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Google Alerts Simplified — A Complete Tutorial

Author: Lori Halley
July 7, 2009
🕑 8 min read

If your organization is active in social media, you already know the importance of listening
— of monitoring what’s being said online about your organization and your cause, to better understand the concerns and priorities of your stakeholders. But who has time to keep a close watch on all those social networks, media websites, blogs, discussion groups, etc.? Set up a few key Google Alerts, and the listening task becomes a whole lot easier.


What are Google Alerts?

You can think of Google Alerts as a customized Google Search —
on-going — that delivers the search results to you automatically. You
can set up any number of Alerts (up to 1000 per email address) to help
you monitor online activity for the search terms of your choice. 

This is a free service from Google, and it’s easy to get started:

Tip: Google Alerts are a great time-saving tool for reputation management and brand monitoring, especially if you are a nonprofit. There are countless other ways to use Google Alerts, too — to detect plagiarism (or, more positively, to discover where your Creative Commons licensed content has been shared online), to find donors for your organization, to keep up with your members and supporters, to learn about other organizations in your field, to follow breaking news on hot topics around your cause, and so on…


How to Set Up Google Alerts


If you’ve got a Google account, sign in — and if not, simply fill out the form that you’ll find on the Google Alerts homepage:

Search Terms

Just as if you were running a normal web search, enter your
preferred keywords. A good basic starting point is to set up Alerts for
the name of your organization, for the names of your key spokespeople
who are likely to be quoted in the media, and for keywords that are
relevant to your cause and/or community. 

Once you choose your search term, select show options:

How To Set Up Google Alerts options

Tip: To get an idea of what sort of information might be
returned for any specific keywords, do an ordinary Google Search and
see what turns up. Based on those search results, tweak your keywords
to match your needs.  You can always change it later, or delete it and
set up a different Alert.


Choose a News, Blogs, Web, Video, Books, Discussions, or Finance alert for your related search term:

  • A ‘News’ alert will send you an update of the latest news articles.
  • A ‘Blogs’ alert will send you an update of the latest blog posts.
  • A ‘Web’ alert will send you an update of the latest web pages.
  • A ‘Video’ alert will send you an update of the latest videos.
  • A ‘Books’ alert will send you an update of the latest books from Google Books.
  • A ‘Discussions’ alert will send you an update of the latest mentions of your search term in discussions.
  • A ‘Finance’ alert will send you an update of the of the latest stock updates.

Tip: You can also set up Video alerts directly from any Google Video search results page and set up News alerts directly within Google News.

How To Set Up Google Alerts

How Often

Choose from as it happens, at most once a day, or at most once a week
Alerts. How often you’ll want to receive an Alert will depend on what
volume of information you expect to come in, and on how time-sensitive
the topic is that you’re monitoring. Weekly updates may be enough to
get a general sense of trends in your sector, while breaking news might
call for as-it-happens.

You may have heard some people talk about a delay in getting their Alerts, even when they’ve signed up for as-it-happens delivery. Keep in mind that an Alert is simply a search result that’s delivered automatically. This means that even the quickest option (“as it happens”) is more accurately called “as Google indexes
the content” — so the speed of reporting depends in large part on
how well search-engine optimized the referring website is.

Some blog
mentions of your keywords might show up in Alerts almost immediately, for example, while
a seldom-updated static website might take much longer even a few weeks — to
be crawled by Google and for any relevant content come to you in an Alert.

Your Email Address

You don’t need a Google account to receive Alerts — any email
address will do — but a Google account will give you access to a number
of convenient Alert management options.  Even better, setting up your Alerts through a Google account give you the useful ability to get
your Alerts by RSS feed as well as by email.

Tip: If you expect to create and receive a large number of
Alerts, you may want to set up a separate email address for this
purpose so your regular email Inbox doesn’t get overloaded.

Create Alert

When you’re done, click the ‘Create Alert’ button.  Google will send
you a confirmation email, with a link you’ll have to click to activate
your Alert. Repeat the process to set up as many Alerts as you need… And that’s all there is to it!

