How do I stay informed about the news relating to a person, organization, city, country - or indeed anything I might describe as an ‘entity’?
Ask the reasonably computer-literate person in the street that question and you’ll probably hear the answer “Google Alerts” 8 times out of 10. There are good reasons for that of course. Google certainly doesn’t struggle for brand recognition, and Google Alerts is both free to use and relatively easy to set up: simply choose the term you wish to search against, and receive alerts to your inbox whenever Google indexes a new page that includes that term.
And for many, Google Alerts is enough. If, for example, you are a marketing professional looking for something resembling an automated clipping service, and you aren’t too concerned about missing something, then it will do the job, or at least something approximating the job.
However, for anyone serious about real media intelligence, Google Alerts is not enough—and never was enough. Let’s talk about why that is, and what the alternative looks like.
When intelligence is a vital competitive advantage
Before going further, it’s important to understand that not all requirements around ‘intelligence’ are created equal. In the example above—finding examples of our company being mentioned online—the motivation can probably be described as a combination of curiosity and vanity.
Elsewhere, however, the stakes are considerably higher. Consider these three examples:
- A diplomatic service needs to understand emerging threats in a specific overseas region
- An investment bank needs to identify and respond to adverse events relating to a specific company
- A business needs awareness of reputational risks as soon as they become apparent
In each, I hope it is clear that something more is required. In the first case, lives are at stake. In the second, responding to real-world events in a timely manner helps to avoid millions of dollars in losses (or alternatively, generates similar profits). And in the last, a rapid and appropriate crisis-management response can be the only thing that saves a business.
In these instances, whatever we use to gather and share news with our team needs to be accurate, it needs to be comprehensive, it needs to filter out noise, and it needs to be timely. Let’s see how Google Alerts delivers against those criteria.
The limits of Google Alerts
First, and perhaps most importantly, Google Alerts misses things. It soon becomes apparent to users that many (perhaps a majority) of mentions of a specific keyword are not reported. For many working in intelligence, this is enough of a deal-breaker on its own.
To add to the frustration, the reasons why Google Alerts misses things are opaque. We simply don’t know. In a way, this is an extension of Google’s (perfectly sensible) reluctance to share details of precisely how search results are derived, and it serves as a reminder that Google Alerts is not—and never has been—considered core to the company's mission. To discuss this in more detail would be a digression too far in this blog post, but is something I may return to. Suffice to say, Google Alerts does not offer anything close to completeness, and Google are not particularly interested in fixing it.
Secondly, Google Alerts is not fast enough. In commercial intelligence scenarios, time is almost always money. But Google Alerts can take days and even weeks to report mentions. Again, remember that the product is essentially an extension of Google’s indexing technology, and reports new mentions when indexed by Google. But when sites are only indexed every three days, or every four weeks, that can mean a wait that is totally unsustainable.
It’s only fair to point out that this delay is not universal. News sites in particular will be indexed with much greater frequency. But the central point stands - you are ultimately relying on the Google indexing process, with all the delays and inconsistencies that can create.
Thirdly, Google will often have it’s own bias built into the alerts it surfaces, by concentrating mainly on mainstream news publishers missing potentially important events or stories published by long tail or regional news providers.
The perils of keyword search
Even if issues with coverage and timeliness didn’t exist, a fatal flaw still exists at the heart of Google Alerts, one that renders the product almost unusable for any serious intelligence professional. That flaw is ‘keyword search’.
Keyword search works like this: you choose a word you want to return results relating to, and Google Alerts does just that. And I use “word” quite deliberately. If you are looking for information on the company ‘Square’, for example... well, you can probably guess the rest. You will receive a stream of alerts whenever the word ‘square’ is newly indexed by Google, and your signal will be almost entirely drowned out by this noise.
You may be able to ameliorate this issue with Boolean search modifiers: “Square” AND “company”, for example, or “Square” NOT “Trafalgar”. But it should be obvious that this will never truly solve the central issue: there is no way to deliver a single news feed that reports on one entity and only that entity, in an accurate and timely manner.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of issues with Google Alerts. Just to give two more examples, there is no way to track either sentiment or significance. And to be fair, it was never created as a tool for intelligence and risk professionals. But that is precisely the point. On that basis, it would be foolish to trust it when intelligence and insight is at a premium.
The alternative is something designed for the job. Something that enables highly customizable queries with search parameters that help you find exactly what matters in the news. Something that delivers:
- Comprehensive coverage: That identifies stories that matter from both long tail and mainstream sources
- In a timely manner: With real-time updates based on highly customizable queries
- Advanced search: Based on events, categories, entities and sentiment (which uses AI to deliver results based on real-world entities,)
- Advanced analytics: Showing trends over time.
As it just so happens, AYLIEN News API fits the bill!
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