches until your search results are 100% useful with no junk at all? (Junk I’m defining here as “results not useful to your search project,” not “spammy or poor-quality search results.”) No, because that means your searches will be so narrowly-focused you will miss things. In monitoring the Web, there is a constant balance between getting overwhelmed with non-useful information and not missing anything. Try to resign yourself to at least a little junk in your search results, though it’s up to you to decide how much you want to tolerate.

Now I’m going to spend a little time experimenting with the various brand names and seeing how they do in various combinations.

After 20 minutes or so I’ve got five solid candidates for Google Alerts, using brand names. That’s a very good start to information trapping on a topic, up until I started this, I knew very little about! I still know very little, but I know brand names and thanks to the pages I’m skimming, I’m learning a tiny bit of vocabulary.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 13.13.23

And speaking of vocabulary, we need to start on our second round of searches, this time for vocabulary words. But why? Why aren’t we just searching for brand names?

Brand Names Versus Topic-Specific Vocabulary

I started writing about search engines in 1996. Imagine if I’d just tried to keep up with the search engines of the day and did not try to expand my searches.

I would still be monitoring the Web for reports on HotBot, Lycos, and AltaVista. And while those were great search engines (well, AltaVista went downhill in a hurry, but that’s another rant) they’re not the prevalent search engines of today. I had to make sure I was monitoring for search engine terminology to make sure that I learned about new search engines like Bing and Google and Teoma and Gigablast and so on.

Any search you do for popular brand names is going to be a single moment in time. You cannot rely on that static snapshot to keep you abreast of new brand names, or to let you know when one you’re monitoring has fallen so far out of favor that it’ll impact your Google Alerts. To keep up with new names and new software and new offerings, you need to monitor topic-specific but generic vocabulary. You’ll also see that you need to build your search queries a little differently to find quality content.

What does my list of topic-specific vocabulary for drones look like?

Drone Flight Simulator
uav simulator
Quadcopter Simulator
fpv flight simulators
multirotor flight
drone flying simulator program
FPV drone flight
quad simulator
simulators for drones
R/C helicopter flight sim

I don’t know enough about drone flight simulators to even know what would be the most popular terminology, so I’m going to take five of these terms and plug them into Google Trends.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.20.43

Google Trends starts by providing all trend information from 2004 again, but this time it’s got something to teach us. Look there at the “uav simulator” result, the red line. Look how popular it is in 2006 or so, but its popularity has eroded a lot. I suspect that’s because the term UAV (which stands for “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle”) has been supplanted by the word drone.

If you narrow the Google Trends search result from 2004 onwards to the last twelve months and limit your results to the United States, you can see how dramatic the drop in popularity is:

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.27.22

Looking at Google Trends results, I can see that of these five search terms, the two I’ve really got to focus on are “drone flight simulator” and “quadcopter simulator”.

Taking a Different Search Tack

When we were exploring drone flight simulator brand names, the focus was on getting as many brand names into a search as would be useful. If you try that same strategy with topic-based vocabulary, at least general topic-based vocabulary, you might actually hurt your search.

A site that refers to “drone flight simulators” may have that as its preferred vocabulary and not refer to them as “quadcopter simulators” at all. On the other hand, a site which contains both “drone flight simulators” and “quadcopter simulators” might be focusing too much on having as many relevant keywords as possible to get clicks from search engines results. Does this focus on keyword inclusion mean the content is going to be good? In my experience, usually not.

Earlier in this article I showed you that you could use other topic-specific vocabulary to remove shopping and ecommerce sites by excluding words like shipping and order. Now let’s narrow our search results to useful content related to drone flight simulators  by adding topic-specific vocabulary.

Adding Topic-Specific Query Terms to Our Drone Simulator Vocabulary

What are some words you think of when you think of product reviews? Off the top of my head, here are a few:

Best review choice stars new comparison

Not all reviews assign stars, so let’s take that out. And not all reviews are going to be new, so let’s take that out. Let’s try the search-focusing words best review choice comparison and add them to one of our top two vocabulary picks.

best review choice comparison “drone flight simulator”

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.44.14


Ah, look at that. What a great set of results. Just over 1800, very focused, lots of information here. Unfortunately all the search results for the past day, week, and month aren’t any good, so let’s try again for a search that’ll work better with Google Alerts. After a little experimenting and tweaking I found a search that worked well with results for the past week and the past month:

best review “drone flight simulator” -intitle:”google play” -intitle:APK

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.51.11

I had to exclude some words because I was getting a lot of app results, which I didn’t want. Was this search solid enough that could just substitute “quadcopter simulator” for “drone flight simulator” and get equally useful results? We’ll find out in a minute.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.54.13


Yes! Very good results. I now have two Google alerts based on topic-specific vocabulary instead of brand names to start my monitoring.

