twitter

Changes to Twitter’s search function to include the most popular conversations around a search term may signpost the way to future revenues for the social network.

It was all going so well. Just when you got your head around a social network the rules change. Overnight the networks seemingly make wholesale shifts to their functionality with little warning.

Change is the only constant in this business as networks work hard to find ways to make money and build viable businesses. We’re a long way from maturity.

I spent Friday afternoon between meetings squatting at a desk at Realwire in Newcastle. It’s an online press release distribution service that is building tools such as Lissted to help public relations practitioners understand the conversations that are taking place among journalists online. Muckrack is doing a similar job for the US market.

Twitter search remembers with extended search results
CEO Adam Parker called me over to his desk during the afternoon to have a look at the results of a Twitter search.

Parker’s query for a Realwire prospect customer returned a top search result from months earlier. A reputational issue that the brand had faced last year was shown-up at the top of the screen followed by the usual popular conversations from recent days.

This is unusual. Twitter only typically shows searches from a week or so back. Google does no better. It stopped indexing the Twitter firehouse in 2011 after a breakdown between Google and Twitter.

Accessing conversations on Twitter that are older than a week is possible but you need to pay a premium. If you want to delve deeper you need to use the service of a business such as DataSift that captures the Twitter firehouse and provides search tools as an application.

It turns out that Parker was almost certainly getting a sneak peak at a new search function that Twitter announced on Thursday and is in the process of rolling out.

New search for old
Twitter said in a statement that it is going to start including selected tweets that are more than a week old in search results. It is almost as if Twitter has discovered its memory.

“Previously, Twitter search results displayed tweets going back about a week. We’ve developed a way to include older tweets, so you can see content that goes beyond the more recent tweets,” said Paul Burstein, Engineer, Search Infrastructure, Twitter.

The tweets served in search results will only be a small percentage of the total tweets ever sent, said Burstein. Twitter will use signals such as favourites, retweets and clicks to determine which tweets to display.

“We’ll be steadily increasing this percentage over time, and ultimately, aim to surface the best content for your query,” added Burstein.

This isn’t a bid by the social network to cannibalise the relationships that it has brokered with data providers but it is almost certainly a bid to raise its stakes as a news and reputation engine.

Reputational implications of extended Twitter search
Parker quickly got to the root of the issue in a blog post.

“At the moment if you’re a brand and someone tweets something negative about you then your worst case in Twitter search terms is it appears in the results for a few days.  It’s the impact of the conversation itself that you have to deal with, both online and off, and any resulting posts and articles that might rank highly in Google searches in the future,” he said.

Following the changes to the Twitter search function, a brand could find that the top search result is a contentious tweet that received a significant response.

“This tweet may or may not have been part of a wider conversation that appeared elsewhere in the online and offline worlds, but one things for sure, replaying it back months later to new people again and again isn’t something you are going to want,” added Parker.

Parker suggests that in order to avoid long term reputational damage brands will more than ever need to get on the front foot and deal with criticism as it occurs.

Brands buy way out of trouble
One alternative that he suggests is buying your way of out of critical conversations in search results using a Google Adwords-type move. Therein lies a significant revenue opportunity for Twitter.

There was much debate at Omnicom’s digital conference at St Lukes, London last week about the business models for social networks.

The Economist’s Digital Editor Tom Standage suggested adopting a freemium model such as DropBox could be the route to a viable business model for the social networks. Users get the basic DropBox cloud-based story service free but pay for greater amounts of storage. He suggested that he’d pay for photo storage and sharing on Facebook and personal Twitter analytics.

But this isn’t a route that Twitter is following for now. Instead it wants to charge brands to buy their way into conversation via sponsored tweets and trending topics. If you’re a brand that has faced a reputation issue you can see that the real estate around relevant search queries would suddenly become very valuable.

The Next Web suggested on Friday that the cost of a sponsored tweet is now $200,000. As the business heads for a rumoured public offering extending sponsored tweets to search results would make sound business sense.

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About 

European Digital & Social Media Director at Ketchum and President of the CIPR. Author of Brand Anarchy and Brand Vandals; and editor and contributor to Share This and Share This Too.