Bewitched by Twitter

The seemingly endless media and industry fawning over Twitter has led to the widespread debate over the merits of real-time search and the future of the search industry. Yes, Twitter is an amazing service that allows people to share their thoughts, however poignant, painful or pointless, about events as they happen. The hype, however, is reaching a fever pitch only exacerbated by Google acquisition rumors. With that in mind, it’s time to try to determine exactly where this wonderful new medium belongs in the world of search.

It has been suggested that Google is looking to acquire Twitter because it views it as a threat. That line of thinking is completely insane because Google isn’t going anywhere. The company is still the top dog in terms of financial stability, commitment to innovation and business strategy. Depending on what research firm you ask, Google owns roughly 80 percent of the search engine market and is still gobbling up market share. In terms of users, Twitter doesn’t even match Facebook’s potential as a rival. Twitter is simply not a threat to Google; in fact, the search giant could simply consume the Twitter API. The good news is that it probably won’t because Twitter is a piece of the greater problem Google is looking to solve.

There’s no question that the Web is getting crowded with content. The user-generated era is spawning such a huge amount of data that it’s nearly impossible to find anything with traditional keyword-based search anymore. The ideal search should be personalized and capable of referencing search history, relevance, social bookmarking, micro-blogging and contextual relevance with each search. Google has been working on this semantic Web model for a while because it will theoretically allow search engines to tell you what you’re looking for before you try to find it. As Twitter has created an online collective consciousness on virtually any topic, it makes sense that as Google labors toward its Web 3.0 ambition to organize all of the world’s data it would be interested in this new data stream. Real-time search is the catalyst to this goal, a cultural paradigm shift, but data without context is useless, and this is where Google excels.

Searching real-time content in its current state finds millions of stream-of-consciousness rants and blurbs that are largely irrelevant in their raw data format. Though given the right context on the aggregated whole based on desired filters, it could provide real-time opinions, sentiment and behavioral data. If Google finds a way to track it back to the Web search, it could be one of the aspects that help the semantic prediction model.

As online utilities, tools and content are created daily, search must adapt as well. Many people seem to think that Twitter will become the de facto medium of the common voice. This isn’t true. How does a 140-character opinion replace a full-length article on Wikipedia, a 30-second video spot, a corporate site or even financial or stock information? Humans interact with different channels because of varied contextual factors; relying on Twitter as the be-all and end-all simply isn’t realistic.

Twitter is a single service, not the final piece of the puzzle for Google as an increasing number of companies publish real-time, user-generated content. A comprehensive real-time search engine would need to monitor a host of user-generated content from sites including Twitter, FriendFeed, Plaxo, Loopt, Brightkite, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace as a baseline. There are companies already doing this, but it’s still data with no context for the most part. These companies are currently charging for their services, but it’s only a matter of time until someone like Google taps into this and makes it available for free.

Another fact that has flown under the radar is that Google has technically already entered the micro-blogging space via Latitude. The service combines geographic data with micro-blogging and taps into the company’s existing g-mail and Android platform user base as well as its deal with Apple’s iPhone. More than anything, this shows Google understands that context is king and will be the future of search.

Initiatives like micro-blogging, mobile and social media are helping companies get closer to the user experience to provide users with information when they need it most. Innovation is the key to success and whoever figures out how to combine social data with contextual information will have an opportunity to fundamentally alter the search engine landscape.
 
As Twitter’s growth explodes, speculation has intensified about whether the service can be profitable. Twitter’s online traffic, excluding cell phones, surged to nearly 9.8 million unique visitors in February from 6.1 million in January, according to comScore.

In pursuit of revenue, Twitter faces the same challenge that has dogged social-networking platforms like Facebook. If advertisers can tap into its network free of charge, why would they pay the company to do so?

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said the San Francisco startup is watching the outside initiatives closely as it prepares to launch its own fee-based services this year, but doesn’t view them as competition. “We want to work with those companies that are already making an effort,” he said. Stone said Twitter recently hired a product manager to oversee the development of commercial accounts. The accounts would offer users more features in exchange for a fee, but Stone said Twitter hasn’t set a launch date, according to the wsj.com.

Two groups of people use Twitter’s search API: personal and commercial. Personal users employ it for fun, low hits, personal Web sites, little mashups that don’t make money. Commercial users try to monetize it, like those mashups that will charge for fee-based services, or listening platforms that monitor brands, sentiment and behavior on a mass scale. These companies would be happy to pay for the API use. Isn’t that simple? I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

Rob Gonda is director of digital strategy at Sapient. He can be reached at rgonda@sapient.com.



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