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Sorry Twitter, You Are Not a Search Engine

Written by David Harry   
Wednesday, 01 September 2010 13:24

Nothing to see here my SEO brethren

(Guest post from Marc Bitanga)

As anyone NOT living under a rock would know, there has been all sorts of hype around Twitter, and rightly so. Recently Danny Sullivan reported from Twitter’s Chirp conference that Twitter has reached 19 billion searches per month. Wow. Not bad! That’s a big number for a 3 year old company. Here are some staggering stats:

  • Twitter is processing over 50 million tweets/day
  • The 3 year old social network has over 100 million users
  • There are over 70,000 registered apps that use Twitter’s API
  • In 3 short years, they’ve reached over 10 billion tweets

So the figures are there to back up that Twitter is a game changer. But is it a Google killer?

As this information was published, there was quite a bit of oooh’s and ahh’s over this very large figure. With some suggesting that Twitter search could support a profitable pay per click advertising platform.

But we’ve got to ask. How good is Twitter as a search engine? Does it rival Google for information retrieval? Would a Twitter pay per click platform rival Google Adwords?

 

The Twitter Search Engine Test

19 billion searches per month is undoubtedly quite impressive. Especially when considering that figure outpaces both Yahoo & Bing combined. Since Twitter search is being compared to Google, I was curious to find out whether Twitter can rival Google as a search engine. And whether pay per click advertising is a viable way to monetize Twitter search.

I ran a few quick test queries to study Twitter’s search engine prowess.

A popular and profitable sector for Google is the travel & accommodation category. I used this as the basis for the test. Let’s Look for a Hotel in Seattle….

 

Search Query: “Seattle Hotels”

Twitter Search; Seattle Hotels

The 10 most recent results seemed to have some useful resources. However, the results lacked credibility. Here are some observations:

  • Twitter search retrieves results from anyone tweeting about the subject whether or not you are following the user profiles. Therefore the results haven’t been curated by your network of friends. The network that you follow is probably Twitter’s biggest strength and resource for personalization, but it isn’t being utilized in their search engine.
  • There’s no real algorithm to see here other than the most recent timeline. This can be easily gamed by spam accounts.
  • Another issue with Twitter’s search results is that if a tweet contains a link they are usually cloaked by shortened URLs. Viewing shortened URLs from your network of friends is fine. But viewing a list of shortened URLs from a list of unknown users can be iffy.

 

Search Query: “Seattle Marriott Hotel”

Twitter Search; Seattle Marriott Hotel

No search results for the search query. If Twitter is serious about attracting advertisers to a search based pay per click advertising platform they’ll have to be a reliable source for information. If the search engine doesn’t retrieve any results for the most basic of search queries, then it isn’t much of a resource.


Search Query: “Seattle Marriott”

Twitter Search; Seattle Marriot

 

The results were a grab bag of different types of tweets.

  • There were some foursquare results from people checking into a Marriott location.
  • Some results were for job postings for the local hotel.

But let’s break it down further:

  • Twitter contains quite a bit of noise. Such as foursquare tweets that aren’t really helpful to a random person searching.
  • Twitter search doesn’t attempt to decipher the user’s search intent. From a logical perspective, a person searching for “Seattle Marriott” is likely looking for accommodations, not a job.

 

Search Query: “Seattle”

Twitter Search; Seattle

I tried a much broader search query more out of curiosity than anything else. Again, not the most helpful search results.


Overall Findings

And the result? Google doesn’t have anything to worry about for the time being. Twitter is not a search engine.

I ran a several more search queries with the mindset of a traveler, both from a national and local perspective. I found the experience to be hit or miss. If you try to use Twitter in the same manner as you use Google, Bing or Yahoo you will likely be disappointed.