In this article, I started with a request from my husband and one search broadly defining his topic. Roughly 3300 words later, I have a set of brand names, some topic-specific vocabulary the popularity of which I’m confident of, and seven search queries which look like they’ll give me decent, useful results on a regular basis.

“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

The next step is turning these search queries into Google Alerts – and that’s the next article! See you soon.

Thank you to everyone who’s supporting me on Patreon. You’re the reason this article got written. I hope very much it’s useful to you! 

Keeping Up With Reddit: Use IFTTT, Not Google Alerts

If you consider just mainstream press coverage, you might come away with the impression that Reddit is a chaotic place full of jerks and that the information it aggregates is of no use to the serious researcher.

And you’d be a tiny bit right. Reddit does have jerks, for the simple reason that a community of that size can’t exist without having jerks. In 2015, Reddit had over 8.5 million users provide over 725 million comments on over 73 million submissions. I imagine it would be impossible, statistically speaking, to aggregate that much human interaction and not have some untoward behavior.

Similarly I imagine it would be difficult to aggregate 73 million submissions on a site as wide-ranging as Reddit and not have something turn up that would be of interest or of use to you. Your field of interest would have to be very limited.

Knowing the size of Reddit and knowing its level of activity, I assumed that there was information in there that would be useful to ResearchBuzz. I just had to figure out a way to winkle it out.

After six months of various experiments, I’ve finally settled on a useful way to monitor Reddit without too much hassle. My biggest takeaway? Google Alerts is not the right tool for the job.

Information Trapping Strategies for Reddit

Reddit is divided into categories called subreddits. Any registered user can make a subreddit and there are literally thousands and thousands of them. Metareddit lets you search for various subreddits. The nice thing about Metareddit is that you can search for a keyword it’ll show you subreddits that are somehow relevant to that keyword, not just the ones that contain the keyword in the title. Thus a subreddit search for cows finds not only cows and happycowgifs, but also ranching and vegan (and SlothMemes and Bioshock. Sometimes understanding the connection takes a little digging.)

It may be that as you explore the subreddits you may find that all you need to do is join Reddit and monitor a couple of particular subreddits. If you want to monitor for information on genomics, for example, then genomics and ClinicalGenetics might be all you need. In that case, get a Reddit account, join those subreddits, and enjoy! (The topic “Best Practices for Hands-On Reddit” is a whole ‘nother article.)

Alas, that won’t work for me. I’m interested in online databases and digital archives and so forth, which cover thousands of subreddits. If I tried to monitor just one or two, I’d miss so much.

I started my Reddit-monitoring with Google Alerts.

My Experiments With Google Alerts

I currently have 137 Google Alerts. Three of them are Reddit-oriented, and were generated after I did a lot of experimenting. With many of them I found that I got too much, non-useful results, or just weirdness. Finally I settled on three:

intitle:”new database”

intitle:”new tool”


Are you might notice from the syntax, these are very crude searches. The keywords I want in the title, on the site Adding “new” to the keywords database and tool where the only useful way I could find to narrow down the search results. You’d think “archive” as a lone keyword would be overwhelming, but it wasn’t. Publishing information on archives is not a big part of Reddit, as far as I’ve noticed.

The results I got in my e-mail for the Google Alerts didn’t tell me too much; I generally had to dig.

That’s not to say these Google Alerts weren’t useful at all. I found several things – mostly related to popular culture – that I’m sure I wouldn’t have found otherwise. But I got usable results so infrequently that I was sure I was missing other content.


If you’ve been reading ResearchBuzz for a while, you know about IFTTT. The site allows you to automate certain tasks usings its different Channels. A channel can be a site (like Reddit) or a technology (like e-mail) or a platform (like Blogger) or even an appliance (Samsung has channels for a refrigerator, robot vacuum, and washer!)

IFTTT stands for “IF This, Then That”. You put the channels together in “recipes,” so that if something happens on one channel, something happens on another channel. As you might imagine, this lets you set up a lot of time-saving tasks. And best of all, IFTTT is free!

I didn’t even have Reddit on my mind when I went to set up some recipes in IFTTT — but browsing through the channels, I noticed there was one for Reddit. And then I noticed how powerful it was.

The Initial Setup

I’m going to assume you know the basics of IFTTT. If you don’t, MakeUseOf has a very thorough guide, which should teach you all you need to know about making recipes.

