Social Media

8 Google Tools for Brainstorming

It’s not easy to come up with fresh ideas all the time. Beyond the books, you read and the people you meet, you need other ways to brainstorm new ideas (and keep track of them) over time. There are a lot of smart people at Google that come up with great ideas all the time.

Some of Google’s best ideas are found in the FREE products they offer – products I use every day to help me stay on top of what’s going on around topics I care about and to keep a steady supply of fresh ideas on hand. Here are 8 Google tools I use for brainstorming:

1. Google Trends

I love Google Trends. Google Trends shows changes in search volume, often in relation to news stories, over time. How can this help you come up with story hooks? Well, would you be surprised to know that searches for “public relations” have gradually declined since 2004 and are at some of the lowest levels since then? Would you be surprised to learn that more people searched “public relations” in New York City than in any other city in the U.S.? Probably not, it’s the PR capital of the world. I bet you would be surprised to learn that more people in Miami searched “public relations” than in Los Angeles.

Using Google Trends for historical search volume data is pretty boring though, right? Well, the homepage of Google Trends features “Hot Topics” (a new feature) and “Hot Searches”. As I write this, “Masters”, “Kelly Clarkson”, “Matt Lauer”, and “Government Shutdown” are some of the topics we seem to care most about right now.

In what ways can you use Google Trends to add some interesting tidbits like this to your copy? If you want to see a cool visual, search “social media” on Google Trends – it’s a hockey stick graph.

Bonus Tip: you can use Twitter Trends in a similar way… but this is a post about Google tools.

2. Google Alerts

You probably use Google Alerts already – but are you using it to collect ideas? Google Alerts lets you put your Google searches on auto-pilot, delivering search results to your inbox (or RSS reader) based on your preferences. You pick how broad you want Google to search and what frequency you would like it to deliver your search results. As an example, I use Google Alerts for “public relations” and “journalism” to keep tabs on the day’s news in these areas. I also monitor our brand names, such as “journalistics” or “Jeremy porter”, to see what people are talking about. Once you set up your own alerts, you’ll be surprised how much you were missing before.

I’m sure a lot of you use Google Alerts to keep tabs on news. Google Alerts must have killed a good chunk of the clipping service market because that used to be the only way to monitor the news. In the case of Google Alerts, you can monitor what’s being said about any search term across the Web.

Bonus Tip: I have a comprehensive search set up for “Jeremy porter” to alert me “as it happens” via email. I suggest you do this for yourself, but also for any of the people you work with who are in the public eye. If it hits the Web, Google will know about it first.

3. Google Reader

I still can’t believe how many people don’t use an RSS reader. A lot of them prefer to read things on paper or clutter their email inboxes with dozens of HTML email newsletters. It’s just not as practical as an RSS reader. And one of the easiest-to-use RSS readers is Google Reader. But how can an RSS reader help you come up with fresh ideas? For starters, you can create clipping folders for the topics you’re interested in. For those of you that used to keep actual folders as paper clipping or reference files, it’s the same concept. For example, I have folders set up for “stats”, where I have RSS feeds for things like eMarketer, Forrester Research’s blog, MarketingCharts, and other outlets that frequently share stats. I have folders set up for “PR blogs” “journalism blogs” and so on.

You can also use Google Reader as a free social media monitoring tool (if you don’t have the budget for a more sophisticated option). I pull RSS feeds from Google Alerts, Twitter Search, free social media search services, and some other top-secret sources into separate folders for various projects I’m working on. Anytime I need to take a pulse on what’s going on in one of those areas, I open the folder in the reader. I do this each morning for some of the projects I’m working on. It’s not pretty and you can’t run reports on it, but it serves its purpose.

As far as brainstorming goes, if I’m stuck on what topic to write about (or I want to make sure somebody hasn’t already written about my topic too much recently), I’ll scan my collections in Google Reader. Not sure which blogs to monitor in your reader? Use Google Blog Search to find them, another Google Tool that belongs on this list.

4. Google Docs

Once you start using all these different Google tools, you’re going to come up with a lot of new ideas. You need to capture all those ideas in a place you can access from anywhere. I used to use Google Docs for this, so I’ll put it on this list. I simply created a Google Docs spreadsheet with the headings “topic ideas”, “notes”, “additional resources” (things like links or interview sources), and the date. You can also create a separate Google Doc for each topic you’re saving notes on. While Google Docs is great for note-taking, it’s not what it’s built for. I’ve since switched my note-taking over to Evernote. In both instances, you can keep your notes in one place and make them searchable – it is easier to find what you’re looking for.

5. Google Images

I always try to include a visual with my blog posts that pull people in. The problem is, I often have a hard time coming up with image ideas. Once I know what type of image I’m looking for, I’ll search Creative Commons content on Flickr for ideas. If I’m strapped for time, I’ve rarely been let down by iStockphoto for simple imagery. I notice a lot of my fellow bloggers use Photobucket – I’m sure either would work. The point here is that Google Images lets you limit Google searches to images, which can help you brainstorm ideas for images using keywords. For example, for this post, I searched Google Images for “creativity” first and got some ideas. While a fish inside a lightbulb would have been eye-catching, I’m a fan of do-it-yourself logo mashups for this type of post.

6. Google Scholar

Google Scholar limits your searches to scholarly literature. If you’re doing research for a book or white paper, or a more in-depth blog post, Google Scholar could be a good starting point. For example, if you were writing about how to protect copyright on the Internet, this would be a good place to start (if you just laughed at that example, you’re a nerd like me).

7. Google Books

You could go to the library, get a 100lbs stack of books, thumb through them all, and find some interesting facts to include in your next article… or you could search in a couple of seconds on Google Books. There are a lot of complete books (the older the book, the better your chances) on Google Books, but there are a lot of newer books you can search for excerpts of. Google Books isn’t at the top of my list for research and brainstorming tools, but it belongs on the list for certain types of brainstorming.

As a side note, how cool is it that you can search the text of books on the Internet? With all this innovation out there, it’s easy to take things for granted. I can remember having to use the Dewey Decimal System to look for books in high school – we’ve come a long way in a short time.

8. Google Zeitgeist

Google’s Zeitgeist is like a yearbook for Web searches. Each year Google shares the top searches for the year, including the fastest-rising searches (and fastest-falling). You can browse Google’s data visualizations across categories, like people, sports, news, and entertainment, as well as look at data specific to the U.S. or across the globe. So what? This data is an incredible snapshot of what’s popular in culture today. It should give you a couple of ideas for trends to tie into. How many Justin Bieber-related memes did you see last year? I’ll leave the creativity up to you, but keep your eye on the Zeitgeist for all things popular.

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