Tinker, build, hack, preferably with APIs.

10 Minute Guide to Monitoring the Web

or how I stopped worrying and learned to love persistent search
Here's the problem: you want to know when certain things get mentioned on the web, but you're not about to search it every day. Wouldn't it be great if a search could persist over time and alert you when new results appear? Good news--not only is it possible, it's also pretty easy, and by the end of this tutorial, you'll know how to do it.

Step I: Crafting smart searches

The most important part is to discover the magic search words that return what you seek. These are called "search operators." To get up to speed, Google supplies an overview and a cheatsheet. If that's too much reading, play with the advanced search available on any Google search, and you'll see something like the graphic to the right. For this example, we want to watch for any mention of Howard Rheingold by the New York Times, Boston Globe, or San Francisco Chronicle. This can be broken into three parts:
  1. We need Howard's complete name, so we put it in quotes
    "Howard Rheingold"
  2. To restrict it to a specific site, so we use the "site:" operator,
  3. But we want to search several sites, so we use the "OR" operator
    site:nytimes.com OR site:boston.com
Putting it all together, we get "Howard Rheingold" site:nytimes.com OR site:boston.com OR site:sfgate.com

Step II: Creating the alert

Next we'll use a Google Account to create a Google Alert. Take the well-crafted search phrase from Step I and use that as the terms. Since we're specifying the sites to search, we choose "comprehensive" as it is the least limiting. And the smart way to receive our search hits is by having it delivered to us as a feed in Google Reader. If you end up getting unwanted search results, you can edit your Google Alert. For example, if you had read enough about smart mobs (sorry Howard), you could add a
-"smart mobs"
... and it would prevent those hits from ending up in your search results (though be careful, as you wouldn't want to exclude a hypothetical page that offered a "related posts" section that mentions "smart mobs"). If you don't use Google Reader (and you should!), you can set the Google Alert to send you an email. This might be useful if you wanted to create a list of people to send updates to using filters in gmail, but that's a post for another time. Congrats--now you know how to create persistent searches using Google Alerts! Use it for vanity searches, to stay on top of a brand, etc. I use it to find out whenever anyone favorites any of my Tweets.
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