Among all the Google products, Google Alerts is perhaps one of the least known, but definitely one of the most powerful. It taps into Google's endless crawling of the web—done to power its search engine—but flags up terms as they're indexed, not when you get around to looking for them. Think of it as Google results coming to you.
Instead of running a search every day to see if your favorite band is touring, for instance, or to see if any new rumors have been reported about the new iPhone, you can sit back while those stories get straight into your inbox.
How to set up a Google Alert
Setting up Google Alerts is easy and straightforward. From your computer or mobile device, head to the Google Alerts page, and sign in with your Google account if you haven't already.
Type the search phrase or words you want to keep tabs on into the Create an alert about... box at the top of the screen. Note that you can use the standard search operators here, the same you would use when searching on Google—quotation marks around a phrase will match that exact phrase; a plus symbol in front makes sure your search will always include that word, and a minus symbol in front of a word tells Google to return matches that don't include it. So, entering "dolphins -miami" would get you results about the aquatic mammal but not the football team, for example.
As you type, sample results will appear so you know if you need to further refine your search. When you've got an alert you're happy with, choose Show Options. Here you can choose how often your alerts appear, and whether you want to see all the results to your query, or only the most relevant. The latter option takes into account several factors, including the site it was published on, and how many times people click on it, among others. This option is much more helpful if you're looking for something that returns a lot of hits.
When you're happy, select Create Alert, and the results will start arriving in your inbox as frequently as you want (as they're found, once a day, or once a week). Once you create your alerts, you can go to the Google Alerts page to modify or remove it.
Some trial and error might be required to find the right balance between getting overwhelmed with results and not getting any at all, but you should quickly get a feel for how specific you need to make your search terms and how often you need to receive your various Google Alerts.
1. Important news topics
Google Alerts are ideal for keeping in touch with news stories, especially on topics that don't often make the headlines. Maybe you're interested in archaeological digs in one part of the world, or a specific type of art, or in a certain fashion trend—Google Alerts can bring articles on these topics straight to you.
2. Your favorite bands, shows, and authors
With so much music to listen to these days, it can be all too easy to miss a new album or a new tour from that band you were really into a couple of years back—but Google Alerts can keep you in the loop whenever something new happens.
But this extends beyond musical artists—you can check for new seasons of your favorite show on Netflix, or new books from your favorite authors, etc. Whatever type of cultural content you're interested in, Google Alerts can serve it up.
3. Watch out for plagiarism
If you or the company you work for are in the writing business, then Google Alerts is a fantastic way of watching out for plagiarism. You can easily make sure no one else is passing off your work as their own, or borrowing your regular turns of phrase, or trying to impersonate you—create alerts using your name, or the titles of your articles, or some text from inside them to try and catch plagiarism (or discover who is quoting your content).
4. Check for company mentions
This one is work-related, but it's still interesting—you can use Google Alerts to monitor what other people are saying about your company on the web, good or bad. Google Alerts is also useful for keeping up with industry news, and if your firm is a big name in your chosen industry, you should get plenty of news results too.
If you don't want to get notifications about online mentions of your company, you can key in your name instead (this is one of the alerts recommended by Google itself). It might seem a somewhat egotistical move, but at least you'll know if other people are talking about you (and maybe you'll come across some other people with your name, too).
5. Your personal details
Has your postal address or your email address leaked out on the web? A simple Google Alert can tell you. Remember no one else can see these alerts, so your privacy is not at risk here. If you do find your email address is out there for everyone to see, you might have been the victim of a hack, or have been listed in an online directory—whatever the context, Google Alerts helps you take action quickly.
6. Keep tabs on people
Who are you interested in? Whether it's your long-lost brother, a particular politician, a celebrity, or a sports star, Google Alerts will deliver news on this person right to your inbox. For the most popular searches you might have to reduce the frequency of your notifications and stick to the Only the best results option, but this also works well for searches that don't return many results at all—if someone suddenly comes back into the public eye, you'll know about it first.
7. Local news
We'll finish as we started, with news—the area where Google Alerts can perhaps be the most useful. In some parts of the world, finding news about your hometown isn't always easy, but a quick Google Alert can help—if something significant happens in your area, you'll know about it. If you live somewhere that does get plenty of news coverage, you might want to be more specific with your keywords (looking for stories on transport or crime, for example).