Posted by: garispang | July 15, 2009

Search Wars: Twitter Versus Google

Google vs TwitterWith Twitter’s meteoric rise, the question has emerged if it can pose a serious threat to social network and search engine incumbents; or, if not a threat, then perhaps a compelling acquisition for the likes of Google. According to Compete data, Twitter is now at about 20 million monthly unique visitors, which makes it a distant third to Yahoo’s 135 million and Google’s 150 million, but the velocity of community development at Twitter is impressive. Just one year ago it had fewer than 2MM monthly uniques, so there is more than a good chance it can approach or cross 100MM within the next 24 months.

But the allure of Twitter is not acquiring its user base and certainly not the vast array of mundane voyeuristic updates. The real money-making power of Twitter is something more strategic and Trojan Horse: it holds as much potential as a search platform as Google’s search algorithm held as an advertising platform (and therefore by extension Twitter too might be able to capture a chunk of search advertising). To understand this, recognize that search strategies can fall into one of three categories

  1. Algorithmic-based search. This is best exemplified by Google’s automated “page rank” popularity engine that has tremendous power and scale to index vast amounts of unstructured data.
  2. Human-mediated or “Social Search.” Online start-ups such as Mahalo, Chacha, and OneRiot are using people to help create more intelligent results. Whether paid or unpaid, there is usually a credit system for helping to deliver search results and experts emerge from the community.
  3. Structured search. Organized and tagged content databases focused on specific industry or vertical areas (think of Thomson Reuters or Bloomberg desktops). For more on structured versus unstructured data read a synopsis by the father of data warehousing, Bill Inmon.

What does all of this have to do with Twitter’s threat to Google and other search strategies? Twitter holds significant latent potential as a social search platform. Social or human-mediated search uses the intelligence of people to help provide an answer. This is not a new concept. People have always used their friends for advice and continue to do so on Twitter. In South Korea the leading search engine is Naver.com, which uses legions of volunteers and experts to help provide relevant answers to search queries. And in the B2B investment world, expert networks such as Gerson Lerhman and Vista Research have been around for some time to provide insights in specific fields. Social search will not necessarily be as comprehensive as one of the other two search methods, but it can be much more helpful. For example, if you are searching for directions, it may be most useful to know: “Look for the big triangle sign on your left and if you are driving here any time after 5pm, take Avery Boulevard instead.”

Twitter has two key attributes that can make for effective social search: real-time data and a critical mass of users that can eventually facilitate more specialized, vertical communities of experts. On this point, I have a fundamental belief that the web is moving more vertical in its next iteration. The benefit of real-time data is that it can bring contextual relevancy (e.g traffic, sales, event updates) in a way that is difficult or impossible for automated algorithms or archival databases to do. If Twitter can organize itself into specialized expert communities, it provides a differentiated approach to search.

The future of search is likely to embrace all three of the modalities I described to maximize relevancy in context. Imagine a search engine that organizes results in those three ways: a Google-like automated popularity-based result, a set of responses from a network of human experts, and the results from a well-edited database. The bottom line is that simultaneously applying all three approaches to search is better than applying just one.

Whatever Twitter grows up to be, it is clear that to me that Andy Grove (co-founder of Intel) was right when he said, “only the paranoid survive.” If Google wants to avoid becoming the next Yahoo (or AltaVista or Lycos) then it needs to think about how it can best serve its users with more relevant results. These can come from alternate ways of thinking of how search is done.

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