Thursday, June 13, 2024

Bots Surf the Web (So You Don’t Have To)

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I love search bots. They cater to both my info-lust and laziness.

A search bot is a service that does the kind of Internet-based search you might do on Google or Yahoo, but constantly. When a running bot search finds a new “hit,” it e-mails it to you.

Search bots have a kind of “set it and forget it” quality that’s very powerful. You can search for fairly common items that will bring you new information every day, or set up obscure searches that average hits once per decade. Either way, the hunting-and-gathering effort on your part is zero, after you’ve set up the initial search.

I find that knowledgeable users are generally aware of search bots, but don’t really use them. That’s too bad, because with a little imagination, search bots can be extremely powerful, making you a better professional, and even a better friend or family member.

When I come across a search bot that looks especially cool, I’ll go ahead and set up a search just so I don’t forget about the bot. I’ll think of useful searches later.

I’ve narrowed down the list of search bots I use to the best I’ve found in three categories (and they’re all free): Google Alerts (Internet stuff of all kinds); R mail (blogs) and Watch That Page (Web pages). Here are tips and ideas for using each:

Google Alerts

I’m a heavy user of Google Alerts, and currently have 167 running searches. Google Alerts is one of the most useful resources on the Internet, because it reliably scans in any or all of four categories: “News,” “Blogs,” “Web,” and “Groups.”

Use Google Alerts to find out when someone you know is mentioned in the newspaper. Search for their names in the “News” category. If friends, family or former colleagues run a marathon, get promoted, or are interviewed even by a local reporter, you’ll find out right away and can call to congratulate them.

Ego searches work great with bots. Search for your own name to find out what people are saying about you.

Use multiple names and parameters. Because this is Google, you can use all the normal search parameters. If someone has multiple possible names, search for all of them. For example: “Mike Elgan” OR “Michael Elgan”

Keep a running Google Alert with the name of your neighborhood or street. If the city plans development in your area, if your neighbors decide to sell their house, or if burglaries are committed nearby, you’ll be the first to know.

If you get false positives, go back and “tweak” your searches. For example, if you search for someone and you get hits about someone else who’s, say, a police captain in another city, tell your alert to ignore the other person with a “NOT” parameter, like this: “Bill Orlando” -“police captain” In some of my searches, I have a half dozen of these “not” parameters.

Search for your own interests, such as products you own — especially gadgets — subjects you care about or hobbies. Gadgets are great to search for because you’ll be alerted to firmware updates, deals on accessories and stuff like that.

Search for authors or columnists you like so you don’t miss anything they publish. Use the word “by” in the search to get articles written by, but not about, the author, like this: “By Mike Elgan”


R-Mail is a kind of RSS reader. But instead of RSS items showing up in a stand-alone RSS application, new posts are e-mailed to you.

This is great for interesting but inactive blogs, such as those that get new posts less than once per week. R-Mail saves you the time you spend going back to find that nothing is new.

Watch That Page

Watch That Page sends you an e-mail with a link whenever the Web page of your choice has changed.

Use Watch That Page to find out when prices on a catalog change, or when new information is posted to a site.

These are my favorite bots, and my best tips on how to use them. Do you use great bots, or have great tips for bot searches? Post them in the Datamation Forum.

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