Search for Twitter’s business model almost over: old tweets show in search

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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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


  1. Interesting development. Hot on the heels of Facebook Graph Search, looks like everyone wants to show off their search credentials ;)

    But let’s dig into this a little deeper. Some key questions to consider.

    How many people actually use Twitter search?

    Twitter’s top man in the UK Bruce Daisley said last Thursday at the Social Brands conference that 40pc of Twitter users never Tweet. Setting aside the issue of pure fake accounts, how likely are these kind of people to actually be motivated to search for content on Twitter?

    Of course, only Twitter knows how many people use Twitter’s search function – more specifically the Top search option. Given 80pc of UK Twitter users access the service via mobile, how many of them use the native Twitter app? And even if they do, how many use the search facility within that?

    What “signals” are Twitter going to use to determine what constitutes a Top Tweet?

    They mention things like RTs and Favourites – but that’s quite a small number of signals when compared with the hundreds that Google uses to rank results. Let’s take the example that Twitter used themselves – Manchester United Southampton.

    And here is the current Top Tweet based on that search:

    It would seem this is being dislayed at the top because it has had 24 Retweets. But drill in to see who are these 24 people who have RT’d it. Most have very small numbers of followers. What if someone with say, 10K followers was the only person to RT it? Are they simply going on the number of RTs? Or are they looking at other things such who are the people doing the RTing? Would someone whose bio referenced Manchester United count for more if they RT’d or Favourited a Tweet?

    If Google did Twitter search, you’d imagine they’d look at a whole variety of factors such relevance, location, etc. Not sure at this stage whether Twitter is being that sophisticated.

    Could promoted Tweets oust “reputationally damaging” Top Tweets?

    Looking at the web based results for Twitter search at the moment, it looks like they are only displaying one promoted Tweet at most – don’t know if that would change over time, but I doubt Twitter would want to over do user experience on number of promoted Tweets displayed at any one time. So my educated guess would be that trying to “bump down” unwanted results would be an expensive and fruitless tactic.

    Anyway – the main point Adam makes is – do we have start thinking about Twitter search SEO? And I’d say – no. At least not right now. Of course, if Twitter start encouraging users to make searches (and to sell promoted Tweets against the results of those searches), then maybe that would be different – but Google provides tons of data to help advertisers determine what searches to advertise against. I wonder how willing Twitter will be to make that data available to advertisers – and at what price.

  2. The stakes just went up for those involved in reputation management: reacting immediately to a crisis, in real-time, on the medium it has occurred and escalated on, has now never been more important.

    Otherwise a business will be stuck with comments which will kill their reputation capital, with their side of the story nowhere in sight.

    HMV will hope Twitter missed a few tweets when it began recovering its data.

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