Katherine Boehret

Cull Web Content With Alerts

It can be hard to find just what you want in the 24-hour news cycle that constantly churns content out online.

One way to find the information you want is by setting up computer-generated alerts. These electronic notifications are relatively simple to use and offer a range of helpful services, from a virtual heads-up when your name is mentioned online to messages about a product’s price suddenly dropping.

For years, I’ve used Google Alerts as a way of keeping track of myself online. If my name is mentioned in a blog or if this column appears on the Web, such as on the site of a newspaper that syndicates it, a Google Alert sends me an email about it. Google Alerts can work for you to find a variety of things, such as telling you if a video of a favorite band popped up online or that a blogger posted something about last night’s episode of “Mad Men.”

In about a month, Google will begin delivering these alerts to users via feeds, as well as emails. Google (GOOG) certainly isn’t alone in the alerts arena, as Yahoo (YHOO), Microsoft (MSFT) and AOL (TWX) are also players. This week I tried two small companies that recently joined the mission to help users find the Web content using alerts.

Pinpointing Searches

I tried Alerts.com and Yotify.com, and found worthwhile features in both. While Google Alerts does a good job of finding search terms in news, blogs and videos, Alerts.com and Yotify use forms that are a cinch to fill out and let you pinpoint your searches.

Alerts.com offers to notify users via email, SMS text messages or even voice calls to a cellphone or landline. The site organizes your alerts on a personalized Web page and uses a desktop application called Elertz to tell you when an alert has generated results. I liked this site’s flexibility: It not only gave me different ways to receive notifications, but also enabled a variety of options for time-specific deliveries of alerts.

But Yotify has advantages of its own, including the ability to integrate with FriendFeed and Facebook so friends can offer their recommendations or opinions. It also lets users search for event tickets or items auctioned on eBay (EBAY). And a smart preview panel gives you an idea of the type of results your search will return before you submit the request for an alert.

Viewing Results

For now, Google Alerts and Yotify will send alert notifications only via email, though all three services will let you view your alert results online. All three are free, but SMS alerts sent to a cellphone via Alerts.com may not be, depending on your plan.

All in all, I found there were certain things each service was good at doing. For example, Alerts.com lets me know college football scores when I want them: only after the final score; at the end of each quarter and after the final score; or at the end of each quarter, after the final score and after each time a team scores points. Yotify gave me detailed options in a Craigslist search for furniture, including showing only listings with photos or just those that included the word “sofa” in a title; it will even hunt for a specific price range.

For the person who wants to spend minimal time creating basic alerts, Google Alerts will do the trick. These can be narrowed down to show results that fall into the News, Web, Blogs, Video or Groups categories, or you can perform more-blanketed searches using a Comprehensive category.

Alerts.com offers plenty of simple alerts that require only a bit of scheduling to set up. Each alert appears as a widget that can be expanded, edited or deleted with a simple click, and this page has a clean look with attractive, cohesive graphics.

I didn’t care much for Elertz, the desktop component of Alerts.com, because once installed, it notified me of new Alerts data using an irksome star that glowed red until I checked my notifications. Elertz didn’t work properly on my Windows XP machine until Alerts.com fixed a bug.

But Alerts.com’s price watch and price protection alerts are incredibly useful. Price watch looks to see if an item’s price drops into a lower price range, at which point users are notified. Price protection watches to see if products you bought are now on sale so you can get a refund. I tried both, and I’m hoping I’ll hear soon that a specific pair of Anthropologie boots is on sale.

Yotify uses the idea of virtual scouts that scour the Web for specific information. Scout findings can be condensed or expanded in one click, and results can be filtered for more specific findings or shared with friends via Facebook or FriendFeed.

Scout Work

But some scouts took too much work to set up. When I tried to set up a scout for college football scores, I didn’t see a sports category (Alerts.com had a colorful NCAA icon right on its home page). Instead, I had to choose News, then select ESPN, then NCAAF and finally enter “Penn State” in a key word box for my scout. And after all that, the scout offered results only daily or hourly via email.

I would also prefer if I could better organize my scout lists. As it was, all of my results appeared in one list: The NCAA scout was right above the scout that found Obama mentions on Huffington Post, and below that were results for YouTube’s most-watched videos. Yotify says it will add ways to more neatly arrange data in the next month or so.

On average, Yotify returned more results instantly, such as 10 instant Craigslist sofa results compared with Alerts.com’s two in the first few hours.

Overall, these sites are worth trying so you can find which alert system works best for you and stop wasting time searching the Web the old-fashioned way.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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