Will Twitter Replace Google in Search?

    April 29, 2009

Has Google’s model of spidering and indexing web pages in an ordered list become obsolete? Is the old static model of search about to be replaced? Does a real-time online conversation (a la Twitter) make for a more relevant and compelling search experience? These are the questions that I recently posed to a group of search and Internet experts. To say that these guys know their stuff would be a complete understatement. It’s more like these are the professionals that have defined the modern science of search and search marketing. You’ll see what I mean when you read the quotes below.

My premise started when I read a UK Techcrunch story about a Google / Twitter mashup. This was in February and there was a major snow event blanketing the UK. But if you were to try to get a satellite image of the snowfall in real time, you couldn’t. That’s because the cloud cover prevents the satellite from seeing the ground. So this genius named Ben Marsh comes up with the mashup. In brief, the idea was to get the general UK Twitter population to report on the snowfall at their location in the UK. Respondents reported their postcode and then selected a number from 1-10 to rate the snowfall amount. Ben’s mashup then graphically displayed the results on a UK Google map. Then it hit me – this Twitter data is yielding superior search results for the amount of snowfall in the UK than any other source. So will this type of real-time data stream become a rival to Google in search?

Daniel Foster is the co-founder of 34SP.com – the website hosting service that kept Ben Marsh’s mashup online during peak bandwidth usage during the February snowstorm. I asked Mr. Foster if he thought that Twitter could overtake Google in search, based on his experience with the Ben Marsh mashup site. Mr. Foster replied, "While this use of Twitter was certainly unique at the time and created a superior data set for UK snowfall for that time period, it is still a long way from a true search product. Google clearly has a corporate mission that drives search-related activities. Twitter just asks "What are you doing?". I don’t see Twitter search overtaking Google unless the business directives change."

Here is what a few of the other Internet and search experts I contacted had to say in answer to the question: "Will Twitter Replace Google in Search?".

Rand Fishkin is a legend in search marketing. As the founder and CEO of SEOmoz.com, Mr. Fishkin was recently included in Newsweek’s list of Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs 2009. His involvement in search marketing began in high school, and he is now generally regarded as one of the world’s authorities in search. Mr. Fishkin commented, "No. Twitter is not a search engine and cannot answer the vast majority of queries sent to an engine like Google, Yahoo! or Live. Twitter searches a single stream of user created data in 140 character slices. While searching this database of information can be fascinating and even relevant (particularly for those who are interested in what Twitter users are saying about a particular topic or person), it is not even an attempt to replicate the functionality or application Google provides. Google answers an inherent need that has existed since the web’s inception: users must navigate to web sites and pages that contain desired information. Twitter cannot achieve this function and therefore cannot be a replacement for Google in search."

Michael Gray is President of Atlas Web Service, a full service website and Internet marketing company. Michael has worked in website development and marketing for over 10 years, and shares his thoughts regularly on Graywolf’s SEO Blog. Mr. Gray opined, "Twitter is never going to replace Google for searches there simply isn’t the breadth of information available there. For example say you need to know: "Who was the 3rd Vice President of the United States?". Unless you happen to have a history buff in your stream – very few people are going to know it’s Aaron Burr off the top of their heads. It’s simple and easier for you and everyone else to type the question into Google and have it spit back the answer. However, if I have a tech related search like: "How do I backup my Firefox profile?" chances are I’ll get a few answers from my users. One way that Twitter is better than Google is if I know my followers and trust them. I might not trust Yelp or CitySearch when they tell me what a good seafood restaurant in San Francisco, but if someone who follows me gives me a recomendation, if I know who they are, I’m much more likely to trust their response. The one caveat is the trusted relationship of the person giving the response. 20 people I don’t know telling me someplace is good is never going to outweigh the 1 person I really trust telling me it’s bad."

Danny Sullivan is often regarded as a true pioneer in search. His seminal 1995 work published as "A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines" laid the groundwork for his career as an often cited expert in search. Mr. Sullivan he has been quoted in all the major media outlets such as The Wall St. Journal, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, Forbes, The New Yorker, Newsweek and ABC’s Nightline. Here are Mr. Sullivan’s comments, "No, Twitter won’t replace Google search because it simply doesn’t cover enough of the topics out there. It can be used for question answering, but that’s largely limited to the number and quality of your followers. I do think it’s an excellent additional search tool, however, http://searchengineland.com/how-we-search-with-twitter-16920 has much more on this."

Andy Beal is an online reputation management consultant, award-winning blogger, and professional speaker. Mr. Beal shares his expertise via his blog at www.andybeal.com, and he is also the founder and editor of Marketing Pilgrim, an award winning news publication that covers internet marketing news and trends. Mr. Beal added, "Twitter’s real time data certainly compliments Google’s search results, but I don’t see it ever replacing it. Twitter’s data stream should be looked at in the same way as Google News or Google Blog Search. There’s tremendous value in tapping into a fresh, up to the minute content, but people still rely on the structured, ranked data that Google’s web index provides."

Neil Patel’s email identifies him as a ‘professional web surfer’. I know him as an incredibly charismatic, smart and friendly Internet, social marketing and search expert. He has also been named a top 100 blogger by Technorati, and was also one of the top influencers on the web according to the Wall Street Journal. His current company is KISSmetrics, and Mr. Patel shares his insights in his blog – QuickSprout. Mr. Patel offered these thoughts on Twitter overtaking Google in search, "Twitter will not replace Google in search. You can use Twitter to find up to date information, but I doubt you will ever use Twitter to find products to buy or figure out how to fix a technical problem. Just the other day I had to search Google on how to program my router. I don’t think I will ever be able to do that on Twitter."

Todd Malicoat is a Marketing Consultant and on the SEO Faculty at MarketMotive.com. Mr. Malicoat is an Internet entrepreneur who has spent "near obsessive amounts of time on Webmasterworld.com, and Threadwatch.org. Here is Mr. Malicoat’s response, "I think Twitter definitely has an opportunity to swipe a bit of market share from Google on certain TYPES of terms. Anything very time sensitive, Twitter gives very good results for. I think Google will likely be a suitor, but they likely don’t want another youtube over-valuation debacle. Twitter has definitely raised some eyebrows, and what it does do is fill the need for ‘guided search’ that several companies including trexy.com, mahalo, and even yahoo answers (to an extent), and many others have been trying to do for years. Twitter has done this with a different model of getting the guides first with the critical mass of people, and the organization will come later. Most search results, however, don’t NEED a search guide or expert, so for now, Google is perfectly safe, but has the potential to lose out on some niche expert traffic to the new kid on the block."

By way of fairness, I did contact the PR department at Google requesting a comment for this piece. As of the writing of this article, they have not responded.

So there you have it. Practically no one thinks that Twitter will overtake Google in search. At best, in very time sensitive events – perhaps Twitter can be a good companion reference to Google. Of course things can change quickly – and if they do, I’m sure we can all check in with Twitter to learn about them. My thanks to all the experts who participated in this article.