Start with the Reddit channel, at You’ll need to connect that channel, and to do that you’ll need a Reddit account. Make sure you’ve got an IFTTT account and a Reddit account, and that your Reddit channel is connected. When it’s all set up it’ll look something like this:

Screenshot 2016-05-08 at 13.29.34 - Edited

Underneath this screen will be a list of popular IFTTT recipes using Reddit. That’s fun to browse, but the really good stuff is at the bottom of the screen: the triggers and actions.

Every IFTTT has a list of Triggers and Actions. A trigger is something that happens on the channel (the “If”.) The actions are things that happen because of something happening on another channel (the “then”.) The IFTTT channel has a lot of triggers, but only two actions.

The trigger I use is New Post From Search. As the channel explains, “This Trigger fires every time a new post submitted on reddit matches a search query you specify.” There is a limit to 20 items per search so you need to get specific.

Let’s make a recipe. I want a recipe to send me an e-mail whenever a Reddit search mentions online museum. We’ll start with the trigger New Post From Search. I’ve chosen the channel and the trigger, so I need to enter my search term:

Screenshot 2016-05-08 at 14.10.40 - Edited

Note that entering your search term is absolutely all you have to do, though you can refine your search with Reddit’s search operators (more about that in a moment.)

(Wondering why I didn’t put the phrase online museum in quotes? Oddly, Reddit does not appear to support phrase search.)

Now you’ll need to create a trigger. Because I’m using this recipe to monitor Reddit for new resources, I’m having the results emailed to me. But if you look at Reddit’s channels you’ll see you have other options, as well. You could add information to a Google Sheet. You could add the links found to Pocket (though I recommend you be sure your search is getting good results before you do that.) You could even automatically tweet something the monitor finds, though again you better be sure your results are fantastic (and that you’ve got the steely nerve required to auto-Tweet links found by automated Reddit searches.)

I find email works best for me, and IFTTT thoughtfully has a quick template of the results that I’ll get back from my Reddit searches. I already have the Email channel set up in IFTTT, so adding this action to my recipe only takes a moment.

PROTIP: If you don’t want to get an email every time the search finds a resource, IFTTT also offers an “EMail Digest” channel that will send you resource roundups either daily or weekly.

The last step is Reddit showing you a summary of your recipe. Click “Create Recipe” and you’re good to go!

Screenshot 2016-05-08 at 14.11.44 - Edited

Just looking at this recipe, you’ve probably noticed the obvious thing that sets it apart from Google Alerts: you’re searching Reddit directly, not relying on Google to index everything perfectly. That alone is going to increase the quality of the resources you get.

But there’s a second step here that will make your search results even better: using Reddit’s own search syntax.

Tweaking Your Reddit Searches

This was a very basic Reddit search: online museum . We can do better than that.

Reddit’s got a list of advanced search operators at Quickly skimming this list will give you at least a few ideas for making your search better. Let’s hit the highlights.

Reddit Syntax

title: – Just what it says on the tin. Limits your search terms to the title field of a search. If you have general topic interests this is the most important search syntax you can use to keep from being overwhelmed.

site: – If you’ve got a search that’s giving you quality problems and you know your keyword is good, site can be your best friend. It’ll restrict the link you find in your search. You don’t have to just restrict your search to a particular domain; instead, you can search for a top-level domain like edu, gov, or a country code like uk. Try the following searches in Reddit:

title:genetics site:edu
title:genetics site:gov
title:genetics site:uk

See how different those are?

nsfw: Whether a post is considered “safe for work” or not. nsfw:no means you do not want sites which are not considered safe for work. I always set this one to no.

STUPID PET TRICK: You can do a standalone search for nsfw:yes without any other keywords or syntax if you’re just interested in the more — um — adult side of Reddit.

self: Lets you specify whether a post is a text post, or whether it’s a submission with an URL. I want posts with resources, so I set this to self:no. On the other hand, if you were looking for information or anecdotes about something, you might set this to yes. Searching for title:spina title:bifida self:yes might give you insight to what people living with spina bifida or otherwise connected to it are struggling with or want to know more about, while title:spina title:bifida self:no gives you resources and news stories. I recommend you experiment with this before you use it.

When I use Reddit’s search syntax, my search recipe looks a little different. Instead of just online museum, it’s title:online title:museum nsfw:no self:no. Testing that search on Reddit gets me a reasonable number of useful results. I finish creating the recipe and bam, I’ve got a new information trap on Reddit.

I’ve published this recipe on IFTTT at You can make your own copy and edit it to reflect the topics and ideas that you’re interested in as you explore using Reddit as a resource for links and information.

