Google advertises its alerts as a way to “monitor the web for interesting new content.” To use them, you simply identify any word, phrase, name, or topic to follow; then the tech firm crawls the Internet looking for mentions, and delivers every new appearance of that term by e-mail. You can restrict the results by language and region, and choose among frequencies for how often you receive the notices (multiple times a day, in real time, or in digest form once a day or once a week) and also among sources (news, blogs, videos, or any Web site at all).
Most of my alerts for the book produced frequent, if unremarkable, results. “Harper Lee,” for instance, turned up mentions of the novelist that were occasionally useful—if someone had posted memories of her to a blog or if an auction house was selling a collection of her letters—but were more often a useless deluge of all the babies, dogs, and cats named in her honor. “Willie Maxwell,” however—the name of a preacher whose life Lee had researched and tried to turn into a true-crime book in the years after “To Kill a Mockingbird”—was another story. Decades ago, Maxwell took out life-insurance policies on his family members (five of whom he was accused of murdering), using several different names, among them Will, Willie, William, W.J., and W. M. Maxwell. Only one Google Alert reliably returned results: “Willie Maxwell,” a name that began appearing in my in-box with some regularity.
Every few weeks, I’d check my e-mail and find that Willie Maxwell was back in the news. A Danish songwriter was suing him for copyright infringement. Multiple outlets reported that police caught him drag racing while drunk on the Gowanus Expressway. He was arrested for allegedly assaulting three employees of the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas. His Hollywood Hills landlords sued him for nearly two hundred thousand dollars in damage to their house. Last fall, he was indicted for conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine, and was released on bond after pleading not guilty. About a month later, he was arrested at Newark Liberty International Airport for an unrelated outstanding warrant.
My Willie Maxwell had been murdered by a vigilante during the summer of 1977, and, despite rumors that he was still haunting three counties in Alabama, he plainly had nothing to do with this Willie Maxwell. Willie Junior Maxwell II is the legal name of the rapper better known as Fetty Wap, whose musical career took off around the time that I started tracking the Reverend Maxwell. The year that I began writing, Fetty Wap became the first artist to have four songs simultaneously on the Billboard Top Ten for rap. “Trap Queen,” “Again,” “My Way,” and “679” were all songs of the summer, and Fetty Wap quickly became the star of my in-box.
If you set a Google Alert for “hot-dog cannon,” then chances are it works exactly as intended: infrequently delighting you with news about launchers designed to hurl hot dogs great distances. Broader terms, however, present a problem, especially when Boolean search isn’t an option: if ANDs, ORs, or NOTs might exclude the exact results you’re looking for, you end up suffering through the semi-relevant and not-at-all relevant in the hopes that, someday, the alert will turn up something actually relevant. My colleague Patrick Radden Keefe found that one of his alerts for his nonfiction book “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” was especially troublesome, not because people didn’t cover the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) and the “disappeared” enough but because he’d routinely receive e-mails like one that notified him of an article in the New York Post, titled “Real estate industry confidence skyrockets as commercial deals rebound,” which included one Ira Schuman saying, “The panic has disappeared.”