The Noisy Channel

 

Twitter is Not a Search Engine

March 5th, 2009 · 12 Comments · General

Now that Michael Arrington is back from his time off as a blogger, he’s in full force, proclaiming that “It’s Time To Start Thinking Of Twitter As A Search Engine“. There isn’t much to distill from his post, other than that Twitter accumulates lots of social content and “all of it is discoverable at search.twitter.com“.

There are at least two problems with this glib analysis.

First, while it’s true that lots of information gets into Twitter, it’s not clear how much of this information is valuable and how much of it is unique.  Is BackType a search engine? What about Dogpile SearchSpy? Just because you accumulate information socially in “real time” and offer up some sliver of analysis on it doesn’t make you a search engine. There’s got to be a notion of fulfilling information needs. (Update: In fairness, Twitter does help fulfill information needs–though I still maintain that it isn’t a search engine. See discussion at Paul Ogilvie’s blog.)

Second, the search that search.twitter.com supports is minimal–reverse date ordering of Boolean queries. No relevance ranking, user-specified sorting, query refinement, etc. I talked about it in a previous post. If Twitter wants to be taken seriously as a search engine (and I’m not sure that they do), then they need to up their game in the search functionality they offer to users. Right now, their search functionality is text book–and we’re talking 1970s textbook if not earlier. Not that there’s anything wrong with that–it shows me that they don’t see search as their primary offering.

I think a search engine–especially an exploratory search engine–on Twitter’s content would be fantastic! But that’s not what Twitter offers today, and I think it’s stealing a few bases to amount Twitter a search engine just because it sounds like a nice idea.

Let’s accept and appreciate Twitter for what it is: a social network for conversation. And let’s hope that they or others build rich search functionality on top of the content it is encouraging its users to produce.

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jim Gilliam // Mar 5, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    It will take quite a while to build it out because it’s a very hard problem, but the potential is there to create an unbelievable search engine due to all the metadata they’ve got on who’s tweeting what.

  • 2 Andreas Ringdal // Mar 5, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    It might not qualify as a search engine, but their search provides great value trough its rss feeds

    Andreas

  • 3 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    Indeed, I think it’s best to think of Twitter as an alerting engine than a search engine. But even there it suffers from the same problems as other alerting engines, like Google Alerts. See my earlier rant about alerting here.

  • 4 Steven Hodson // Mar 5, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    thank you, thank you, thank you .. finally some sensibility on this.

  • 5 jeremy // Mar 5, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Saying Twitter is a search engine is like saying that Digg is a search engine.

    More similarites there than I can describe in 140 characters.

  • 6 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 5, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Someone actually asked me at a talk tonight if I thought Twitter was a search engine. It took enormous restraint for me to just say no and then return to my talk, which was about exploratory search and semantic technology.

  • 7 Phil Bradley // Mar 22, 2009 at 8:16 am

    How much of the information that Google provides is ‘valuable and unique’? We really can’t use that as any kind of indicator as to the role that a resource (ie. search engine) plays. A search engine finds content and makes it available to someone searching for content. Doesn’t really matter that much what the actual information *is*.

    The content available on Twitter *does* fulfill information needs as you go back and point out. Though since you say that one of the reasons that it’s not a search engine is because it doesn’t, then you say that it does fulfill needs but still isn’t a search engine seems to be slightly odd.

    Google search engine functionality is limited. It doesn’t do proper Boolean, it doesn’t help narrow or broaden, it doesn’t use a huge number of other levels of functionality that other search engines do, but we’d still agree it’s a search engine. Moreover, advanced Twitter search does some types of searches that Google simply can’t.

    Furthermore, Google is great for historical information (ie. more than a day old), but isn’t very good for real time content obviously. I agree that there’s a lot that Twitter doesn’t do which Google does, but I can make the same claim regarding Google and other engines. Moreover, you don’t seem to appreciate that we’re talking about different types of data, which as such require different approaches.

    I think it’s also important to draw a distinction between the *content* and the *engine*. The Twitter engine isn’t that great. Some of the content is excellent. Which is where another 20 alternative search engines come into play, all of which do search the content, and in some cases better than the native engine.

    I remain entirely unconvinced by your arguments.

  • 8 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 22, 2009 at 11:09 am

    I think it’s also important to draw a distinction between the *content* and the *engine*.

    Yeah, that’s sort of my point, and in particular why I ended with “let’s hope that they or others build rich search functionality on top of the content it is encouraging its users to produce.”

    The web isn’t a search engine. Neither is Twitter’s conversation stream. Search.twitter.com is at best a minimal search engine, and really more of an alerting tool. Which is useful, but not in the way most of us are used to thinking of a search engine.

    If you want to call Twitter a search engine, then it seems you have to call any content collection with a search box a search engine. I remain unconvinced by the value of such a general definition.

  • 9 Is it time for Google to start tweeting? « Thoughtpick Blog // May 12, 2009 at 6:30 am

    […] we perceive search in general and its effect on Google in particular? While some people argue that Twitter is not even a search engine, others give reasons of why Twitter’s is the future of web […]

  • 10 Mike // Oct 26, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Twitter right now is not a search engine, however I heard they will be indexing the sites that are linked from Tweets. This could be a great feature to getting real time results from around the web not just Twitter. I don’t know if this would help them in being considered a search engine, but it certainly brings Twitter closer to that.

  • 11 LinkedIn Signal = Exploratory Search for Twitter // Oct 2, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    […] is not a great fit for analysis or exploration–unless you count trending topics as analysis. Originally, the search results were simply the tweets that contained the matching tweets in order of recency. […]

  • 12 Twitter turns 5 | @ryanjohnxxi // Apr 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    […] functionality into its site in early 2009. The opinions were divided, with some considering that Twitter is not a real search engine and others arguing that Twitter is the real future of search and a potential competitor for […]

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