A Couple of Hazards

In the month or so I’ve been using IFTTT and Reddit, I have found a lot of useful sites. I’m getting more e-mail, of course, but since the titles are so clear, I’m sure most of the time when I follow a link it’ll be useful. Two particular things, however, are an issue:

Cascades: I call them cascades, anyway. Sometimes you’ll get a useful link multiple times. The Panama Papers database release is a great example. I saw a few mentions of it, then as the release date of May 9th got closer I saw more, and then an absolute flood a couple days before before the database release. I just delete them as the subjects of the e-mail alerts make it clear they’re duplicates.

Old Resources: Sometimes someone will post a resource that’s very old thinking it’s new and cool. If you’re just gathering resources this won’t matter, but I try to keep ResearchBuzz focused on fresher links.

(What about spam? – Personally, I haven’t seen much spam on the Reddit resources I get. I think my keywords are keeping most of it at bay. If I did see more I would revamp my keywords or consider using the site: syntax to restrict my searches to at least the .edu and .gov top-level domains.)

Why Don’t You Just Use an RSS Feed?

Reddit, unlike many sites, offers an RSS feed of its search results (You can see the one for the online museum search here). So why don’t I just put an RSS feed together instead of messing around with IFTTT?

There are a few reasons:

  1. Getting the results the IFTTT way means you’ll have more flexibility on how you can use them – sent to Pocket, auto-tweeted if you’re nervy enough, etc.
  2. The duplicates are easier to deal when you get them individually in e-mail versus when you get them scattered all over an RSS feed – at least to me.
  3. My priorities. My e-mail alerts are a higher priority to me than my RSS feeds, because they’re targeted. When I get alerts sent to my e-mail, I know I’ll read them first. If I put them in an RSS feed it’s not clear when I’d get around to reading them.

This Just Works Better Than Google Alerts

When I first started using IFTTT as an information trap, I had no idea it would work this well. I wish I’d cottoned to it a long time ago! If you’ve been interested in Reddit but could not work out a good way to monitor it, try IFTTT. You’ll save a tremendous amount of time and I’d be shocked if you didn’t find useful resources.

Do you like ResearchBuzz? Does it help you out? Please consider supporting it on Patreon. Not interested in commitment? Perhaps you’d buy me an iced tea. I love your comments, I love your site suggestions, and I love you. Feel free to comment on the blog, or @ResearchBuzz on Twitter. Thanks!

Why I Love Pocket

I have mentioned in ResearchBuzz from time to time the tools that make doing this blog easier. They change and evolve as different things become available, but right now the big three are Nuzzel, Digg Reader, and Pocket.

The third, Pocket, is the one that ties the first two together. I spend a certain amount of time using Nuzzel (I have to limit myself so I can get other things done!) and anything I see that’s interesting goes into Pocket for later review. If I only have a spare 10-15 minutes in Digg Reader, I save links I want to follow up on to Pocket. Pocket makes it possible for me to review a lot of information sources, and organize/store the results in a useful way.

Pocket has just sent me my reading stats – the number of words I read using Pocket – in 2015.

Pocket Reading Stats, 2015

I read 4,100,383 words in Pocket in 2015, or just a skosh less than 11234 words per day. Of course, I couldn’t use everything I saved, but a lot of what I found and reviewed this way made it into ResearchBuzz.

I happily pay the $44.99 annual subscription for Pocket. The amount of time it saves me is worth much, much more than that.

Of course, gathering and blogging what I find is pretty pointless unless someone is reading it and making use of it, so a big thank you to YOU, for reading and commenting and liking and sharing. I hope the information you find in ResearchBuzz makes your life at least a little bit easier/more interesting/more productive.


How to Turn Your Facebook “Likes” Into RSS Feeds

As you probably know doing ResearchBuzz is not my real job; I love it but “love” and “pays the electric bill” are sometimes quite a ways apart.

However I have been consciously working to become more efficient in my information gathering and writing (you may have noticed that the daily ‘Buzz has been a lot more consistent since last December) and I have been trying to set aside more time to write.

That came to fruition this month when I wrote my first article in a long time. It was for IT World and it’s called
How to make a Facebook Page RSS list in 6 easy steps. You can read it here (it’s free):

If you use Facebook for resource gathering, Facebook’s throttling of how many Page posts reach fans can be very frustrating. In the article I outline a way to turn your “Liked” Facebook pages into a set of RSS feeds that you can easily monitor without worrying about what Facebook is going to decide to put in your newsfeed.

I hope you like it. And I hope I get the opportunity to write more articles like this.