Posted by Ryan Sullivan, Associate Account Manager (Natural Search)
Did you hear the tweet about the duck that walked into a bar? If that sounds funny to you, you may be surprised to know that in the past month, nearly 30 Twitter users have told this joke in one form or another. Twitter has become enormously popular, reaching 6 million U.S. visitors each month (according to Quantcast), and many wonder if its soaring popularity represents the future of Internet search.
As it stands today, the Twitter search feature leaves much to be desired, but it is a great way to monitor current events and topical trends from the fingers of the human conscious. When major news stories break – and sometimes even break on Twitter – you can see the near immediate reaction from the microblog scene, and often have to refresh your search results several times to stay current with the latest tweets.
While it’s true that a remarkable amount of information can be found within a tweet (URLs to similar topics, real-time commentary, and relating facts), how well will Twitter scale? And, how practical would the results of a Twitter-like search engine really be?
Comparison shopping and deal sites are a critical part of e-commerce. People love a good deal, and millions of searchers routinely check deal and coupon sites like Slickdeals.net to save money and feed the need to consume. With a real-time search engine like Twitter, news of a sale or special offer can explode in a matter of minutes, and the comments will certainly contain several key pieces of information shoppers need to influence their decision to buy.
Peer product reviews play a huge part in influencing a purchase, and Twitter-like search would be a more immediate and accessible medium for critical product information. Everything from the quality, availability, and price of the product would be exposed in “micro-reviews”, which might increase a consumer’s inclination to purchase the product immediately.
Accuracy and integrity of the information
People often question the integrity of Wikipedia content and many academic institutions ban it as a citable information source outright. The question of information integrity is a dilemma Wikipedia shares with any user generated content site. That’s why the use of relevant hyperlinks is still a paramount way of scoring the quality of information. A Twitter-like search engine would be a real-time, minimally filtered, organized and/or censored version of Wikipedia.
Establishing authority and relevance
Let’s suppose that this is an ideal world and all the information that comes through Twitter is based on truth. How do you grade the value and quality of each user’s contribution and still keep the information in real time? User authority could be established over time based on a system of votes of confidence, but that would create an environment where the user – NOT the information – defines quality and relevance.
This could succeed. It makes sense to trust the World Health Organization when it comes to world heath information, but I don’t believe Larry the Cable Guy is the authority for all things related to health inspection. In this case, both may be highly rated for their area of expertise, but news about the re-release of Larry’s “hit” movie could easily rise to the top of a search for “health” because it’s timely and from an authority user.
Ok, so maybe we don’t just go on a user’s authority. Maybe we allow people to vote on comments, Digg style. That way, when someone queries the real-time search engine, they find the most popular tweets first. This creates two new problems: people tend to vote up funny or humorous comments, and popular topics will linger in the results. Over time (meaning a day or two), the popular tweets would continually build up and fill the top results, moving the results outside the window of real time, and becoming more like the search we know today.
This paradox highlights an inherent problem with a true real-time search engine. Information needs time to grow in authority – much like the process of building natural content links – and real-time search results can only be snapshots of that moment in search history, soon to be bumped off by the next batch of tweets.
So where is search going?
While Twitter may not be the be-all and end-all “Google killer,” social media sites will certainly play an increasing role in search and search marketing. We can already see examples of this with YouTube videos being included in search results. Over time, more of the social Web will become exposed to those searching on the major search engines, but these results will likely be supplemental or nestled within the traditional search content.
This could mean that the search results page will be a vertical aggregator of information – pulling pieces from authority sites related to the query, social media platforms, and traditional search properties. One great example of this evolution in action is the Ask.com results for high-volume queries like “U2”. The first listing is pieced together from several information sources, and the right side of the page lists quick links to the Wikipedia page, songs, and pictures. The true natural listings appear lower on the page and are just one piece of the whole U2 query result.
Contrast this with the Google results, where the entire page is natural listings with a few video and blog links thrown in. Both engines are working toward the integration of Twitter-like information into the search results, but from different ends. At some point, they should reach a middle ground where the traditional natural listings and the social media listings are shown side by side.
Long story short
Twitter may draw out new questions relating to the future of search, but it shouldn’t be seen as a challenge to the current search practice. In fact, the prospect of Twitter being part of the search result stew only reenergizes the need for quality, traditional search a la Google. Twitter will certainly be part of the results we know and love, but Web pages that have built up a deep network of links and authority will be right there with it.