As a business owner, I spend most of each day building relationships, managing clients and doing “actual work.” Unfortunately, what often gets neglected is monitoring the Internet for what’s happening with my competitors and within my industry, and what’s being said about me and my firm.

Why do I care? By being aware, I can mentally process the information to create assumptions about who’s winning contracts, who’s hiring whom, what business opportunities might be available, when the time is ripe to reconnect with an old prospect, etc. And being aware of what’s being said about me gives me the chance to respond quickly to negative or inaccurate information, or thank someone for a positive comment and capitalize on the nod to ask for referrals.

I could pay for a monitoring service (like aimClear or trakur) that would provide me with a dashboard of online activity and mentions. But as of August of last year, Google still owned 7 out of every 10 Web searches. Why make it complicated? I’m sticking with Google.

Google Alerts is a free online tool that will alert you of Internet activity based on queries and keyword phrases of your choosing. Google can guide you through this pretty easily. Basically, figure out what your keyword phrases are – if you have a Web site then you should be aware of your top search phrases.

I’ll use my own company as an example. Here are some of the phrases I track:

  • The name of my company: “WhiteHot-Marketing” (I also track “white hot marketing” which should pick up any variation of my business name; note alerts are not case sensitive)
  • My name: “Margaret Osborn”
  • Keyword search phrases: “Indianapolis marketing firm”, Indianapolis pr”, Indianapolis public relations” etc
  • Competitors or influencers: I track several companies and personalities which I find of interest

Once you know what phrases you want to track, set up your alerts at http://www.google.com/alerts. You can choose alerts to go to a specific email address. My suggestion is to either set up a rule to move these emails to a unique mailbox within Outlook, or actually set up and utilize a free Gmail account separate from your work email. You won’t want to mix your more urgent work emails with these alerts.

Play around with what type of alerts you want to receive (everything, just news articles, blog mentions, etc.) and how often (as-it-happens, once a day or weekly). For example, you may want to receive alerts that include your name and your business name as they happen, yet receive alerts about competitors only weekly.

At times the alerts you receive will not be relevant to you. Here’s how to reduce (you’re not going to eliminate) the irrelevant alerts:

  • Use parentheses. Placing your phrases in parentheses make them more exact. If I just used my name without parentheses I’d get results that included miscellaneous names and terms plus “Margaret” or “Osborn.” Therefore my alert is “Margaret Osborn.”
  • Negative keywords. There’s an attorney on the east coast who has my name and gets a lot of online mentions. I excluded the term attorney in an attempt to get more relevant Google alerts. So my alert is further modified to “Margaret Osborn” -attorney -lawyer.
  • Advanced search options. As you get used to using the alert function, you can further tailor your searches by using Google’s advanced search syntax.

Setting up the alerts is the first step. But you then have to take a few minutes every day to glance over your alert emails. It’s good, free intelligence telling you what your peers and competitors are up to. Don’t assume they’re not watching you.