Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
March 7, 2009 7:26 PM

Twitter Is Not Going After Facebook. Twitter Is Going After Google

There has been a lot of online speculation that Twitter is looking to cut into the massive online social networking population that Facebook continues to grow. If you spend enough time on Twitter, you might start realizing that their goals could be much grander.

With more and more people signing on to Twitter, and as it continues to get more attention in the media (both through news stories and as celebrities begin to embrace the channel as a way to connect to their fans and followers), the channel and communication is moving well beyond tweets like, "just ate a hoagie," and more into the role of problem solver.

What people are now searching for online is getting ever-more complex.

When search engines were first introduced online it was very common to see one word searches like "car", "sex" and "casino", but as the online population grows and as people become more sophisticated with their searches (recently, it was announced that the most common searches are - at minimum - three words), the search engines have not only been forced to improve their algorithms, but are still accused of not returning the optimal results. Over the years, many people have tried to create a human-powered search engine. Yahoo gave it a shot, so did About.com. It is an expensive and time intensive endeavour. More recently, Jason Calacanis has been working on his own version of a human-driven search engine called, Mahalo.

So where do you go to get the best search results?

Back in 2007, I Blogged about how Delicious had become my default search engine (you can read the Blog posting here: Why del.icio.us Is Becoming My Default Search Engine For Research). The thinking was that if someone found a piece of content and took the time to tag it and bookmark it, odds are it had already been vetted and could be considered much more reliable than anything a Google algorithm might return back. Recently, that habit has shifted. It has probably shifted for you too if you're on Twitter. Now, without thinking, I am finding myself asking my social circle on Twitter for information that was traditionally reserved for a search engine.

"Anyone know a good restaurant near Times Square?", "If you had to choose between a Dell and Lenova ultra-portable laptop, what would you choose?", "What's the fastest route from the Chicago airport to downtown?" and even, "does anyone know if there is any traffic in the downtown core?".

What we're seeing is super-fast responses (even people retweeting the question to their network if they do not have the answer). When someone asks for help on Twitter, people listen... and respond.

Without knowing it, Twitter is quickly becoming the best search engine out there (watch out Google!). It is powered by people you know (or are connected to) and it is full of smart people. Very smart people. On top of that, we are able to harness the infamous wisdom of crowds to get a response. There have been times where multiple people have provided pieces of the answer that together paints a perfect picture. There have even been debates that have lead to various answers that provide color and perspective.

Without knowing it, has Twitter created the ultimate search engine?

(this topic will be discussed in much more detail on an upcoming episode of the Podcast, Media Hacks).

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Mike Gero
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch - I tend to agree with your thoughts. Something I read in Slate earlier today, takes a different perspective - http://bit.ly/ahYJ - what do you think? To me, twitter is like search with emotion and, as you say, the real-time wisdom of the crowds

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Mitch,

    Twitter is AN ultimate search engine, but far from THE ultimate search engine. Google does much more than just provide links to relevant information, it tells us what is most relevant. Because relevance does not directly correlate with immediacy (the fact that people are talking about a subject on Twitter does not make it relevant, just timely) we can see Twitter is best for "What's happening right now" searches, while Google is best for "What is the most reliable data I need now" searches.

    Reply
  • Posted by carry metkowski
    Mitch Joel

    I haven't had this experience at all! As a matter of fact, its been quite the opposite. No one responds. No one, except a really nice Guy, Guy Kawasaki... I has helped me twice. But other than that, no one responds.

    Reply
  • Posted by RRG
    RRG

    yes, I see it as a real time searchable collective "thought engine"...

    Reply
  • Posted by Nicky Tillyer
    Mitch Joel

    I agree with RRG - it's real time, and more relevant than google to some of the things I'm looking for as people spread news.

    But also agree with Carry that I don't feel if i ask a question people will answer, I just don't have any clout yet - but I'm OK with that for now.

    I love that there is just so much here that i would never have found on Google alone that is relevant to what I need or want due to relevancy of my choice of follows.

    I'm so in love with Twitter....

    Reply
  • Posted by Stefan Holt
    Mitch Joel

    @Mitch,
    I think you're on to something with this post. Just within the past couple of weeks, I personally @stefanholt have used twitter to bid for creative work from the UK @247mediastudios , learn about a translation plugin for wordpress @JamisonKelly, and sought out a photographer in the greenville area @thebrandbuilder, not to mention following up a request by CNN news anchor Rick Sanchez for skype numbers @ricksanchezcnn.

    Some of these were the results of my own searches, others because I tweeted the question and some of my followers tweeted back, and some because twitter allows me to actively "search" or monitor what others were searching.

    Now we all know Google has a lock as the ultimate search tool but had it not been for twitter many of my "searches" would have landed me some gazillion pages deep on each term googled.

    Google is great but because of Twitter's direct response power and the credibility factor associated with those people you choose to follow. Twitter "searches" or tweets get instant feedback, instant credibility, and in some cases instant action.

    imho, the shift is happening
    google>twitter, facebook, etc>?

    the question is what's next?

    Reply
  • Posted by Adam Singer
    Mitch Joel

    I don't really agree with this - why? Google's algorithm is pretty darn good. Especially for research type stuff. And I know the front page results should be there - Twitter there's no trust or qualification factor. Google at least has an ecosystem of links. An interesting theory, but consider the fact that half the time Twitter and Twitter search can't even handle the load on their servers. Google search just plain works. Not saying Twitter doesn't rock, but I'm not sure they are in competition especially when you look at levels of use for both.

    Reply
  • Posted by Colin Fast
    Mitch Joel

    No.

