What’s a Google Alert?


Do you know what’s going on around you? Do you keep an eye on your neighborhood? Google Alerts does that. It helps you watch what’s going on. Basically, it searches the web on a schedule, and sends an email when it finds what you wanted.

First, Google Alerts is online here:

You can use Google Alerts to tell you when your name (or your street name) shows up in new search results, or news, and get an email announcement and link. You can choose how often you are notified, what language to look for, or just look for very specific things. Search wording that works in a normal Google Search will work in an alert as well. (More on that below.)

So you should have an alert at Google for your name. And your kids’ names, maybe a news alert for your neighborhood. But how about your business partners, suppliers, and customers?

Example: If you use a company to run 1099 and W-2 forms for your staff’s tax forms, you should know if they have a security breach. Like this one:

That article tells about a security problem at ComplyRight.com. In short, they’ve been hacked. There is no notice on their front page or their news page. But wait, they’re better known by another name, efile4biz.com, which lists a ‘family of brands’, not including ComplyRight, of PosterTracker, TrackSmart, I-Rdirect, and PosterGuard.  How would you know? A Google Alert would tell you as soon as it was mentioned on any web page indexed by Google.

In my own case, I have permanent search alerts on key business partners. For example, web service companies, really cloud companies of any type, tend to merge out of existence and go away or become something else. The ‘RMM’, or ‘remote monitoring and management’ providers, have been very active lately–you can’t tell who used to be what without a lineage chart. I have Google Alerts in-place on any service company I would have a problem moving away from quickly, so that I know about mergers before they’re implemented. 

Banks are also bad that way, constantly merging. Google Alerts tells me about mergers months before there are any notices directly from a bank that’s about to merge.

How about evil? Well, yes. There have been times when I wanted to have early notice if certain characters showed up in newspaper crime reports or bankruptcy notices. Alerts can do that, too.

Finally, Google Alerts on your own trademarks and company name tell you when you are getting noticed on the ‘net, in reviews or in social media. Google yourself, but use automation.

Google Searching, Slightly Advanced

You can improve search results at Google by adding some extra instructions. Example: It’s not safe to search for a phone number at Google for any electronic product. The results are poisoned. That’s a real term for search results that include dangerous links, either hoaxes or malware. Here are what different searches can do.

Hewlett Packard printer tech support phone 

This results in a page that includes BOTH real and fake tech support numbers; half of the first page is to service companies who will say “We are the tech support for this product” when they definitely are anything but that. We want to avoid that problem.

site:hp.com printer tech support phone 

Better, adding ‘site:… ‘ creates a list of ONLY web sites that are at hp.com, and related sites like support.hp.com, and there are no dangerous results in the list. 

Local Searches

If you type ‘hotels’ into Google, it will, by default, show you hotels near your location. It just knows, based on your IP address, or your signed-in account at GMail, or through a cookie from DoubleClick (owned by Google), or in many other ways. If you actually wanted a hotel listing for a specific area, you can search by location with the name of the city and state, or the zip code.

Hotels near 90210

That gets you to Beverly Hills.

Reminders of Math Class

Some of you studied Boolean Arithmetic, or remember Venn Diagrams. They’re related; both deal with sets of things. As it applies to search, looking for “eggs and bacon” versus “eggs bacon” is not the same thing. The ‘and’ means that every entry in the results must include both items, and “eggs bacon” shows results that include eggs but no bacon, and bacon without eggs, as well as all the results that include both. Venn Diagrams would call that the intersection of the sets, versus the Superset. Boolean Algebra uses ‘AND’ to show ONLY the search results that include both words, or ‘OR’ to include either/both/any results.

The reason why Google search results have always been better than other search sites was, at first, that they defaulted to all ‘and’ searches, while most sites, twenty years back, used ‘or’ searches by default, because their computers and indexes were too slow to narrow that search. Now, Google results are still ‘and’ searches, but there is also considerable computer work based on trying to show what you want instead of what you typed, and that takes a lot more than just studies of supersets.

