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Twitter and Local Search: A Status Update

boland-michael
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The online media world today is mostly divided between those who "get" Twitter and those who don't. These groups are further subdivided between those who think it has legs and those who don't.

While some of my colleagues fall in the latter bucket, I'm somewhere in between when it comes to local search. Whether or not you personally use Twitter, or think the "statusphere" is a flowing river of dribble (there is some truth to that), Twitter Search is where the potential lies.

The idea is that Twitter search brings structure to all the noise with an index of real time conversations. This has taken form in Twitter's own search box (now more predominantly placed), as well as a handful of third party engines that have been built on the same concept.

Better Search Gets the Worm

If there is one thing that points to Twitter's staying power, it's that Google is showing signs that it feels legitimately threatened. This comes down to the simple fact that Google's index -- though extensive -- is relatively static compared to Twitter.

In other words, Google spiders are quick to index new content -- but we're talking hours or days rather than seconds. That's perfectly okay if you're researching a new flat-screen TV, or the history of Mongolia.

But it could be less effective in emergency situations to quickly find out where evacuations are happening, or where the closest safe haven is. To use a more everyday example, Twitter is being used to tap into real-time chatter around local info, like where to get the best pizza in San Francisco.

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Maybe the best answer lies somewhere in between Google's and Twitter's models. In other words, why not combine traditional local search (listings, events, classifieds, etc.) with the stream of current discussions happening around these items?

"In a search for 'New York florist,' listings can be shown along with the last five activities related to florists in New York," says Praized Cofounder and VP Sebastien Provencher. "It could be editorial content, a video ad, a user review, classified or coupons."

In each of these cases, the latest "activities" come from a twitter-like feed of individuals contributing relevant comments, pictures or links.

Tweet or Creep?

When scaled up to the levels Twitter is reaching, should Google have cause for concern (or cause to get out its checkbook)? There are two scenarios I keep coming back to, with the help of some historical evidence.

Scenario 1: Twitter continues its meteoric rise and silences my colleagues as it becomes a new standard of communication. As such, it spreads into all facets of our communication; the way we interact socially, the way we communicate, and the way we search (including local).

Scenario 2: Twitter continues to be a great communication tool and continues its ascent into mass market usage. But people still use search engines predominantly to find the things they're looking for. In other words, search ain't broke: Twitter will exist beside it, but not crush it.

Let's look at scenario 2. Just because Twitter is becoming a new standard in communication, does it mean it has to enclose every aspect of our lives? This is the natural tendency towards feature creep: Is the excitement around Twitter causing us to force unnatural mashups (local search or otherwise)?

For example, the way we use mobile devices has been completely revolutionized over the past 2 years. But that doesn't have any bearing on certain aspects of my media consumption, such as the way I watch television (for now anyway).

Would Twitter and local search likewise be an unnatural marriage? What about many other Twitter applications that claim to disintermediate traditional search with real-time conversation feeds? There are already claims, for instance, that Twitter will kill RSS.

Nation of Twits

I stand somewhere between scenarios 1 and 2, but I do believe the marriage of Twitter and local search (most search for that matter) should be a happy one.

But wherever you stand, you can't argue with the fact that Twitter is something to pay attention to – whether it impacts search, or the price of tea in China (which, incidentally, Google does a better job finding).

After Oprah recruited hordes of soccer moms to Twitter and Ashton Kutcher did the same with celebrity gossip junkies, site visits have skyrocketed. Comscore reports Twitter reached 17 million uniques in April, up from 9.3 million in March. And that doesn't include mobile or desktop clients that access the service.

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So what's the message for search engines? Don't become the yellow pages, having gotten fat and happy from years as a de facto standard. Search was born on the heels of other online media, such as email and content portals. Keep sight of how things have evolved and how they'll continue to grow.

Twitter isn't going to eat your lunch, just yet. But look at how user behavior is evolving and go with it. This applies to internet yellow pages (IYPs) too. They're especially in need of differentiation to rise above what has become a very fragmented and noisy local search space.

"Traffic used to grow by 20 percent per year for many IYPs and now many of them are flattening," says Provencher. "Their sites, technology, and ways they're using content are becoming stale as people expect much more vibrant content in terms of what they're getting on Twitter and Facebook."


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