Search is dead; long live real-time search. Twitter playing such an integral role in the Iranian election protests that the U.S. State Department asked its management to delay a maintenance shutdown only hastened the inevitable. Like it or not, Twitter is here to stay, and competing search engines know it.
Twitter is a public forum that can be searched in real time, for anything from political news to brand sentiment. Brands like Pepsi, Comcast and Dell already understand the value of this capability, and have begun using Twitter to measure their popularity, troubleshoot customer complaints and drive traffic to e-commerce sites -- all in real time. Real-time search isn't something that traditional search engines can provide at this point, which is why it has Google co-founder Larry Page in a cold sweat. And for good reason, because the feature brings marketing people that much closer to achieving their holy grail, which is to reach "the right people at the right time with the right offer." As technology and culture blogger Robert Scoble noted during dinner at the New York Stock Exchange last night, "real-time search is where the money is."
The flare-up in usage since the election protests in Iran has provided Twitter with a significant boost, but as Scoble noted, Facebook is itself growing by the size of Twitter every thirty days. Scoble, who had drinks with Twitter co-founder Evan Williams over the weekend, yesterday reported that Williams "sees Facebook as their most serious competition."
Facebook is currently testing a real-time search feature with a small fraction of its users (bearing in mind that a small fraction of 200 million is still a pretty significant number). Facebook keeps users glued to its pages because it allows people to track and communicate with members of their extended community of family, friends and colleagues (also known as "the social graph" in Web 2.0 circles) in a way they can easily control. Facebook CEO "Mark [Zuckerberg] has already built the White Pages, and now he's working building the Yellow Pages, and if he can build a social graph around business, that will be wildly successful," Scoble said.
Google isn't resting on its laurels, however, and some reports indicate a Google real-time search isn't very far off:
Google ... seems to be preparing to release its own microblogging search engine... [that] will sort results by relevancy, will be integrated with standard Google search, and will appear based on frequently-used keywords or current events. It also looks like its main source of results will come from Twitter.Then there are the start-ups, one of which may emerge from the primeval ooze as the next giant-killer. One getting some attention today is CrowdEye, a real-time search engine, headed by former Microsoft chief search engineer Ken Moss, that aims to allow users to better mine Twitter to get a pulse on hot topics.
Twitter also suffers from one significant disadvantage: its current share of the search market is a less than one percent. But as Peter Kafka writes, "the nice thing about owning .001 percent of the market is that it gives you plenty of room to move up."
The real challenge for Twitter, Facebook, Google and all other comers is to find a way for their advertising partners to interact with users without being creepy. If consumers of those social services find that their virtual worlds have become saturated with brands looking to engage them in "meaningful conversations," they're likely to pick up their social graphs and move them somewhere a little more sociable and a lot less commercial.