Gaddafi Shows Why Google is Failing Its Mission in Search

    October 20, 2011
    Chris Crum

As you may recall, Google used to have a realtime search feature. When some topic was hot at any given time, and you did just a plain Google search on that topic, Google would show realtime results mixed right in with the regular results, and you can actually see them rolling in in realtime. It was quite useful in many cases, particularly in breaking news situations. Even when it didn’t automatically show up in the search results it was available as an option from the left panel. It was always a useful tool to see what people were saying about anything during the moment.

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The absence of realtime search is glaringly evident on a day like today. This morning, everyone was scrambling to find out the latest on Muammar Gaddafi. As of the time of this writing, the best Google could do on search results, in terms of timeliness, was a news story from about a half hour ago. That may or may not be the best result, but it doesn’t help me for finding the very latest, especially in a situation like this where people are frequently tweeting from Tripoli.

No, in this case, Google is no doubt driving a lot of people to Twitter Search, simply because they’re not meeting the demand. It seems like a fundamental problem for Google when it is not meeting a search-related demand, given that Google is at its core, still a search company. It’s mission is “to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Well, realtime information is generally useful when it is accessible in real time.

All Twitter is reporting that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo indicated we should not expect Twitter and Google to come to an agreement to renew their deal any time soon.

That said, Google has indicated in the past that it would bring realtime search back, using data from other sources, including Google+. It had other sources before, but it was clear that Twitter dominated the results. This point was made even clearer when they just removed the feature entirely after losing Twitter data. Apparently, it just wasn’t even good enough to offer without Twitter.

So now, they want Google+ updates to replace it. I’m not so sure if there’s enough material there, however. Larry Page announced during the company’s earnings call last week that Google+ surpassed 40 million members, but how many of them are posting public updates as often as Twitter users tweet? One key obstacle here is that Google+ was designed to offer users the maximum amount of control when sharing updates. This Circles method of sharing practically encourages people not to share data publicly, so that’s less data for the realtime search engines, although I could see Google including results from people in your Circles that were shared with you. But I don’t know if that’s enough to make a huge difference.

One thing, in terms of data from other sources, that could work to Google’s advantage, is the subscribe feature recently launched by Facebook. Facebook users can now let people subscribe to their profiles without having to actually be friends with them. This no doubt encouraged a lot of people to share more stuff publicly, knowing that people might want to subscribe to their posts, as if they were following them on Twitter. Again, though, I don’t know if there is enough here to make a huge difference, because Facebook and Twitter are just different in the way most people share info.

Twitter is public by default. It’s just a better source of public realtime data that is unrivaled at this point. That’s just how it is. Without Twitter, Google’s realtime search will never be as good as it could be with it. Unless people stop using Twitter, and it doesn’t look like that will be happening anytime soon.

Just how important is realtime search? Well, that depends on the user, but as I said, this whole Gaddafi thing is a prime example of when its absence is incredibly obvious. On the anniversary of 9/11, Danny Sullivan reminded us of how awful it was trying to find the latest info about the attacks when they happened. Imagine how much easier that would have been in the realtime search era.

Realtime search is clearly important enough for other companies to continue to try and improve upon it. Just in the last week or two, we’ve seen new offerings from Bitly, Topsy, and even Google+ itself.

While each of these options may have be useful, and can probably co-exist with one another, I think most people that think about searching for what’s happening right now, think about Twitter. In fact, if you go to Twitter’s search page, it actually says, “See what’s happening right now.”

Without the ability to search “what’s happening right now,” Google has at least one weakness in search, and is simply not a complete search engine.

What do you think? Does Google need to get Twitter data back for realtime search? How important is realtime search to you? Let us know in the comments.