Commentary

Why Google Needs Twitter Search

Google's probably not buying Twitter, despite rumors last week that it might. Whether Google should do so depends on many issues, including the price and monetization potential. Yet it's increasingly clear that Google needs something like Twitter to fill a gaping hole in its search portfolio that didn't exist until Twitter exposed it.

The hole is real-time search or live search (lowercase, as opposed to Microsoft's Live Search). Google's index updates rapidly, but not fast enough. Right now, Google has a number of assets that vary by how useful they are for recent searches:

  • Google Trends: This tool, rather than a search engine, can take a day or so to update. And its utility lies in its information about queries rather than providing information in response to queries.

  • Google Search: Often updated within hours, it pulls even more recent content from Google News to stay relevant for breaking stories. The rest of the links for any given query are sometimes recent but often from different timeframes.

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  • Google News and Google Blog Search: These two are interrelated. Often blogs have opinions and information that aren't covered by major news sources. Yet just as often, a news story breaks and blogs then respond.

  • Google Hot Trends: This is as close to Twitter as Google gets right now, but it's often unintelligible. While researching this column, "capital of Iceland" was the No. 1 hot trend, but it wasn't clear whether this was because of travel interest, searches relating to the country's economy, or something else altogether. One of the supposedly relevant blog posts it brings up is from 2007.

    There's nothing from Google that perfectly addresses what's happening right now unless it's a breaking news story. Meanwhile, Twitter Search is training marketers and consumers that it's possible to search the content of live conversations. FriendFeed is another contender to watch here, as its beta release places even more emphasis on its live feed of users' activity from across the Web. Facebook, which is the most popular service for sharing live updates, has no way to search all the updates, and its Lexicon trend tool has limited functionality.

    So why does live search matter at all?

  • Marketers get immediate feedback. It's like a Bloomberg terminal for buzz. Just like with financial data, there's a lot of noise that comes out of it, but those alerts can give marketers an edge for responding when something pressing comes up.

  • Consumers can access immediate information. When I was at South by Southwest, I'd search Twitter for a venue or party name to see how the lines were. If the buzz was that it was a half hour or hour wait, I'd go somewhere else. I didn't care about what the venue was rated on Citysearch, and I didn't need driving directions -- I just needed immediate feedback, and Twitter Search had it.

  • It's candid. For better or worse, people are much less prone to censoring themselves when they're sharing what they're doing in the moment. When looking up the Kansas City Hyatt, there's someone who is "alone," "hungry," and "kinda sad." A glass of Apple & Eve pomegranate blueberry juice led to a good morning in Brooklyn. As for my beloved Sprinkles Cupcakes, I learned that a porn star spoils her pets with the specially made doggie cupcakes (lately she's been tweeting about cupcakes far more than porn). Whether you're a consumer or a marketer, this is all very, very real, and sometimes it's useful.

    At some point, Google will presumably want and need a live search component. That feature ties into news, local, mobile, and various other specialized search functions, and we're just starting to see compelling ways to mine and apply live search data.

    That doesn't mean Google will acquire Twitter anytime soon. There are other ways the relationship can develop, such as Google populating AdSense ad units with marketers' recent tweets. Startups will also try to beat Google at its own game, like Tweefind ranking Twitter posts by the influence of the tweeter. At some point, though, Google will need live search. When Google's ready, the question will be whether any scalable live search platform needs Google.

  • 5 comments about "Why Google Needs Twitter Search".
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    1. Oleg Rogynskyy from Nstein, April 7, 2009 at 1 p.m.

      Great thoughts David. This leads me to another one by Dan McCarthy, which is very complementary to your thinking:
      http://budurl.com/mccarthytwitter

      In that blog post Dan explores the paradigms of machine search (Google) vs. human search (Twitter).
      If I were to add to his thinking - I would plot a scale where one side would be completely automated machine search, on the other - completely manual human search. The winner would be the technology in between that merges both to provide BEST results.

      cheers-

      Oleg

    2. Tim Daly, April 7, 2009 at 1:18 p.m.

      I think the biggest consideration that Google needs to make is whether Twitter is a passing fad or a long-term proposition. I am not totally on board that this has legs yet. When someone like John McCain is an early adopter of such a technology, it does bring concern that it might be a fad.

    3. David Berkowitz from MRY, April 7, 2009 at 5:08 p.m.

      Not to go overboard with cliches, but I think this is one of those 'the monster's out of the box' ideas. Am I sold that Twitter itself is the future? No, it's way too early. It's like betting on SixDegrees or Friendster years ago as the future of US social networking. But to that point, Friendster's still here (overseas mainly) and the activity on social networks today is beyond what just about anyone predicted.

      Oleg, thanks for sharing Dan's thoughts as well.

    4. Marc Engelsman from Digital Brand Expressions, April 8, 2009 at 10:55 a.m.

      There is clearly room for both live and indexed searching and it does not need to be centralized in one search engine. Think people are smart enough to choose the resource that suits their need. For example, this morning NPR ran a story on Cheyenne Woods and it is already #6 on Google Hot Trends but there is little chatter on Twitter.

    5. Oleg Rogynskyy from Nstein, April 9, 2009 at 11:55 a.m.

      Thanks David. I would be glad to take this discussion further. Twitter - @OlegR

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