Twitter is Not a Search Engine

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“.

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 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.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

12 replies on “Twitter is Not a Search Engine”

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.


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



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.


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.


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.


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. 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.


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.


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