Whether you’re an individual, brand, or company, it’s good to know when people are talking about you. It’s even better to know what they’re saying.

The last thing you want is to find out that there’s a firestorm of negativity about your latest post, product, or brand when a forest of media microphones are thrust in your face and the media trucks are camping out just off your property. Instead, you want to be in tune with what people are thinking and saying, and you want to be able to enter the conversation with your perspective.

Here are 8 quick, simple, free tools for listening online:

  1. Best and easiest: Google Alerts
    Set up an alert. Set it to be emailed to you at the frequency of your choice. Wait for the messages to hit your inbox. Could it possibly be simpler?

  2. Most immediate and fun: Twitter search via RSS
    Enter your search items. Grab the RSS feed. Save it in your RSS Reader (Google Reader, or any offline reader). Watch the items get pushed to you every 15 minutes – or however often your reader updates.

  3. Web 2.0 old-skool: Technorati
    The fact is, Technorati is not what it once was. But it can still be a useful tool to electronically eavesdrop on what millions of bloggers are blathering about. Go, search, subscribe to the RSS feed. Simple.

  4. Comment search: backtype
    Pretty much the same as above, except this search engine focuses on what opinionated people – the 5-10% who comment on blog posts – are saying. Visit, enter your search terms, and get email alerts.

  5. Reviews, etc.: Omgili
    This can be particularly helpful if you’re in packaged goods or electronics and you want to check out how you’re being reviewed (example: Panasonic TV). But you can just visit the home page for generic search and cast a wider net.

  6. Really old school: Google, Yahoo!, perhaps Live
    Maybe, if you want to know what people are saying about you, you should just search the web. What a thought! Alas, you actually have to do it yourself, although you can set up some automated searches too … but it’s a good idea to do it weekly or so.

  7. Social media ear to the ground: Facebook, MySpace, Friendfeed, etc.
    More and more people are joining social networks, meaning a lot of the web’s conversation happens behind closed doors. But you can get in … perhaps with your own profile, perhaps just with judicious searching, perhaps by joining conversations … and hear what’s going on that’s important to you.

  8. Yes, discussion boards still exist: BoardTracker
    Online discussion boards still exist, despite their low profile in the web2.0 era. Even though they’re one of the oldest forms of online community, they are in some cases still growing. BoardTracker is a good way to search these often thinly sliced vertical niche sites. And yes, you can set up alerts to come to you,

So … that’s 8 ways of listening to your clients and your community that won’t cost you a dime, and in most cases not even much time.