At first glance, the idea of monitoring the entire web for conversations about your organisation seems absurd. Luckily, search engines (vital tools when it comes to monitoring, as we’ll see in a moment) have largely kept pace with the scale of the web; Google, for example spiders and re-spiders with incredible frequency – fast enough that we can use its index as a tool for staying on top of conversations in near real-time.
What to monitor
Keyword searching is a cornerstone of many of these techniques, and the simplest way of searching is – of course – to use a search engine such as Google. At the simplest level you should constantly check your institution name on Google and other search engines. Later on – in Chapter 4 – we’ll look at how to improve search engine rankings to make sure end-users are actually finding your museum or library when they search for it. For now, though, we’re looking at the slightly less obvious results, for example comments on external sites, image results and review sites. Google in particular allows you to filter your results in various ways: you can look for images, news items, blog articles, videos, books, places and so on. Furthermore, you can choose – among other things – to look for terms over a specific time period, from a specific site or in a particular format. Google Web Search Help provides many examples on how to use the search engine to best advantage.
You can obviously monitor for any words you choose, but mentions of your organisation, specific keywords, exhibition names or people are likely to be of most use to you. Broadly, you will probably be interested in two main areas: generic references (for example institution or topic area); and specific references (for example, gallery or exhibition openings). The difference between the first and second of these is not just in the nature of the search terms, but in the time spans that these topics are likely to inhabit. Let’s have a look at these in more detail by taking a fictitious example:
Say you are the website manager of a made-up natural history museum in Oxford called the “Museum of Natural Sciences”, and you’ve just opened a new exhibition called “Dino-bones”. In this particular instance, you might monitor for the following generic terms:
“Museum of Natural Sciences”, “Natural History”, “Oxford museum”, “Day out in Oxford”, etc.
Generically, you should check that your institution name comes right at the very top of the major search engine results (later on we’ll look at ways in which you can help this to happen); but you should also be aware of all local competitors (if your audience and market is mainly a local one).
More specifically, you might also monitor for the exhibition itself:
“Dino-bones”, “Dinobones”, “Dinosaur bones, Oxford”, “New exhibition in Oxford”, etc
Bear in mind that the more abstract your search the more results you’ll get and the less focused your response is likely to be!
Google provides a service called Google Alerts which you can access at http://www.google.com/alerts. You’ll see on this page that you can choose a keyword or phrase, the service you want to search across and the frequency you want to get alerts.
Note that – as per with a normal search on Google – you should include quotes if you want to limit your results to a particular phrase rather than a series of keywords. A search for “The Museum of Natural History” will look for that specific phrase rather than each of the words individually. You may want to play first of all with some main google.com searches to see which search results give you the most meaningful results.
Once you’ve worked out the best search term, choose which of the Google searches you want to search. News is often useful – Google News spiders many thousands of news sources, so provided you’ve massaged the search terms in a way which gives you a good signal/noise ratio, you’ll probably find this the most useful source for topical things like new exhibitions and so on. The “comprehensive” setting is also useful, and monitors real-time conversations such as those going on on Twitter, but it is easy to simply get too many results, which you want to avoid if at all possible.
You’ll see that one of the options provided to you is how to receive your alerts. If you already use a feed reader (and you should!) then you can choose “feed” from the dropdown, and the system will provide you with the address of an RSS feed which you can add to your newsreader. Given how over-full most people’s email inboxes are, this is definitely the recommended option.
Google provides you with the opportunity to search over datasets which are as near as universal as you’ll likely get. This range and diversity is a strength, but obviously can lead to a huge signal / noise ratio, depending on your search terms.
As of time of writing in early 2010, there are also a range of “dashboard” services which allow you to provide keywords or terms for monitoring. Usually these services provide additional value over and above simple alerts: commonly, for example, you can track the alerts over time – for instance, watching how a news article gets spread around the web, blooms in popularity and then falls in popularity over time. These services are almost always paid-for.
Some of the more advanced services also offer so-called sentiment analysis – tools which aggregate the data they receive for a particular keyword, institution or topic and then attempt to analyse this data to determine if the content contains positive or negative phrases. The basic idea is that sentiment analysis should be able to provide website owners with tools for spotting when content is being received well and when it is being received badly. On the whole, these techniques are young and not very accurate at this point in time, but it is possible that in the future they may be worth considering.
Staying on top of monitoring
Monitoring these services manually is a time-consuming thing to do: luckily, much of the monitoring can be done via existing web services which send you some kind of alert or feed when a condition changes – for instance, if a new news article is written or a review is posted.
Although many of these services provide several alert methods (for example, email and even mobile phone text message), they also – usually – provide a much more easily-consumable form of alert in the shape of RSS feeds.
If you’re not familiar with RSS, I’d suggest you spend a bit of time on the web reading some primer guides. The BBC provide an excellent help guide, or just use Google to find others. Once you’ve done that, set up a feed-reader of some description. If you’ve already got a feed-reader, just use that and set aside a folder or section called “alerts”. If you don’t, you can either use something like Google Reader or – and this is my preference when it comes to monitoring – set up an account with someone like Netvibes. or iGoogle. These two services provide you with a customisable “dashboard” which very easily allows you to spot new alerts.
All of these options are free, and provide an invaluable service when it comes to monitoring conversations and topics of interest as well as – obviously – providing a simple way of following your favourite blogs or news sites.