Real Time Search Still Just a Concept

    June 25, 2009

We caught up with Michael Gray at SMX Advanced in Seattle and talked a little bit about realtime search.  Now, realtime search is one of those super buzzy concepts that meets all the criteria as the ‘Next Big Thing’.  It’s so big, Google is supposed to be afraid of it.  It’s so awesome, it’s going to change politics in the Middle East. Why, the way people are going on, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I got up in the morning and realtime search already had my coffee ready.

So, lets take a moment to look at this thing a little bit before we get too carried away. (Anybody remember ‘RSS Feeds are going to kill email’?  OK… and who checks RSS feeds anymore?  Case in point.) 

The thing about realtime search as a concept is that it is just that…  a concept.  Summize was a Twitter search engine and became popular enough for Twitter to buy it and turn it into Twitter search proper. It works ok.  Not great, just ok.  To call it ‘realtime’ search is a bit of a stretch. 

Queries submitted to Twitter’s search are routinely anything but ‘now’.  More often than not, they are at least an hour or so old.  It’s fresh… but it’s not the realtime we’re talking about.  Not only that, but the quality of the results are frequently sketchy at best.  So, it’s search, but it’s not the Google-quality, refined kind of search we are accustomed to.  In short, Twitter Search is to realtime search as the Cincinnati Bengals are to a football team.  Technically, it qualifies (I guess) but it’s really just not very good.

So what is Realtime Search?

RealTime SearchPersonally I think we have the actual ideal of realtime search all wrong. We have been Googled to the point that we have a hard time getting our minds around a concept of search that isn’t Google-like.  Even in the video for example, we have an example of someone (us probably) using real time search to look for a hotel in Seattle…  Why in the world would you do that?  Regular plain old search is fine for that.  What possible advantage does realtime search have over regular search for that query?  Now, say I wanted to know if the dinner special at the hotel restaurant was good today, THAT would be more realtime search’s domain.

Another problem I have with realtime search and our collective perception of it, is that it’s so Twitter-centric.  I like Twitter as much as anybody (well, most people anyway) but I also liked Alta Vista before we had Google.  I think Twitter is groundbreaking insofar as it popularized the concept of simple, mulitplatform one to many communication.  That’s great, sure.  But Twitter has a good deal of evolving to do if you ask me. 

To me realtime search isn’t even something you do a lot of ‘searching’ on — not in the Google-sense we have grown accustomed to.  If it’s real time, you are checking in on a topic.  It has more in common with trends than it does people.  Once within the subject area, you might run a search for specifics within the history of your topic area, but the topic -what I’m looking to see ‘what’s happening now’- shouldn’t be so much of a search. 

It is a single topic, not one of 50,000 webpages about a topic.  There is only 1 of them.  How to define them is the trick.  Hash tags are a step in that direction I suppose but it’s an awkward, clumsy step at best -in their current state at least.

Following Who or What?

Which brings me to the next point.  Following people is great, but for the purpose of realtime search, it’s pretty much useless.  I am apt to Tweet something about Facebook or Google now and in three hours talk about burning my hamburger helper.  Anytime you get a halfway sizable list of people you are following, it becomes almost impossible to weed thru the chatter without some third party application for Twitter. 

Who to follow or what to follow?For realtime search we need to think more along the lines of following the subject.  There are several trends sites keeping tabs on top trends in Twitter.  That’s more about what we’re talking about with realtime search.  Except I don’t want to query the trend…  I want to follow the trend – like I follow a person.  Then I can interact with others following that trend. 

Some trends may last weeks, some minutes, some for years.  There may only be 5 people talking about my trend of interest, or there may be 5,000.  Any topic you can imagine can be the subject of somebody’s conversation at any given time, and will be. 

Realtime search is having the ability to find these ‘trends’ or subjects.  Having the ability to interact with the people also following that same trend is something that doesn’t exist yet -that I know of- but it will.   It sure as heck aint Twitter in it’s current form.  Twitter handles scale about as well as Superman handles kryptonite.  I’m not talking about the fail whale either (though I easily could be).  I mean providing Twitter users with tools and methods to manage, filter, and organize information they are interested in.  They seem to have left that to pretty much everybody else to deal with.

Realtime Isn’t Now…. Yet

So we have a little work to do for this realtime search thing.  It will get done though.  The proliferation of mobile devices with easy access to the internet means there are that many more people ready to participate in ‘something’.  That something – or at least the by-product of that something, will be where we get a true realtime search.

I figure the next 3 to 4 years will see a lot of evolution in this whole mass communication Twitter thing. Facebook is Twitterizing itself as fast as they can. Google has Wave coming (I hear it’s going to kill email) and who knows what all else will crop up.  ‘Realtime’ is really a rather exciting time – sooner or later we’ll get it, too.