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I love automated searches.
Normal people wait until circumstances arouse their curiosity. Then they go looking for answers. They Google it, or use some other search engine or some other means to find answers.
But it takes a special kind of crazy to sign up for, configure, optimize and tweak sites and services that constantly and forever monitor the Internet, and hand-deliver information via e-mail as its published or posted.
Or a special kind of lazy. Setting up automated "bots" to do your searching for you saves enormous amounts of time and effort. You "set it and forget it."
Scratch that. Automated searches are not only sane and actually take a bit of initiative to set up, they're so powerful they can enhance your career, friendships and lifestyle. In fact, you'd have to be crazy or lazy to NOT use automated searches.
Here are the five most powerful services, with some tips on how to get the most out of them.
1) Google Alerts
Google Alertsis the best known info-delivery service. It's great for running the broadest possible searches for information that rarely pops up.
I have News Alerts on the names of everyone I know. When friends or relatives get a promotion, or are quoted in a news story, I'm the first to know (and the first to congratulate people, or whatever). I also track news I'm interested in, such as about emerging technologies, and to follow writers I like, such as myself.
I currently have 273 searches. (Why not? It's free!) When they deliver bogus results, I tweak the search criteria to improve them.
You can find Alerts on the Google News page. Just run a search, then click News Alerts on the lower left. You'll get a "Create a Google Alert" box where you can tweak your search terms, tell what type of search, tell how often to get results and where you can enter your e-mail address.
Yotifyis the newest service. It's like Google Alerts, but more precise. After signing in, you create "scouts," which are ongoing searches. You choose search criteria, but also the sites where those searches run. You can pick Craigslist, Shopping.com, YouTube, ESPN, eBay Tickets and many more. Yotify lets you search much more broad criteria within a narrow range of sites.
For example, let's say you're looking for a job. You can set up a running search for your city on Craigslist in the job category, using keywords relevant to your career path. You can set the frequency for daily or hourly. Choose hourly. When a job pops up, you'll get an e-mail with the details and a link.
If you're planning on buying something, you can set up a search that notifies you once the price has dropped to whatever amount you choose.
The most unique kind of search is Yotify's "Ask Friends" feature, which takes searches you've already set up, and asks your friends on either Facebook or Friendfeed to help you find it. So, for example, you can choose Facebook, and in the window that pops up choose that Job search you already set up. It will send a message on Facebook that says "Help me find this" to all your friends.
You can also auto-share your searches with anyone via e-mail.
Alerts.comlets you create custom online widgets for job searches, daily weather, price watches, sports scores, and many more. You can tell it to send you a wake-up call (it will actually call your phone).
Alerts.com is the easiest of the searches to use if you aren't sure what to search for. Alerts.com just spells out the options for you, and you pick the ones you want.
Google Alerts, Yotify and Alerts.com are the biggest three services designed for all-purpose automated alerts. But you can use other services to search other kinds of information in very powerful ways.
You know Twitter as a microblogging tool. Some people "get" microblogging, but most don't have the time to sit there and watch a constant barrage of inane chatter.
Think of Twitter as a source of fast-breaking news, fed by millions of people. When anything important happens, Twitter messages go out instantly.
I realized this when I happened to be watching Twitter and an earthquake in Silicon Valley hit. People posted Twitter messages about the quake before the earth even stopped quaking. Breaking news is usually posted on Twitter before any other source in the world.
There are many ways to use Twitter for alerts. I use a serviced called TweetBeep, which constantly scans Twitter chatter and e-mails you when your search criteria pops up.
TweetBeep has some surprisingly powerful search options. You can, for example, eliminate Tweets without URLs, or search only messages from a specific user.
WatchThatPagemonitors individual Web pages, and sends you an e-mail when they're changed in any way. It's ideal for pages rarely updated because it lets you avoid wasting time checking and re-checking. This is a great way to stay updated on the personal pages of friends, and also the home pages companies you're interested in.
After setting up an account, click on the Pages tab, then paste in the URL of your choice into the "Add page" box, then click Add.
And one parting tip. The biggest barrier to adopting these services is the question, "Er, OK, what do I search?" That answer will come to you later. In the meantime, set up one search on each of these services just to send reminders to you until you think of things to use them for.