Here is why:

  • Twitter search doesn’t have an infinite index. You are limited to the messages that people broadcast and the links they share. As a result there are gaping holes when performing some basic search queries.
  • It’s not reliable. Since the twitter index contains gaps, it’s not a reliable source of information. This makes you think twice before using it for practical purposes.
  • It doesn’t have a very sophisticated algorithm, which leaves it open to spam. Here is what we know about Twitter’s search algorithm:
    • Search queries will typically yield a set of results based on the most recent timelines.
    • Twitter will promote the most popular tweets (messages that have been retweeted several times), even if it is a few days old.
  • The search engine doesn’t analyze the intent of the person searching. This results in a broad spectrum of search results for certain queries.
  • Twitter search has a duplicate content problem. If you happen to search for a phrase that’s contained in several retweets, Twitter will show those messages in the search results.
  • The search results lack credibility. Two factors add to this credibility issue.
    • Spam accounts – Accounts with no avatar or with names that look suspicious.
    • Cloaked URLs – URL shorteners hide the real URL. This isn’t an issue if you trust the person sending the message, but when presented with a link from an unknown user you might think twice before clicking it.
  • The Twitter index contains too much noise. Conversational tweets between users also occasionally appear in search results.

Twitter’s search function doesn’t fit the mold of a search engine. It’s quite simply a site search feature for an extremely popular social network. Does this mean that the search engine doesn’t have any value? Twitter search does serve a purpose. It’s an excellent source for finding information for real-time trending topics such as:

  • The latest celebrity or pop culture news – The death of Michael Jackson
  • Commentary related to current events – 2009 Iranian protesters
  • Natural disasters – Recent California earth quakes

Twitter has mentioned it has no plans to have a comprehensive index. They will likely focus on improving the relevancy of real-time tweets.

As for whether Twitter can monetize the use of their search engine, without access to keyword research data it’s difficult to tell user behavior and user expectations from Twitter search. However based on these findings, Twitter has a bit of work to do to improve the relevance of their search engine before it can be considered a Google killer.


Marc Bitanga
About the Autor;
Marc Bitanga is the SEO Manager for EA Sports. Marc has managed SEO and PPC campaigns for agencies as well as in-house teams. His passion for search began over 10 years ago when Google Search Appliance was first released. Although search marketing is his main focus, he’s also active in web analytics, conversion optimization & social media. Read more from Marc on his online marketing blog.

Information Sources:

 

Comments  

 
0 # bill fischer 2010-09-01 14:11
Activity stream data found in services like Twitter, Facebook, and Google Buzz, tends to be unstructured and limited. Hence, most of the social search engines simply use a "key word" and "recency" approach to delivering search results. And they don't bother to interpret user intent.

We have found that by making use of semantic processing to aid our relevancy algorithms and other natural language interpretive tools to interrogate and verify data plus identifying and appending relevant meta-data (where is the tweeter, when was it tweeted, are there any other supporting documents, what else have they tweeted) that we can deliver relevant, actionable search results. Here's an example of how we use those tools in the employment vertical http://bit.ly/czcw8M

cheers,
@williamfischer
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0 # Brett Pringle 2010-09-01 14:32
Glad someone else has also piped up and stating what should be obvious to folks in search. Social platforms search features are not the same as traditional search.

The mindsets are also different. Searching on twitter, i'm looking for things on Twitter, a tweet i missed, a person's twitter account. If i'm looking for a hotel, i'm going to use a search engine. The same applies to Facebook. 2 very distinct platforms and information i would say?

Perhaps someone should coin the term "social engine" instead?
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0 # Tamar Weinberg 2010-09-01 18:47
"Viewing shortened URLs from your network of friends is fine. But viewing a list of shortened URLs from a list of unknown users can be iffy."

Solution: Get the Greasemonkey TinyURL decoder script. Best thing ever.

Also - I agree that Twitter's search index is seriously lacking. A 7 day archive, which I believe they have now, is weak. If they fix that up, though, there's much potential.
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0 # Michael Martinez 2010-09-02 20:41
You can't say you understand search if you think Twitter is not a search tool.

Search is not about the Web. It's about content and that content may be located anywhere, on or off the Web.

Twitter is not a Web index, but it most certainly provides a powerful search interface and that is why it is used very heavily.

Could it be improved? Sure. But so could Google search. In fact, Twitter does a better job of searching Twitter content than Google does of searching Google content.
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0 # Christian Paul 2010-09-03 04:14
I believe that the real power of Twitter is how it can deliver real-time updates in specific situations. Think of the protests in Bangkok or Iran. I have read multiple accounts of people who used Twitter over other mediums to get the latest news, coordinate meeting spots, call for help and come to the aid of those in need of help. No other medium can provide this kind of service. Once all the marketeers move on to the next big thing, I really hope that Twitter sticks around for this purpose alone.
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