Egg dishes -bacon

Adding a – before a word means that you don’t want results that include that word. So this search will show you egg dishes but not include any that have bacon. Bonus: Adding the dash for a negative search word also works on Amazon and eBay. (Boolean version: egg dishes NOT bacon)

“Your Full Name” 

Placing a search inside quotes means that you want everything in that search just as you typed it. Without the quotes, Google looks for pages that include all those words in any position on the page, and in any order. 


This tells Google to look for sites like that you entered. The results tend to be less about buying a thing, and more about news or competitors.

There are more ways to search, and an article of search tips here:


How to Talk Tech

Wine Error

When you need an answer from tech support, from me, or from an overseas support desk, there are some basics that will make it easier to get an actual answer. As in any writing, we have to anticipate the questions that will result from what is written, and just go ahead and answer them in advance. Here’s how you can best communicate with techies. Including me.

Tell us Where the Issue is

While I may know what computer you are most likely to be using, many of you have two, or an office full of them. Specify which computer. If it has been a while, or you’re emailing those support desks in Asia, also mention what version of Windows is in use. 

“It doesn’t work”

“It doesn’t work.” doesn’t say anything for a tech; we already knew that because the message arrived. The pronoun ‘it’ provides no clue what doesn’t work. Second, “doesn’t work” could mean any of these:

  • Nothing happens
  • Fails, with an error message
  • Something else happens
  • Menu or button isn’t where it was
  • Some other program takes over

Instead, tell what you tried to do, and then what happens.

What you Tried to do

So say what you are trying to do. There’s no need to be technical about it:

  • Tried to create an envelope in Word 2013
  • Trying to send an email in Thunderbird
  • Couldn’t edit font size in WordPerfect
  • Tried to run my specialty database
  • Tried to open QuickBooks

The program name is important. And the ‘Internet’ or ‘AOL’ is a web site, not a program. The program name usually shows up at the top-left of your open program.

What Happened

And that’s where you include a picture, because trying to describe an error message is usually not going to work. They’re mostly too long, and they don’t stay on-screen while you’re typing that email. So a screen capture is the best approach. Refresher course–here’s how to do that:

The Windows shortcut to capture the top window is alt-Print Screen, sometimes shown as PrtScrn on your keyboard–it’s usually at the top-right.  Nothing appears to happen when you press those keys–that’s OK. Go to uour email in Outlook or Thunderbird, and paste in the image; Control-v will generally work.  

Or if you’re using webmail or Gmail, open Microsoft Paint, or Word, or WordPerfect, and use paste (ctrl-v) to add the image. Save that file, and attach it to your email.

There’s also ctrl-PrtScrn. It works, but will take a picture of the entire screen, not just the top window. If you have multiple monitors, it will capture all of them. Mostly, alt-PrtScrn is easier, as it will only capture whichever window is on top of your desktop.

Some screens can’t be captured, usually the infamous Windows BSOD, or ‘blue screen of death’. For those, write down the error number, usually something like “0xc0000007e”, and send that. Or use your phone to take a picture and email it.

One Topic

Emails asking techs for answers should have just one topic. The overseas tech will normally glance at a message, and paste in canned response number 17, whatever that could be, because they saw a word that mentioned something vaguely 17-ish. That might not be the important answer you needed, or even useful. The best tech questions are about just how to fix one issue.

That even applies for me. I will send a quick short answer if you ask one question. If you also ask a question that needs research, or a price quote, it will take a lot longer.

Why Does Windows Act Weird?