    Sorry Mitch, but while Twitter might be "the ultimate search engine" for you or Brogan or Rubel or Gary V. -- people who have many followers that are desperate for recognition from their online heroes -- I don't think this is true for most Twitter users. Yes, I've thrown out the odd question and received some good responses. I've also thrown out questions and got none. And if you made me choose between Google and Twitter, it would be no contest.

    Reply
  • Posted by Rolando Peralta
    Mitch Joel

    I cannot find where is a past white paper about how users are distributing their time in internet, to share it here, and to be more than agree with Mitch, but I remember these numbers:
    Content (creating, commenting, etc): 45%
    Search: 5%
    Cheers,

    Reply
  • Posted by Richard
    Mitch Joel

    I think that there is a splintering in the tools available. Twitter is not going to take over Google, but it will become an additional tool you can use for information. So when trying to choose between a Dell and a Lenovo, you could ask on Twitter, but you'll probably google too and you may well get a great article on both laptops from someone respected in the profession.

    Google can give you the information instantaneously, with Twitter there will probably be a delay.

    So what will be interesting going forward is understanding which tool to use in which circumstance.

    In addition, as Twitter is a social tool, you're better off investing in it - helping other people - if you want to use it effectively. On the other hand this isn't directly the case with Google.

    Reply
  • Posted by Jay Moonah
    Mitch Joel

    It's an interesting idea, but I really think you're talking about three different kinds of tools for three different jobs:

    * Google/Yahoo/et al are best for finding either the really obvious (e.g. where's the main website(s) for a company, product, person, etc.) or the really obscure (where are all the pages that have my name, your name, and the word "douchebag" -- BTW, there are apparently 7 of them: http://tinyurl.com/cbvbb6 )

    * Searches of Delicious and sites like Digg are great for finding articles and other information sources that are about deeper aspects of the topic than Google. For example, my google.ca search for "advertising" brings up things like the Wikipedia definition of advertising and Advertising Standards Canada, whereas the same search on Delicious points first to the MIT Advertising Lab, the Power 150, some great advertising blogs -- things that go beyond the "what is advertising"-type stuff favored by Google.

    * Asking questions on Twitter or using Twitter Search will get you either nothing, or a lot of peoples opinions. Opinions are great, but they are certainly not the only kind of information that matters.

    Okay, well that's a HUGE oversimplification but hopefully it makes the point.

    I was also thinking what you say here is interesting too because it harkens back to the pre-Google days when you really had two kinds of searches -- text indexes (Alta Vista, HotBot, Lycos etc.) vs. the human-approved directories (the original version of Yahoo was probably the best ever.)

    There is definitely a place for human-expert and social driven searches, and I like the fact there are an increasing number of options.

    Reply
  • Posted by nic pfost
    Mitch Joel

    i get the impression (no disrespect to Six Pixels, i like you guys) that this whole "OMG Twitter is gonna trounce the GOOG!" thing is a ploy to get clicks and comments.

    [well looky here, it's working. :-)]

    i have to agree with several others here: twitter is only a "great search tool" if you have tons of followers that are communicative. not everyone is going to have that luxury.

    and ya know what? Google's "Algorithm" isn't some mathematical alchemy that ranks webpages at random. it's built on human choices and opinions that people are making everyday (and i don't mean the humans working at Google). Twitter is not the next Google. Twitter is simply something else entirely (and i'll continue to love them both).

    Reply
  • Posted by Paul Crowe
    Mitch Joel

    One side of using Twitter is searching your base of followers for answers and information but the other and more effective is using twitter search. The starting a conversation with the most qualified person you can find.

    When you use Google to search you find a website, when you use Twitter you find a person. That is a big benefit of Twitter.

    Twitter is the first place I go to find very specific, detailed or Niche information.

    Twitter Search is an amazing feature. Just the other day my friend told me about a guy at King & Bay with a megaphone asking for a job. I didn't go to Google. I went to Twitter search and sure enough found a post WITH a Twitpic. I never would have found this on Google.

    Reply
  • Other have also directed me to a couple of articles on this discussion that I had not seen. There must be some kind of synchronicity at play here.

    From Slate: http://is.gd/mvnO.

    From AdAge: http://is.gd/lKd4.

    Reply
  • Posted by Rasul Sha'ir
    Mitch Joel

    Great piece Mitch - as usual. I don't think that the issue is who is going after who. I mean as previous comments, stated Twitter and Google are two different entities. I think the bigger questions are what are google's and facebook's and twitter's next moves. Also, what does this mean for the market? How are these online entities spurring new realities and considerations for how business and culture evolve and ultimately succeed in the marketplace. Exciting times!

    Reply
  • Posted by Yvan Bujold
    Mitch Joel

    Great post Mitch! Good Analysis.

    Take care!

    Yvan

    Reply
  • Posted by CT Moore
    Mitch Joel

    I think that Twitter is at risk of becoming the next MySpace before it becomes the next Google. By that I mean that it's starting to become really spammy, with a slew of people having thousands of people that they're both following and being followed by. It's like Tila Tequila all over again.

    If this keeps up, I think that they're going to see a more progressive rival creep up and steal the market they created by offering a higher quality interaction experience and more nuanced privacy controls -- such as Facebook did to MySpace.

    Reply
  • Posted by Zach
    Mitch Joel

    Relying exclusively on Twitter for your searches is like getting all of your news from FoxNews. You're limiting your sources to the thoughts and opinions of a more limited universe.

    Reply
  • Posted by PhilG
    Mitch Joel

    I think Twitter is great to get other results than what you get in Google or Delicious or Google Reader etc. but I tend to agree with Colin Fast that you need many followers to get good answers when asking a question directly on twitter. That comes to the price of having more (to much noise) in your twitter feed.

    Here's a nice GreaseMonkey script that adds Twitter Search results when you launch a search in Google. Simple.

    http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/43451

    Reply
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