Twitter the new Search Engine?


Earlier this week, Twitter announced that they have made even more changes to their search and ‘who to follow’ function, following on from a major overhaul late in 2010. After reading a great blog on the subject by Danny Sullivan this week, I decided to do some testing of my own to see if I can pin down the pros and cons of the update for the average Twitter user and how it all relates to the online marketing industry.


To sum the updated feature up – when searching for a term in Twitter, the ‘who to follow’ suggestions previously only included accounts with your search term in the name or username as a result. Twitter’s latest update means that as well as, or even instead of, these search results, you will also be given ‘who to follow’ suggestions that are relevant, but which don’t necessarily contain a direct keyword reference. For example, searching this morning for ‘footballers’ brought up the ‘people’ suggestions below – all of which are Twitter accounts that you may well want to follow if you are interested in football, but none of which contain the term itself. Of course Twitter isn’t clever enough a search engine (yet) to automatically know whether I want to follow prolific people in the world of American Football or from the world of Soccer, so it suggests accounts related to both.


Twitter search suggestions for Football


From a marketing point of view, people will now be wondering how they can get their Twitter account on to the ‘recommended’ list for search terms related to their industry. Do Twitter employ a search algorithm which uses the content of people’s tweets to make their judgements? Their bio? Do you get onto the list because you are particularly active or have a certain amount of followers? It certainly isn’t only verified accounts that make it onto the top suggestions, as seen below when I searched for Everton players.


Twitter search suggestions for Everton players


Although the account of Manchester United footballer Rio Ferdinand has very little to do with Everton Football Club – unless Twitter knows something about the summer transfer window that the rest of us don’t!  Perhaps the results Twitter provide are simply tied in to the secret reputation score that Twitter admitted they had for every account during a summit in 2010?


Twitter told Danny Sullivan that the new search function returns suggestions “based on an algorithm. That algorithm looks at a variety of factors, including your profile information, engagement on Twitter, who you follow, and who follows you.”


So leaving marketing aside for a moment, are there any benefits for the average user here? Unequivocally so, in my opinion. Searching for any subject that you’re interested in will now bring relevant suggestions of accounts to follow based on whatever Twitter’s search criteria is, opening up a wealth of authoritative Twitter users which simply may not have been discovered otherwise, unless you already followed relevant accounts to that search term that is. However, it is a bit early to tell just how useful the suggestions may prove to be, especially the more specific/long tail your search terms.


Is Twitter’s search algorithm something which people will try to manipulate to get their account up there amongst the regularly recommended? Undoubtedly people will try. Presumably this will take the form of keywords in the bio and the content of tweets, plus a determined effort to follow the ‘right’ people and, probably most importantly, get them to follow you. Is this a bad thing? Possibly not… if it results in more active participation in relevant discussion by more users. I hope that this is more likely than an increase in worthless, spammy tweets, because if a major factor on Twitter reputation and authority is that you have others of authority following your account, this just won’t be the case if you resort to worthless tweets. Similar to any kind of effective web optimisation techniques, you will need to be contributing value in order to be followed (and stay followed) which should hopefully perpetuate a better Twitter community for all.

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