Alert Alerts
29 March 2013

by tmartin on March 29, 2013

I LIKE IT WHEN SOFTWARE goes to work for me.

We spend so much of our time trying to make software tools bend to our will, learning to think like they do, knowing that we can make something happen if we can Just Find The Right Key!

Which is why I love alerts so much. And not just Google Alerts, but the whole category of little software applets that seek and retrieve or sit and monitor. I think of them as being tiny digital ants under my lofty control, scurrying about to make my life easier.

Google Alerts have been in the techie news lately, on rumor that Google will soon be pulling the plug on this popular (& free) feature. The feature – which you can set up at http://www.google.com/alerts – lets you list words or phrases that you want the alert to watch for. When something new appears on the web, the alert, like a sweet little dog, fetches it for you without prompting

I first met alerts in the mid-1990s, when newspapers were undergoing the first round of transition pain and the buzzphase “The Daily Me” was all the rage. In the Daily Me model, software agents would create a custom newspaper for you, eliminating those pesky editors and their editorial judgment.

At Knight Ridder, we introduced a product called NewsHound. Featuring a fun cartoon sketch style dog logo and a play on the old word meaning a persistent reporter sniffing out the news, the tool turned out to be less of a Daily Me and more of a useful little applet.

The product sniffed out new news items that matched your criteria and sent you an alert: woof woof, come look, I found what you wanted.

Alas, the general population wasn’t quite ready for a metaphorical digital dog, and our capacity to define search structure for mere mortals still had a ways to go. I’m not sure I ever did figure out an easy way to tell the pup I was looking for “sharks that swim in the sea” rather than “San Jose Sharks the team” in a format that didn’t require instruction.

Despite rave reviews – it was named Best Original Feature for an online newspaper (Mercury Center) in 1996 by the then influential Editor & Publisher Magazine – it never gained the traction it needed in subsequent releases and a changing world where Google=free became the norm.

Google put the term “alert” in our faces, but alerts go far beyond Google and far beyond news. If you do anything with digital money – an online bank account, a mobile wallet, a paypal account – you’ve got alerts. And alerts are your friends.

In informal surveying I’ve discovered about half of people I asked had no idea that with a couple of clicks their personal ant could get on watch duty for them. Ooops, the checking account just dipped below $10! Bing, you got the check! Woot-woot, that EBay buyer from Illinois just paid up!

Maintaining a website? I couldn’t do it without alerts that tell me when someone posted a comment or performed some other action.

Watching the weather? NOAA alerts on my iPhone meant that this winter, in a break from tradition, I actually knew when a storm was rolling into my neighborhood.

Tracking a company? Geeze, I almost feel like I’m spilling a trade secret, letting you all in on the power of alerts for this application. Back in the dark old days you paid a “clipping service” hundreds of dollars a month to monitor publications for mention of your client’s name. This tracking came part and parcel of the monthly retainer fee from your PR firm.

Now, alerts of various types go off and perform the function. Result? You look wicked smart and you find sources you’d never realized were there.

Google has been slowly dismantling many of its earlier experiments. Why? Your guess is as good as mine: Was the personal news page old news? Are alerts a drain on servers with no payback? Is it fleeing the culture of “free?”

Or maybe it just wants to move on to a new generation. This week, it announced it was partnering with Nixle (http://www.nixle.com). Nixel’s business is … alerts! In its case, it takes data from public safety organizations and delivers it via mobile devices.

When I was in college, a fire ate through a portion of my apartment building. I heard about it from a friend who monitored public safety scanners – while I was inside my apartment. Yikes! Today, if I were a subscriber to Nixel, my public safety ant would have let know that news asap.

In the Google deal, the alerts become embedded into maps and searches, and expose Google’s billion’s of users to a public safety alert option near them.

Everyone seems to be jumping onto the alerts bandwagon. For example, in North Carolina, Gaston County announced this week that it has started its own alerts, which residents sign up for. The backend? The afore-mentioned Nixel.

These little apps just keep appearing everywhere!

For web monitoring in a post Google Alert world, companies like:

Mention (https://en.mention.net);

TalkWalker (http://www.talkwalker.com/en);

iqalerts (http://www.iqalerts.com);

Social Mention (http://socialmention.com);

and several others offer the ability to set the current version of my old friend NewsHound out to sniff.

They all provide the ability to seek through different languages, through web content, through social media sources … Each has a different focus and a different price point, but the little alerts share one thing: we get to control them and they the work for us!

Of course, like pretty much everything else in the world, alerts can become overkill. If you use a million alerts, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by a million bits of minutiae that would make anyone feel like finding a quiet cave for refuge!

But like I said: I like it when software goes to work for me. FOR me.

That’s the key. The alerts work FOR us.

And once you take control of your own alerts, you’ve got some trusty little digital ants out there, seeking, tracking, and retrieving all the stuff you need to know about … but sometimes forget to ask.

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