Thursday, October 4, 2012

Google Alerts ≠ Google

For many years, the only news that ever made it into English-language papers about Catalonia had to do with food, travel, or on a lucky day, Catalan superstar architect Antoni Gaudí. I even started a blog, and got permission from a number of online news sites so that I could take matters into my own hands and translate the articles that I thought deserved wider attention in the non-Catalans speaking world. I remember being particularly outraged that Spain's Minister of Transportation had decided to build a high-speed rail line directly under (and I mean directly under), Barcelona's famed Sagrada Família, and it was barely covered in international papers (though today I did find this one article in the New York Times, Murphy's Law).

Part of the problem is that foreign correspondents have, until very recently, concentrated themselves in Madrid, thinking (erroneously in my opinion) that that was a reasonable vantage point for covering Barcelona. But, it's pretty obvious if you've read any of their articles that the city you live in makes a difference on the information and the opinions you collect and then relate. Imagine covering the US election from Moscow, or Havana. You just don't get the same story.

But in the last three weeks, since Catalonia's massive demonstration of a million and a half people, and President Mas' subsequent call for a referendum on a new sovereign state for Catalonia, I haven't been able to keep up. There have been hundreds, even thousands of articles in English-language newspapers.

And while trying to keep up with it all, I've learned a few things about Google and Google Alerts that you might find useful even if you're not so interested in my adopted country.

You don't need me to tell you what Google is. Google Alerts is less well known: it's a Google-based service that offers to "email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your queries" and at the intervals "daily, weekly, when it happens" that you specify.

The problem, however, is that Google Alerts does not produce the same results as Google, and in particular its results aren't nearly as good or complete. Since September 11, my Google Alert for "Catalonia, Catalunya and/or Catalans" has resulted in all of 15 results. 15. Part of the issue is that Google Alerts (like Google) groups articles into categories, and just shows the first of many. For example, here is the Google Alert that I received on September 12, the day after one and a half million people marched in Barcelona for independence:

There are three news entries, and each one has a "See all stories on this topic" link. And there's a bizarre rant from some website. But I thought Google Alerts was supposed to show me all the stories? It clearly does not.

If I go to Google and search for Catalonia (by itself), even today on October 1, I can travel back to the entry on September 11, and see that there were actually 240 articles, and Google itself shows me the summaries of seven or eight:

How are Google and Google Alerts grouping articles into categories? It seems a bit random. Syndicalization might be one criteria; when the exact same article appears in various news sources. I recognize that there's a lot of that. AP articles are obviously picked up by multiple newspapers, but a lot of other papers share articles as well. I found the same exact article in The Telegraph (in the UK) and in the Sydney Herald (in Australia).

But that's not the only criteria that Google Alerts uses, at least in my recent experience. It also seems to lump together articles that are completely different.

So, my question is if you're asking Google Alerts to give you all of the pages about a given topic, what good does it do for it to send you an email with a link to just one of them, saying you should search for the others? Isn't that what Google is for?

The second issue is that Google Alerts doesn't get them all by a long stretch. For example, I am writing this at 12:09pm on October 4th. At 10pm on October 2, a full 36 hours ago, Google showed me that the New York Times had just published a hugely influential, detailed op-ed about Catalonia, called Spanish Prisoners. I have yet to receive any word about it from Google Alerts. Today, there is a new article about Catalonia in Bloomberg Business Week. There has been nary a peep from Google Alerts, even though it promised to send me links to a news story "when it happens".

In short, Google Alerts doesn't do what it promises. It sends what it considers a few representative articles and a link to additional ones, and often misses the most important stories. If you want to find all the important articles on a topic, you're much better off going to Google yourself.

And if you're interested in Catalonia, I've got the best news roundup around, thanks to Google, but not Google Alerts :)

1 comment:

  1. It's true that Google Alerts can be hit and miss. The trick with it is in the tuning. It fails utterly on large searches because it doesn't understand your angle. If you were to search for "Catalan Independence" or something even more specific it would probably fare better. Also, encapsulating terms in quotes helps a great deal as well as selecting "Everything" and "All results" although it sounds like you've already selected those.

    As for the immediacy factor, it does generally do well with what it deems to be "large" news outlets. They have a rather strict application as to what they consider to be a "news" outlet and again, if the search terms are specific, you will get these pretty much instantly. For instance, having a series of guides called "vinologue" is a rather unique name and the alerts I have set up for that work well. For blogs and "non-news" it can take days or even a week to get information.

    It's far from a perfect system and really feels like it's something Google has running in a basement somewhere, but if it's all I can get, I'll take it. Otherwise, Twitter seems to be much more relevant and immediate than Alerts could ever hope to be.

    PS - I feel that reporting on Barcelona from Madrid is akin to reporting on New York from DC. Could be worse though. Nigeria gets reported on from Johannesburg...


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