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How The @ Reply Killed Google Alerts

The once-reliable method for tracking your online footprint is falling into disrepair. And, coincidentally, irrelevance.

Posted on March 22, 2013, at 11:12 a.m. ET

Vanity seeps into all worlds, but on the internet it thrives. There's never been a greater need — or, at least, desire — to know what's being said about you than among the internet's ceaseless torrent of content.

For a long time that need was filled by Google Alerts, a remarkably simple tool that crawls the internet mentions of a specific keywords and sends back a quick email digest of its results once per day, week, or in real time. Its uses were manifold: Reporters used it to keep up with beats, brands used it to keep up with mentions (and to keep tabs on bad press), and publications used it to watch their stories spread.

However, Google Alerts' prevailing use was as a safety net for one's online persona. After a simple setup, one could be sure to catch any mention of themselves across all corners of the Web — be it curiosity, vanity, or paranoia. "I definitely still have a Google Alert for my name, and anyone who says they don't is lying," New York Magazine's Stefan Becket told BuzzFeed. In 2009, Kashmir Hill at Forbes told readers, "[p]lease, I beg you, put a Google alert on your name." It became a valuable, if slightly unseemly, part of the culture of living and working online.

In recent months, Google Alerts' reliability seems to has dropped off noticeably, prompting groans from faithful users across the internet. As far back as last April, message boards and blog posts have noted Alerts' failure to deliver. In February, Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan blogged that the service was returning meager results well below its normal output. Google responded off the record, saying the issues should be fixed but recent posts like The Financial Brand's open letter to Google, which claims an 80% decrease in alerts volume, show that the problem persists. Becket also admits that, at this point, they're "pretty useless."

Perhaps most revealing is a comparison of Google Alerts results with Google Search: a simple, time-limited search on Google News often retrieves far more results on a given name or topic over a set stretch of time than Alerts' custom emails dredge up. The mentions are out there, but Google Alerts can't seem to find them, suggesting a possible problem with the algorithm (or, perhaps, a simple lack of upkeep).

Yet while some are lamenting what seems to be the loss of another dependable Google tool (R.I.P., Reader), the truth is that as quickly as alerts have fallen into disrepair, they've been replaced.

Today, it's the @ reply — or the Facebook status comment — that's the most reliable indicator of one's internet footprint. Entire careers are now devoted to the task of monitoring interactions across Twitter and the social web, as social media managers have sprung up for most brands and newsrooms. Vanity searching on Google still serves a purpose, but it's increasingly a supplementary one — a way to pick up the scraps.

"My 'mentions' column is a helpful way to track the reach of my articles as well as the conversation which they generate," Mashable reporter Alex Fitzpatrick said. "If a piece generates a particularly high amount of engagement or discussion on Twitter, that's an indication I should consider a follow-up — ideas for which are often generated by engaging with the people who are popping up in my Mentions column."

For others, custom Tweetdeck or Hootsuite columns can protect against Twitter's complex and nuanced world of subtweeting, or the act of tweeting without mentioning one's handle. "I do confess to doing the occasional Twitter search for my name," Becket said. "But most subtweets don't include the person's name anyway, so you'll probably miss some even with a search."

Not all is lost for Google Alerts, though. For those in the highest echelon of fame and the few that enjoy rabid Internet followings, Google Alerts still unearth a fair share of news. Kim Kardashian is an avid user, for example. And this alert for Justin Bieber, which I let run for 24 hours, sent seven different email alerts and surfaced over 60 news hits.

The most terrifying screen on the Internet

The most terrifying screen on the Internet

Google Alerts' decline hasn't necessarily been a graceful one; it's still a service that people expect to work that isn't delivering. Critics have pointed out that this is another example of Google moving away from its roots.

Unlike Google Reader, though, the death of alerts won't inspire much mourning. Everyone will be too busy checking Tweetdeck.

Google did not respond to BuzzFeed's request for comment.