Google Alert Shows the Power of Google’s Web API Program


When Google unleashed their Web API program in 2002, web developers were giddy with the prospect of tapping into Google’s power and comprehensive index of web pages and documents. Many of the early applications were simple tools that performed basic functions that weren’t terribly useful to the Internet population at large.

As developers got their feet wet and learned what they could really do with the API toolset, they dreamed up ever more useful functionality. One of the first applications with universal appeal was Google Alert, which tracks searches automatically and e-mails you when Google’s search results change for those terms. That’s a great timesaver and a new way of researching information on the Web.

I’ve been using this free service for several months now, and was curious about the how’s and why’s of the service, so I asked its creator, Gideon Greenspan for the scoop.

Traffick: Google Alert has been receiving great press coverage. What do you think about your little creation?

Greenspan: Things have been going very well with Google Alert. The service already has a large number of users in over 120 countries and is growing rapidly and exponentially. I’ve been adding many new features and doing a lot of optimization and streamlining to keep improving the site.

Traffick: I’ve been watching the evolution of Google Alert and noticed that new users no longer have to have their own Google API key. How did you get Google to change that policy?

Greenspan: Originally, each user had to provide their individual Google Web APIs key because each key allows a limited number of queries per day. When Google noticed how many people were signing up for a key just to use it with Google Alert, they gave me a special key with a much higher capacity. I guess they wanted to streamline things and avoid so many non-developers getting API keys. The change was good for Google Alert too because people are more likely to sign up if they needn’t go through an additional step. So far Google have continually increased the capacity of the special key to match Google Alert’s growing needs.

While Google has so far been very encouraging and supportive of Google Alert’s growth as a free service, at some point we’re going to have to put a business model in place, since neither I nor Google can keep this running indefinitely without any form of revenue stream. I envision keeping the basic service free, but adding premium services which allow greater search capacity and other additional features for a reasonable monthly charge.

Traffick: Is Google actually working with you as a partner, or merely advising you about business models they will offer their blessing to?

Greenspan: For now Google has had no input into how Google Alert should work, other than providing the special APIs key and initiating discussions over a formal business relationship. I’m talking with various people inside Google about how this relationship will develop and it is taking some time – until the discussions are concluded the premium service will be on hold. I’m hoping we can agree on a business model that allows both Google Alert and Google to make money from a premium service, while keeping the basic service free.

Traffick: It’s interesting to see Google’s reaction to your work. Many people had the impression that Google wouldn’t accommodate developers as they have with you. Do you think they see the API tool as a competitive advantage over other search engines and don’t want to advertise what they might allow some developers to do?

Greenspan: The impression I get is somewhat different – that Google released the Web APIs to see what would happen, without a specific idea of how they would develop or be used. Google Alert is apparently the heaviest user of the APIs, so Google has an interest in encouraging its growth to help nurture a community of Google-based applications.

Traffick: What kind of new features can users expect?

Greenspan: Some of the features envisioned for the premium version:

  • Track more different searches (currently limited to 5)
  • Track more results per search (currently limited to 50)
  • Perform searches more frequently (currently limited to daily)
  • Manage a distribution list for alert emails.
  • Track the rank of specific sites for a Google search.

All users now have customization options for their HTML and RSS feeds, so you may want to check that out too.

Traffick: Have you heard about SEO Count (formerly Google Count)? It uses the API to monitor rank and provide ranking reports similar to WebPosition Gold, and it is fee-based. The devloper behind it said Google asked him to change the name but has so far allowed him to charge for this service that uses the API.

Greenspan: I hadn’t heard of it – thanks for the pointer. As mentioned before, rank tracking is a feature I’m planning to add as part of the premium service of Google Alert, but there’s a technical issue I’m waiting to hear about from Google first.

I’m actually surprised about what that service is doing – I guess if it gets big enough Google will start wanting their cut but are happy to let the experiment run in the meantime. I consciously chose not to take that “leap and hope” attitude with Google Alert, since I wanted to respect Google’s API terms. I also don’t want to be charging people for a service before I can guarantee its continuity and scalability, and I can’t do that while the Google Web APIs is in beta and no commercial agreement with Google has been made.

Traffick: Thanks for your time Gideon. We’ll keep checking in with you, as the Google Web API and Google Alert evolve together.

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