Google features such as web search, image search, and Google's news archives can be used by anyone, but other features are either more effective with a Google account or can only be accessed through a Google account. Fortunately, a Google account is totally free and easy to sign up for.
Quick, Easy and Free: Signing up for a Google Account
Signing up for a Google account is so easy you may have already done it. If you have a Gmail address or have used iGoogle, Google Groups, Picasa, or Web History, you already have a Google account. If you haven't, you'll need to create your free account. Just visit the main page at google.com. In the top right-hand corner of the screen will be the option "Sign In." Clicking on that takes you to Google's sign-in page, which includes a small blue box on the far right of the screen which lets you create your own account.
After you provide an e-mail address and password, you may be asked to confirm your account by a phone call or text message. During daylight hours in your time zone, Google will send an automated telephone call with a code to complete your sign-up. Make sure you have your phone with you! I gave Google my landline number and received my call within seconds.
Using Google Reader
Once you have your Google account set up, you'll be taken to your main page. Reader and Alerts are two of the many applications listed under the heading "My Products." Google Reader lets you keep up to date with different websites, blogs and news in one easy spot. Google Reader is much easier to manage than an e-mail inbox and it's certainly better than checking out individual websites, one by one, for updates. Reader lets you quickly scroll through your different subscriptions, as well as the headlines and articles in each subscription.
But how do you get these subscriptions? You can visit your favorite websites or blogs and look for the RSS feed symbol (an orange box with a white dot and two white curves over top of it). Clicking on the symbol lets you add the site or blog to your Google Reader.
Another method is to go into your Google Reader and look in the upper left-hand corner. You will see a small, dark blue box with a plus sign in it beside the words "Add a subscription." Clicking on it lets you choose search terms, which brings up a list of suggested websites and blogs you can subscribe to. Make your search broad ("genealogy") or narrow it down ("New Mexico genealogy"), but add as many feeds as you like. If you end up finding certain feeds aren't informative or useful, it's easy to unsubscribe from them. Subscriptions are free, although some content on some feeds may be only available for paying customers.
Using Google Alerts
Google Alerts give you a heads-up whenever your search terms appear on the web, whether as part of a discussion, blog, news or update. It's a great way to have Google's powerful search engine constantly working for you even when you're not at the computer.
Set up alerts for specific names or surnames you are following; you can either leave it broad if the surname is uncommon or modify a common name with a location or other information ("Lawrence Day" Oklahoma, for example.) Alerts can be set for any search term, including places, occupations, associations, etc., so be creative!
I look at Alerts as a big net which captures a few valuable clues, but also brings in lots of information I don't need. This is where your Google Reader comes in handy. When you set up an alert (by clicking on Google Alert on your Google account homepage), not only do you choose your search terms, but you also choose where your alerts are delivered. At the option "Deliver To," the default option is sending alerts to your e-mail address. Do not choose this. Your e-mail inbox will be flooded with alerts and after a while it will be tempting to just ignore them.
Instead, click on the menu beside "Deliver to" and choose the option "feed." Now all of your alerts will have their own subscription feed in your Google Reader. You can skim through your subscriptions to see if there are any alerts, and then you can skim through the alerts to see if anything is relevant to your research. Because it is being delivered by feed, Google will also constantly update your alerts.
What Else Can Google Do?
Google products have endless features; once you're comfortable using Google Reader, for example, you can set up a "sharing page" to highlight relevant genealogy news or articles, either with genealogy buddies, your local historical association, or with family members who want to keep up to date with what you've been researching.
And as you'll see, Google Reader and Alerts are only two of the many products on your Google Account page. It's worth the time to see what each product can do for you; from now on, when you go to that trusty white Google home page, go up to the upper right hand corner and click on "Sign In" or on "Settings" (you'll want "Google Account Settings") and make sure that you are getting more out of your search engine experience.