Google Alerts have been around since 2003 and serve as an excellent free method to uncover topics of interest on the web. Google Alerts are an ideal way of bringing the information on your family history research to you rather than you chasing after it.
Google Alerts are not searches as much as they are notices that there is a news item, blog post, or scientific research on your topic of interest. I’ve been using them since the beginning to track surnames in my family tree and topics related to family history, genealogy, genealogy technology, and other areas of interest.
Google Alerts is designed to email you automatically with a link list when news is found, daily, or in a weekly digest. It also includes the ability to create a feed of the alert results which you may add to your feed reader for easy updates.
To use Google Alerts, consider what you wish to track. Alerts for the family name “Anderson” will generate every news article about a criminal or sports player with the last name Anderson, every mention of towns and streets with Anderson in the name such as Andersonville – very overwhelming.
Google Alerts uses basic Boolean for search terms. “Anderson Wisconsin” will restrict the alerts to news items with both Anderson and Wisconsin in them, but might miss those with abbreviations for Wisconsin such as Wisc. and WI. The more specific you are, the more restrictive the search, and the more you may find or miss, and the less specific you are, the more likely you are to be inundated. Be patient and willing to experiment to find the right combination that works for your needs.
Using quote marks and plus and minus signs, you improve the results.
- Andreas Anderson Wisconsin = mentions of all three words in the text.
- “Andreas Anderson” +Wisconsin = mentions of Andreas Anderson near the word Wisconsin.
- “Andreas Anderson” -Wisconsin = mentions of Andreas Anderson with no mention of Wisconsin.
- “Andreas Anderson” -Wisconsin -Michigan -Florida = mentions of Andreas Anderson with no mention of Wisconsin, Michigan, or Florida.
- “Andreas Anderson” +Wisconsin -Michigan -Florida = mentions of Andreas Anderson and Wisconsin with no mention of Michigan or Florida.
- site:cnn.com +Anderson +Wisconsin +baseball = mentions of Anderson, Wisconsin, and baseball on the CNN news site.
- intitle:genealogy = mentions of “genealogy” only in the title of posts, irregardless of the use of the world within the content.
- “family history” intitle:genealogy = mentions of “genealogy” only in the title of posts with “family history” in the content.
- #genealogytips = mentions of the hashtag.
- genealogy OR “family history” = mentions of either term.
- genealogy OR “family history” +society -Wisconsin = mentions of either term with the word “society” but not “Wisconsin.”
- Anderson type:image = mentions of “Anderson” associated with an image.
I work hard to find interesting archives, especially digital archives, for this site and my students and workshop participants, breaking the doors open on what’s available to help you learn more about your ancestors. Unfortunately, my Google Alert for “archives” is indeed overwhelming. Over the years I’ve honed it down. The current version is:
archives -“from the archives” -sport -football -baseball -teams -taxpayer -marvel -endometrial – endocrine -ovarian -“breast cancer” -“the bachelorette” -fortnite -overwatch -“grand theft auto” -“varicose veins” -football -soccer -hockey -cholesterol -“free concert” -“cancer claim”
Why? Because there are too many “from the archives” posts that have nothing to do with a physical or historical archive, too many mentions of sports archives, and other unrelated odds and ends that appear in my Google Alerts feed for “archives.” By eliminating as many of the distraction posts, I see more of what I want to see and report to my readers.
For more information on Google’s use of Boolean search operators, see Google’s Boolean Search Operators Guide.
How to Setup a Google Alert
Once you have an idea of how specific your Google Alert search term is, it’s time to set up your Google Alerts. It’s free, and you may have as many a you need.
- Sign into your Google Account and go to Google Alerts.
- Type in the search terms in the form for “Create an alert about…”
- The resulting page displays a sample of the results. If there are too few results, or the results don’t match your expectations, change the wording in your alert search term. If there are too many results, consider removing some using the minus in front of keywords.
- To create a Google Alert, click the Show Options link.
- Set how often you wish to recieve an email or have the feed updated.
- If you wish to restrict your searches to a specific type of media such as the news, blogs only, video, images, books, etc., do so in the Sources section.
- If you are seeking language specific content, switch to that language.
- If you would like to restrict the information found to a specific geographical region, you can select that option to reduce the incoming results.
- The How many option is confusing. They options are “Only the best results” or “All results.” The latter gives you everything found. If you are working with a fairly specific and restrictive set of terms, this might be your best option. Otherwise, consider selecting the best results as Google Alerts may analyze the relevance of the content to match your search terms, thus improving the results.
- Deliver to sets the Google alert process for delivery of the information via email or feed. If you would like both, you will need to create two alerts with the same terms, but different options for delivery.
- When ready, click Create Alert.
- If the alert will be delivered to your email, it may arrive shortly or within 24 hours, as news is available. Check your spam filters to ensure you whitelist these emails, or set up a filter to send them to a specific folder.
- If the alert will be delivered via RSS feed, copy the link from the feed logo (curved fan) and add it to your feed reader.
- If you wish to customize your Google Alert results, click the pencil to edit.
Not all of the results will be of interest to you. Review the titles and the excerpts to see if they apply to your research, and if they do, click the link to open the web page. If they don’t apply to you, simply delete the email.
Below is a comparison of the Google Alert created for “genealogy society.” On the left is what it looks like in Google Alerts as a preview of your search request. On the right is what the results look like in my Inoreader feed reader on the desktop.
For more information and tips on using Google Alerts: