Earthquake in the Bay Area? Facebook Real-Time Search Starts to Look More Interesting

Although Twitter has until now owned real-time search results for news events, a minor (4.1) earthquake that hit Palo Alto and other parts of Silicon Valley today shows Facebook’s real-time search can also give you an interesting look at breaking news.

Just log in to Facebook and search for “earthquake” or “palo alto earthquake” or other terms. On the search results page, click on the “Posts by Everyone” option at the bottom of the left-hand navigation menu and you’ll see results from anyone on Facebook who has made their status updates publicly available. The volume of results on the page appears to be higher than before. This is probably due to Facebook’s new privacy interface, introduced last month, that encouraged more people to make their status updates public.

However, Twitter search still has the most useful features for tracking real-time news, like being able to save a search and subscribe via RSS to results. And the fact that most Twitter users default all of their tweets to be public probably means that the overall volume is higher. In our search on both services for “palo alto earthquake,” for example, you can see Facebooks’ results updating in real-time, while Twitter’s web site results appear as a counter that you need to click on in order to view. We can also see dozens of tweets in the time that we see only a few Facebook updates.

Facebook’s search, meanwhile, benefits from the many apps that let you import your tweets. That advantage is going to be two-way, shortly, as Facebook is also planning to let you publish your status updates to Twitter.

Also, the fact that you can sort Facebook search results by just your friends gives you more meaningful social context. In this case, you can quickly see which of your Facebook friends felt the Bay Area quake — generally, being able to sort by friends is a powerful feature for keeping track of loved ones affected by disasters, and it’s not something that Twitter offers. But there are other goods ways to get a focused view of tweets: one is seeing what people are saying on Twitter lists or third-party lists generated on services such as Tweetdeck and Seesmic; another is through location-based results on Google Maps or  other services.

In comparing the real-time results from the two sites in this case, there’s not a huge amount to conclude, other than that Facebook shows you more than it used to. Twitter is surely going to continue improving its search results — doing things like showing new results cascading down the page in real-time rather than showing them as a counter. Facebook, meanwhile, will probably continue to improve functionality, like being able to save searches.