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Google spreads into news alerts

The company launches a test service that notifies people of breaking news via e-mail, bringing it into greater competition with online publishers.

Google is testing a service that notifies people of breaking news via e-mail, bringing it into greater competition with online publishers.

On Wednesday, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company introduced a test, or beta, version of Google News Alerts, an e-mail notification system for news topics such as sports, medicine and politics. Developed in Google's test lab, the service complements the company's specialty index for news around the Web, which debuted last fall and has drawn an audience of about 2.5 million monthly, according to research estimates.

The idea of offering news alerts is not a new one for Web publishers. For Google, though, it could inspire loyalty in surfers by giving them one more reason to visit. The move is likely to be eyed closely by Web portals and publishers, which are already worried that visitors will go straight to Google for news rather than to their own pages.

News alerts have even become a commodity for some online companies. CNN.com, Yahoo, New York Times Digital and others have offered such alerts for years, but recently New York Times Digital started to charge annual fees for its service. Yahoo also updated its own index for more real-time results, and it contracted news specialist Moreover.

Google's trial is an example of the company's transformation from search expert to all-around Internet helper.

In recent years, the company has been a virtual Pied Piper of search, attracting millions of Web surfers at the expense of portals such as Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN. At the same time, it has built out an array of services to complement Web search, including indices for online shopping, catalogs, newsgroups and breaking news. In addition, it bought Web log technology from Pyra Labs earlier this year, and released a browser toolbar that lets people block pop-up advertisements.

Google's additions and growing popularity have caused Yahoo and MSN to retaliate. To compete against Google, its partner, Yahoo bought algorithmic search company Inktomi earlier this year, and it recently announced intentions to buy commercial search company Overture Services. Microsoft has also started building an improved search index that it plans to integrate with desktop software.

People can subscribe to the test Google News Alerts by providing keywords that are related to stories that they would like to receive and their e-mail address at the sign-up page. People can limit their alerts by source and choose to receive them once a day or continuously, as Google crawls the Web. There is a limit of 50 keywords per e-mail address.

The test launch comes a couple of weeks after Google refined its daily news search tools. It now allows visitors to scour headlines by date, location, exact phrases or publication. People can use it retrieve articles from more than 4,500 news outlets on the Web.

Last week, Google introduced a sister site in India that is available in four major Indian languages, as well as in English.