When you first start receiving Google Alerts, the contents might
seem interesting but not particularly useful to you — perhaps you see a lot of
unrelated information will be mixed in with the information that’s
relevant to your organization’s activities?

Fortunately, your search terms can be fine-tuned
quickly and easily with Google’s Advanced Search features, so you can adjust each Alert to get more relevant and useful
results. We take a look at how to get better at Google alerts below.


How to Get Better News Alerts

By now, you’ve probably had a look at your first few Alerts, and you may have started to wonder what all the hoopla’s about. Are you seeing a lot of off-topic information mixed in with useful notices about your organization and your cause?

No problem — a few quick tweaks of your search terms can make Google Alerts give you better results.

Test your Search Terms

Run an ordinary Google Search on the keywords you propose to use. It takes only a moment to do, and will help you to set up more precise Alerts that will deliver more useful results.

Typically, an organization will start by setting up an Alert on its name.  Let’s take this blog’s name for an example:

Example: wildapricot.

Type those two words into Google (search is not case sensitive, so you don’t need to capitalize), hit the Search button, and you’ll get links to any web content that contains both wild and apricot — in any order, and not necessarily together as a phrase.

Obviously, this search query would give far too many results to make it a  useful Google Alert!

Refine your Search Terms

You can refine your Google Alerts to eliminate a lot of the meaningless results, using any of the Advanced Search operators that are available for a Google  web search.

Here are the two most useful methods of refining your search terms, so you’ll get better results from your Google Alerts.

Search for a Phrase

Quotation marks around any search words will force Google to look only for instances where those words appear together in that order.

Example: “wildapricot”

Alerts using this search term will give you only those webpages containing the exact phrase you’ve put between quotation marks.

Remember that Google ignores most punctuation, however, so this alert would also show me a page that said something like this:

Our designers went wild. Apricot is such a trendy shade of orange!

You can see, no search will be perfect!  For the purpose of setting up your news Alerts, however, putting quotation marks around your organization’s name will often be all you need to do — especially if your organization has a unique name.

But what if your Alerts are still too general? 

Narrow the Search

Our “wildapricot” example makes a fairly useful Alert, but the search results tend to include a few too many references to fruit trees, recipes, and charming holidays on the Mediterranean — entertaining, maybe, but not especially relevant to the blog or the software we’re interested in monitoring.

It’s easy to ignore a few off-topic results, but if you’re getting more than one or two every now and then, you’ll want to narrow down your search query to get rid of most of those irrelevant links:

minus sign (-) on the front of any search term tells Google not to show you any pages containing that word or phrase.


Example: “wildapricot” -fruit


That’s one option for refining this Alert, but fruit is such a common word that we might accidentally exclude results that we’d like to see — such as the Terra Firma Farms newsletter that includes articles about fruit as well as a note about!

Excluding a very specific and not-too-common phrase is a better choice.


Example: “wildapricot” -“Prunus armeniaca”


In this example, a minus sign in front of the very specific Latin term used in botanical references will cut out many of the results about fruit trees, without missing out on useful results like the Terra Firma newsletter.

Tip: Use the minus sign carefully! It’s better to get one or two irrelevant stories in your Alerts than to miss out on important news by making the search terms too narrow.

Those two search tricks — putting quotation marks around a phrase;  and/or using a minus sign to exclude any unwanted terms — are often all that you’ll need to get much more useful results from Google Alerts.

If you want to fine-tune even more, however, Google offers a handy cheatsheet of advanced search operators to save and/or print for reference. See what you can do with the ORsite: and link: options, in particular.

As a general rule of thumb, start out by setting up your Alerts with fairly broad search queries, to be sure you’re not missing anything important. As you begin to see patterns in the types of information being reported, you can edit or delete and refine your Alerts to deliver more useful results. Remember, you’re allowed to have up to 1000 Google Alerts per email address, so there’s plenty of room to experiment!


Additional Resources:

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2009 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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