Speculation Corner: Twitter’s Homepage is the Business Plan
Have you ever wondered if the web is the first medium where businesses could make something deeply valued by customers but struggle with how to actually make money from their innovation?
Radio and television must have faced the same problem, and born lacking a way to meter and charge individual use, broadcasters turned to predominantly ad-based subsidies for free content traded with consumers for their attention. If content producers for radio and TV had been able to control distribution like newspapers did (by nature of selling a physical medium) from the start, I suspect we’d live in a very different media universe. For starters, maybe we wouldn’t have to wonder about ironically-combined cable channel bundles.
Like TV and Radio, the web delivers content people value, and has tried to ape the ad-supported model with dubious results, the most dubious being the rapid consolidation into a monoculture ad economy where one player outweighs them all. The ad-supported model doesn’t seem to scale enough to float really successful web content or services. While the web can deliver on the alternative, metering and collecting payment for content and services, the culture has been saturated by TV and radio to expect the content for free. Now that’s a conundrum.
But you know what, none of that matters, because OMG Twitter changed its homepage. The change is more than aesthetics, and I think it shows how they intend to escape the conundrum of high value and the revenue vacuum.
You Can’t Miss It
Right below there’s a grab-bag of hashtags and keywords under the heading Popular topics by the minute, day and week. In other words, ongoing search results.
A search box and evidence of the conversation currents of the Twitter network, together on the homepage, say more about where Twitter is looking than any number of stolen documents published by a tech tabloid.
Twitter as a search company. It kind of sounds like beer talk, but there are a number of pieces past the homepage that point in this direction. Let’s start by seeing what happens on clicking one of those terms on the homepage:
Twitter looks at every incoming tweet, then ranks the popularity of certain words or phrases in real time. Click any of the popular topics below to see what people are saying about them right now.
That capability speaks to a key the technological problem that Twitter has been learning to be good at: indexing what people are doing, right now, as reported by and for individually-tailored networks of informers.
Beyond finding hot topics, there are other recent changes that reflect Twitter’s growing presence as a search resource. The Twitter community has innovated rudimentary but sufficient MacGuyver style link sharing by employing ad-hoc URL-shortening services (woots for ti.im on that topic). This innovation also created an opening for attacks to be inserted into the Twitter network by various combinations of human folly and shortened URLs that obscure the final destination of the link, making it easy to smuggle in an URL to a server with hostile code lying in wait.
So it’s come to pass that Twitter is now blocking malicious URLs, something Google has done well but Facebook hasn’t seemed aggressive on, opting instead to warn, almost cartoonishly, aboutevery URL leading outside its walls.
Lastly, take a look at the sidebar of search results pages on Twitter, and you’ll see a lot of space given to search tips. I grabbed a number of them before my finger got tired of refreshing the page, and they offer a solid range of interesting ways to search the stream of tweets.
Real Time is Magic
To my eye it adds up to a search play that is already well under way. And if true, it means that Twitter’s founders must believe they’ve spotted a weakness in big search’s game. That weakness is real time.
Google is pretty fast at bringing recent content to the top of its results, but there’s always a lag. If they want to stay on mission to make the world’s information accessible, they’ve set a high bar for crossing that lag into real time indexing. It would be easy if everyone changed their websites to notify Google of changes, but even for Google’s mass and capability that’s an even taller order. Though, if you had a widely-used browser that collected anonymous viewing stats to see what needs updating now, you could solve the problem on the client side. But that really sounds like beer talk. And AltaVista.
How do we know that real time makes a difference? Look at June 25, 2009.
The King of Pop P0wns the King of Search
The day that MJ died was also the day that Google saw what it looks like when someone eats some of your lunch right off your plate. SEOMoz’s Danny Dover gives a great play-by-play account of what happened as the news broke. He concludes:
The events of Thursday demonstrated that Google is falling behind in the emerging real-time web. It was 3 hours and 17 minutes after TMZ first announced Michael Jackson had experienced cardiac arrest before it appeared as a auto completion suggestion on Google’s homepage. In the computer age that is a huge amount of time. It is 3 hours and 17 minutes during which consumers may choose to go somewhere other than Google to get the information they want.
Danny also mentions that Wikipedia beat out Twitter and all other social news, which really makes sense. A Wikipedia page is always only as good as its last edit, but the other side of that coin is that it only takes one person to press the truth button. When the edit is accurate (or close enough to Wikipedia’s editorial judgement), it’s the finest possible piercing point for new information. With Wikipedia’s mass, it becomes breaking news.
So Wikpedia got it first after TMZ, then Twitter, then Google. Bing, Microsoft’s third time out on search and one that I actually like a lot, missed out altogether. It’s easy to see how this is a problem for every major search engine.
The end brings us to where this likely all started, when Twitter turned off Track. Though likely disabled for performance reasons in a time when scaling issues loomed large, we can assume there was a sharp realization that realtime search combined with the an instant notification channel could be a next big thing.
Track hasn’t yet come back, but the focus on search that’s evident in the UI updates show that real time search is very much on Twitter’s mind, and therein is the key to a viable and scalable revenue model that could well surpass advertising. Only instead of being algorithmic, it would be a search engine of conversation topics, link sharing and breaking news. And instead of being a monolithic absorber of services, it’s a slim product surfing on an ecosystem of client and utility services built around its single, simple API. If this were the Marvel comics universe, we’d be looking at, say, Hulk vs. Spiderman.
The goal of a Twitter search play wouldn’t be to topple Google, but rather to take away a good chunk of what Google is weak on: realtime (technically hard), conversation (semantically hard) and link sharing (too easily gamed); all things that would be of high interest to businesses, from gasping news services looking for a source of cheap oxygen to brand managers to advertisers.
Will it make money? That’s the bet, and it points to a triumverate of the web with Google for content search, Facebook in relationship facilitation and Twitter as the realtime slice that sits in between. No wonder these big guys are wary of a cute little birdie.