A lot of Windows weirdness is from a technology term called a ‘race event’, like a speed race between lots of programs all trying to compete together. Basically, that’s when software does a few things, and expects to get feedback, answers, or results from those things, and those result arrive in an unexpected order because other software is overwhelming the system. The program doesn’t know what to do with that, and either triggers an error message, or locks up. Once a program locks up, it remains in memory, and Windows doesn’t always know that has happened. And then you see this:

Translation: “The message that says that Windows is ‘ShuttingDown’ isn’t shutting itself down, so Windows can’t shut down. Do you want to ignore “ShuttingDown” and shut down before Restarting, uh, Anyway?”

In the early days of personal computers, we had MS-DOS, the old Microsoft Disk Operating System. It could run one program and do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking (walking and chewing gum at the same time, or the computer equivalent), wasn’t possible at first. So a program could do this:
Print 'hello '
Print 'world'

And that would reliably print ‘hello world’ on some device, usually a monitor, or a sometimes a printer.

But somewhere around 1994, where we had the model 80386 processors and Windows 3.11, computer chips and software gained the ability to ‘time-share’ so that programs could take turns running on the processor, and could do things without waiting for another program. That makes a few assumptions: All programs involved follow the rules, the operating system does everything right, and the hardware is functioning normally. 

And if it doesn’t, well, we might see ‘worldhello ‘ instead. That’s a very basic failure of a race condition. Each line of code worked correctly, but the results are out of order. Far more likely: gibberish output and broken Windows.

Since then, we’ve gained multi-core processors that can run far more programs at the same time. We have ‘services’ that run in the background, loading the Internet (communications), antivirus, system monitoring, video enhancements, surround sound, backups, phone-homes for both good and bad reasons, and on and on. As I write this, my computer shows 7 programs running, and 60 background processes (mostly services) either working or waiting for things to do.  CPU load is at 2%, so this is normal operation for a modern PC with this year’s specifications.

But what happens if we add a few more antivirus programs and have them monitor all incoming web pages and email? Well, they all try to do things at the same time, and things slow down dramatically. Add some more stuff, like browser toolbars, which mostly run all day long. Or view a web page that  automatically plays videos when you arrive, maybe serveral animated advertisements and a full-motion video. At some point, the software overwhelms what the hardware can deliver, either too much for the processor to calculate or too much internet content to pull down. Pieces are skipped. Videos are time-sensitive; if the image pieces show up out of order, the image looks blocky or garbled. Error messages can occur if the programs involved don’t know what to do with contents that are delayed, damaged, or out of order. Video programs know how to lower resolution or skip frames, so they can self-repair, to some extent.

Error messages, however, are written by humans, in advance. How do we do that? Well, the code is something like this, where lines 2 and 4 are ‘error traps’:

Print 'hello ' (and listen for an error number)
If error number received is 6, display 'Printer wants paper.'
Print 'world'
If any error received, display 'Unknown error after printing.'

OK, so that works unless there is an error that wasn’t expected at the time that it arrived. Most error messages say what the programmer thought was the obvious error that would happen after a specific line in a program. That’s when something happens, not what. It’s a guess.

Now multiply that by those 60 services and 7 programs that are running or waiting. Add some program code with incomplete error traps, or some software phoning home for advertising. The work area (memory) of the computer becomes messy and unstable, as programs receive web content or hardware status messages out of order, as gibberish, or not at all. In a severe case, the computer just locks up. But Windows does a fair job of cleaning up junk in memory, so what you see may simply be unexpected garbage.

So what does this mean for a computer user?

  • Error messages tell you more about when something happened than what went wrong.
  • Overloaded Windows gets weird.
  • Programmers can’t anticipate all delays or every possible error.
  • Software doesn’t deal with traffic jams well.
  • Waiting for Windows to recover from an error works, sometimes. If you don’t expect miracles.

And for things to do:

  • Refresh can help a browser program like Firefox or Chrome when the page looks like junk because it didn’t load completely. Press either F5, or Ctrl-R.
  • Rebooting a computer clears memory and work areas. (Washes the blackboard.)
  • Uninstall software that is no longer needed.
  • Avoid installing software that runs all the time.