Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Buyer Beware: Twitter Search Is Powerful–And Limited

magnifyingIf Twitter really does sell out to Google or another suitor, you’ll hear plenty about the benefits of its real-time search capability and how it provides a window to the Web that no one else offers. It’s a meme that started up last summer when Twitter bought itself a search engine for some $15 million, and it’s been picking up ever since.

And Twitter search is indeed a powerful tool, which is why I use it as my homepage. But at the risk of being obvious, let’s spell out exactly what Twitter search does: It lets you track, in real-time, what people are talking about… on Twitter.

Which means that as fast as Twitter has been growing in the last year, it’s going to need to get much, much bigger before it gives you a real sense of what people are interested in on the Web. Right now, searching Twitter just gives you a sense of what a relatively small, self-selecting group of people are interested in.

Today’s example: The Amazon (AMZN) “glitch” story, which surfaced yesterday and been the top “trending” story on Twitter for the past 24 hours or so.

It’s of enormous interest to Twitter users, who sound off on the topic, using the keyword “amazonfail,” every couple of seconds. Outside of the Twitter hothouse, though, it’s not making much of a sound.

Last night, “Amazon rank” and “amazonfail” showed up at 14 and 38, respectively, on the Google Trends Top 100 list. But by this morning there was no trace of the story on the tracking tool.

Granted, this isn’t exactly apples and apples: Twitter is supposedly showing you what people are writing about, and Google (GOOG) shows you what they’re searching for. And Google’s own view of the Web is skewed, since it only values what people are searching for and linking to, not what they’re actually doing. But if Twitter was truly representative of the Web, you’d expect at least some overlap.

Could it get there someday? Conceivably. Twitter has a powerful hockey stick growth chart, and the four million U.S. users that comScore (SCOR) counted in February are almost certainly a low-ball guesstimate. More important, it’s up 1,000 percent from the year before. But that four million–or call it eight million, for argument’s sake–is still a footnote compared to Google’s 148.9 million during the same period.

If Twitter really does become both a commonplace verb and an activity–something average computer users do several times a day in the same way they use Web search–then the numbers above don’t matter, because Twitter will get there soon enough. But my hunch is that Twitter is going to permanently appeal to subset of the Web’s population (which includes professional self-promoters like me).

Which means that Twitter search will remain a niche product too. Valuable enough, particularly for brands that need to know what voluble people are saying about them. But hard to argue that it’s a must-have acquisition at any price. Or at least at the numbers that are floating around right now.

[Image credit: bosslyn]

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus