When it comes to fighting crises, Google Alerts just won’t cut it anymore

PR disaster analyst Gerry McCusker dissects why Google Alerts simply aren't enough to protect your business against major comms crises.

Imagine trying to defend yourself in an unscheduled scrap against mixed martial arts whirlwind brawler Conor McGregor.

Now, contemplate facing the Celtic combatant with one eye blindfolded, and one hand tied behind your back.

To me, that’s like trying to effectively handle modern crises using only Google Alerts as your key source of issue and stakeholder monitoring. You won’t see many of the blows coming and you won’t have effective reach or speed to counter inevitably relentless attacks.

In my work, a trans-media scanning app delivers real-time, intel-replete notices on issues I’m tracking for clients and for my own business.

But quizzing a diverse sample of associates about how they monitor and track developing threats and emerging issues, many still love the simplicity and (no) cost of Google Alerts; it’s what they see as a trusted source of ‘intel’.

Admission of omission

Yet for almost five years, Google itself is on record admitting if not the ineptitude, then the incompleteness, of its alerts content detection and notification service.

“We’re having some issues with alerts not being as comprehensive as we’d like,” was the company statement in 2013.

Anecdotal industry reports by one integrated monitoring technology – Mention – claims that Google Alerts may only be finding and presenting around one-tenth of the commentary that accompanies trans-media reportage: one-tenth! Can you imagine what that does to the company stakeholder and influencer matrix?

Some of the main reasons that alerts is selling the contemporary crisis manager short include:

  • Focussed on large volume online news and blog sites
  • Doesn’t index or catch many of the emergent (and popular) new social media sites
  • Overlooks key influencer commentary and real-time crisis conversations
  • Fails to interpret the import/impact of data found
  • Is cumbersome and laborious for packaging, reporting and sharing results

Big data, bigger picture

It’s not to say that Google Alerts doesn’t have its place; it does, but its pre-eminence was more relevant over five years ago, when specific technologies developed to mine big data for crisis-critical intelligence and insights were less developed than are available now.

And the data you’d want to access in your crisis monitoring may include audience numbers, key influencers (and their distribution channels), keyword mentions, publishing times, syndication sources and sentiment indicators. Bigger data allows you to see a bigger picture.

In observing and handling modern media crises, it’s common to see the early crisis narrative emerge across social media channels (especially Facebook and Twitter) before being ‘legitimised’ by mainstream news media and, thereafter, infusing search engine finds.

So if you’re relying on Google Alerts, it’s likely you’ll miss the early ‘heads up’ you need to get ahead of the crisis commentary and curve. By the time the crisis has ‘broken’ across online news media and search, you’re facing an uphill chase to assert your understanding/side of the story.



Viable or vulnerable?

So, having pointed out its deficiencies, should you even bother with Google Alerts at all?

I’m with those who’d recommend still using it but more as backup tool to a more comprehensive media intelligence dashboard: it can augment or corroborate the critical information you’d like to have to support your crisis communications.

If truth be told, I’m still quite fond of alerts and am a habitual user mostly for personal interest topics. Rumour has it it’s still experiencing some of the unavailability and incomplete issues it flagged back in 2013.

Google Alerts used to pack a powerful – and free – punch. Nowadays, perhaps its unkind to say, Google Alerts is a bit like a punch-drunk palooka; it still thinks it’s a champ, but it’s landing far fewer blows than it did in its heyday, and it’s being out-performed by younger, fitter and more powerful competitors.

Gerry McCusker is a PR disaster analyst and the principal adviser at online reputation simulator, The Drill.


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