May 13, 2009

How Twitter could overtake Google

twitter-bird

Guest column by J.R. Johnson
CEO, Lunch.com

mitra-bootstrapping Google search resultsLast week I did a simple Google search. I was looking for an old article about “bootstrapping” written by a woman named “Mitra,” so I did a search for “Mitra bootstrapping.” The number one result was from Twitter. It was a page containing a single tweet by Ms. Mitra which mentioned bootstrapping.

No big deal you say? Well, let’s consider a couple of other things. Timing and position.

First, she wrote the tweet only two weeks earlier and it was already the number one result. If there was no other content online matching my search, that would be one thing, but Ms. Mitra has written extensively about bootstrapping for her own blog, for Forbes Magazine, and she has written books on the subject which are all over Amazon. Each of these shows up in the results, but all below the link to Twitter.

Historically, Google’s algorithm relies heavily on inbound links to help determine if a page is important and therefore where that page should rank in the results. This is a complex algorithm that Google is constantly tweaking, so by they time you read this, the results for the search I described above may even be different, but the message to take away remains. The priority that Google is giving to Twitter content represents a major change to the way the algorithm has historically worked. For Google to assign such a high priority to Twitter content, it must see Twitter content as being extremely relevant and valuable.

What exactly is the content being created on Twitter? I break that down into two categories. First, there is the very popular “I’m baking brownies” category which is very similar to the Facebook status update — sharing a mostly useless fact about what someone is doing or thinking. The second, and exponentially more important category are those with links in them. For example, “I’m baking brownies and here’s the link to the recipe I’m using.” That tweet just went from a meaningless status update to something that is actually useful — well, sort of useful if you are thinking about baking brownies yourself at that very moment.

Google has spent its entire existence trying to find and prioritize all online content, but they have never had the real time answer to their most important question: which content is most relevant? Twitter gives them just that, a real time answer to what the most popular brownie recipe is right now. It appears that Google understands the importance of this and that is why Twitter’s pages are being indexed above more relevant and keyword dense pages like Ms. Mitra’s blog, Forbes and Amazon.

It will be interesting to see if Google begins to apply more complex algorithms to content on Twitter, taking into account things like number of followers, follower/following ratios, number of Tweets sent, @ mentions, or tweets re-tweeted, and adjusting the relevance of a given tweet based on those calculations. Google can also take the relevance of a given tweet and then apply that relevance score to the underlying webpage that was linked to in the tweet. So as a user, if I searched for brownie recipe, I wouldn’t have to land on the Twitter page “I’m baking brownies, here’s the link to the recipe,” I could just go directly to the recipe page.

This creates an interesting dilemma. We have the content creator, Twitter, being crawled, scraped, and indexed by the search engine, Google, but Twitter may not even get the benefit of that in the form of traffic coming to Twitter. Google, on the other hand, will dramatically improve its search results by getting real time access to the most popular content online. Seems a little one-sided, so what does Twitter do?

How Twitter turns the tables

I’m guessing Twitter does nothing right now. It just keeps on being Twitter and watching the number of relevant, time-sensitive links continue to grow. Google, and the other search engines, continue to crawl, scrape and index Twitter. At some point in the future, Twitter contacts Google, along with Yahoo and Microsoft and lets them know that it’s building its own search engine based on all of the extremely relevant content that Twitter has on its site and will be blocking all external crawlers. That would effectively cut off Google and other search engines from having access to all the indexing information on Twitter.

Next, Twitter becomes the most relevant search solution out there and is able to follow the success that Google has seen over the last 10 years. This may be one reason why Twitter isn’t worried about revenue right now.

JR photoJ.R. Johnson is the founder and CEO of Lunch.com, a social sharing community. He grew VirtualTourist.com and OneTime.com to successful companies that he recently sold to Expedia.
JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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