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June 11, 2009

Building a Real-Time Social Search Engine: Why Google Should Buy Twitter

Over the last 15 months, I have been analyzing both Twitter (feeds and search), and the Google “real-time” Search Options feature for Web Search (many months before release, a Search Options search box could be configured by modifying the URL with its date-based variable).  During this time, I have come to the following three conclusions about the prospects of real-time social search engines:  1) The reality of the robust real-time search concept is much closer than we think; 2) real-time search results have a number of common uses, and are highly preferable over “anytime” search for a wide variety of search tasks; 3) the best way for real-time social search to come to full fruition is for Google to acquire Twitter, and add a social network layer to its crawler-based real-time results.

The prospect of real-time social-search is that it would fill in major gap in the search results, mainly in a shift that might be best described as what is the best result right now, as opposed to what is the best result over time. It’s not necessarily a question of which one is better than the other, but more about which one is more suitable for a particular query and/or search intention. The likely best answer is that the two would complement each other enough to provide a more complete real-time search innovation.

How Twitter’s network can enhance Google’s real-time crawler-based search results
Providing a historical answer (what is the “best” result over all network Web documents produced any time) is what Google and the other major crawler-based engines excel at, though of course it’s not always perfect.  While Google has produced its blog engine, and other results like Google News and Hot Trends  to keep the overall results fresher, its recently updated “Search Options” featuring Web crawls from the last day, week and month have added an important dimension to its results.   Even within the daily or weekly real-time Google crawl, there can still be a lot of noise, and this is where Twitter could come in to add social relevancy to the mix. Both Google’s Search Options and Twitter have proven to be indispensible tools for finding new and useful information, and together they would create a layer to the search experience not possessed by any one engine.

The quality of the real-time network-search experience hinges on keeping out spam – this could be a problem for Twitter, and Google may have the solution
Part of the reason that Twitter Search is useful now is because there is sparse presence of spam in its results.  In terms of being spam-free, this may be Twitter’s Golden Age; at least as far as hash tag search is concerned.  But history shows us that as serious spammers find a new hole, in this case finding out about the reach of hash tags, URLs, keywords and other triggers, we should expect a lot more noise in those streams to the point that it may ruin relevancy.  I’ve personally been seeing more spam on Twitter in the last few weeks than in the prior 15 months of activity.

In the game of real-time search, controlling spam and assessing authority and trust becomes more important.  Google has excelled in getting spam out of the results to increase relevance, and this is where they would be a great partner with Twitter in terms of keeping their real-time results clean.  Spamming in Twitter is only going to get worse unless something drastic is done to combat it (though it is worth noting that Google also has a human search quality review team of thousands — this may make them the first real human-powered social search engine, but in a different way).

Twitter’s data is also not currently being put to its best use in the current iteration of Twitter Search, and other third-party engines are starting to get more creative in the way the data is being presented. One Riot is one particular engine doing innovative things with Twitter search.

Google Search Options and Twitter search represent the two halves required for the whole success of real-time social search.  Google has the crawler, and algorithmic sense to return a useful result.  Twitter on the other hand, has the audience and data that could enable the first true social layer to crawler based search, where trusted users, much like trusted Web sites and links, are moving relevancy in real-time.

Rob Garner is strategy director for digital marketing company iCrossing and writes for Great Finds, the iCrossing blog. Contact him via email at,and follow him on Twitter at