What’s the Job of a Real-time Search Engine?

Traditional search engines offer “reference search.” The user experience in reference search starts outside of the search engine. You know about a topic, and you want to find additional detail.

For real-time search, you want to know more about what’s “hot” or popular right now. A key quality measure for real-time search results is the ability of the search engine to provide a meaningful summary of the results.

A Little Background

What do good results look like in traditional reference search? Breadth of coverage is one key criterion. You expect a good reference search engine to return as many definitional reference links as possible, on the first results page (ideally above the fold). So “Saturn” can mean the car company, the planet, the Roman god, or the Apollo-era NASA rocket.

Compare this with real-time search where the user experience starts inside the search system itself, and starts with discovery, not with search at all. When you use a real-time tool and don’t know what’s going on now, you need the tool to help figure that out. You typically start by clicking on a topic that the real-time system tells you is “hot” right now.

What Good Real-time Search Results Look Like

Suppose we used a real-time tool to search for “Saturn” right now. What sorts of results could we expect? It really depends on what’s happening right now.

Don’t expect to see mentions of NASA’s old Saturn rocket, for example. Rather, we should expect to obtain a general sense of what’s happening in the world, now, around a search term.

Let’s shift the example to be one that’s better suited for real-time search and search Google for “pop culture“:


Those are quite good reference search results, but they aren’t “real-time” and don’t give us a sense of what the real-time web is thinking about pop culture right now. Let’s dig down into the Google search options and turn on real-time results:


So now we’ve got a sample of a few random neural firings — largely from Twitter — regarding things people are saying, where the text contains the phrase “pop culture.” That’s OK, and might even be useful to some people in some contexts. But it’s not helpful to us, because we still don’t have a sense of what’s going on around pop culture, on the web, right now.

Given that most of the real-time results in Google are from Twitter, let’s try cutting out the middleman and go straight to Twitter to search for “pop culture“:

Twitter Realtime Results for

Those tweets are certainly recent, and they all match our search term, but these search results aren’t really giving us much of a sense of what’s happening right now in pop culture.

Hot Topics

Let’s look at the results generated by Wowd. (Full disclosure: I work for Wowd, and am only using it as an example. I’d love for others to provide additional examples of real-time search results summaries in the comments below.)

Here are the results for a search on pop culture in Wowd (using the Entertainment category):

Wowd Results for

These results aren’t tweets — the search isn’t being done inside Twitter. The results are web pages, like a traditional reference search engine might return, but the pages are recent. These pages are ranked, quality web pages that match our search term and are also recent (i.e., they have seen recent attention and readership).

Hot Topics for They tell us what pages real people are looking at right now that are related to pop culture. Wowd goes an important step further in providing a summary of what’s going on across the web, with respect to these results.

The Wowd browser application is able to process any given set of search results and can compile a summary of the topics that the search results contain, known as “Hot Topics.” While the Wowd search results are good, the Wowd Hot Topics are even better — they provide a summary of the key concepts contained in the results.

American Idol is “hot” in pop culture and Robert Downey is also somewhat “hot.” You might not have thought to search for these hot topics before this moment. This summary shows us, at a glance, what real people are talking about — right now — related to pop culture. This information is actually more useful than the search results themselves!

Discovery-powered Search

Clicking on any of the hot topics displayed in the Wowd browser app will run a new search, using the hot topic as a new search term. This way, you can swing, vine from vine, through the real-time information jungle, exploring related concepts as they emerge.

This powerful approach lets people engage with the real-time web. We call it “discovery-powered search.” By discovering what’s hot based on my search results, users can swing off in a new direction with a single click, exploring other hot topics.

Of course, Wowd’s hot topics feature is just one way to summarize a set of search results. There are clearly more ways to do this.


In reference search, you care about individual results and the coverage that those individual results have over the space of possible definitions for your search term. In real-time search, no one single result is all that important. The job of a good real-time search engine is to give you an overall sense — covering the entire web — of what’s happening in your specified topic, right at the time you do the search.

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