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Opening The Pandora’s Box: Google Real Time Search

People have been talking about real-time search and what it means for a while now, so I thought I’d share some of my observations and a few well-researched opinions.

Back in September, while I was at OMMA Global, I attended a session called “Can Real-Time Results Be Found in Real-Time Search?” It was an awesome panel discussion that really made me question what real-time search is.

Something important that I realized from that session – in a user’s mind, EVERY search is real-time. Think about it – have you ever performed a search on Google and NOT wanted to get the most relevant, up-to-date information for that search?

According to the research presented, the breakdown of search usage is 20% navigational – people are searching to get to known sites, e.g. typing “” in the search box, 40% known information – people searching for information they know exists, e.g. Yahoo! article on reversing gray hair growth and 40% RIGHT now – people searching for new information regarding a topic, e.g. Rush Limbaugh (after he suffered his heart attack).

The longer I sat in the session, the more convinced I became that real-time search, like most of our industry’s innovations is about one thing – MONEY and how the search engines can make more of it. To me, the last gamechanger in search was the rise of paid search advertising. Google AdWords is a form of real-time search – it allows advertisers to display their ads when searches are performed on specific keywords. Your brand is in front of users EXACTLY when they are looking for it – it doesn’t get any more real-time than that!

Now, with the rise of social networking sites like Facebook, and the rise of micro-blogging sites like Twitter, the industry is trying to figure out how to pull all those updates into search engine results. Back in October, Microsoft announced that it had signed non-exclusive deals with both Twitter and Facebook to index Tweets and status updates in search results. Directly on the heels of that announcement, Google inked its own deal with Twitter.

Twitter made a quick $25 million when these deals closed (~$15MM from Google and $10MM from Bing). So, what did the search engines get in return? They got the Twitter Firehose – a direct blast of all tweets as they occur, with no delay. Prior to the deal, only 4 companies had ever had access to the Firehose – Summize, which Twitter bought and now calls Twitter Search, FriendFeed, which only got a subset of Twitter users who also used FriendFeed, Zappos and TwitterVision. Without access to the Firehose and Twitter effectively dominating real-time search, Bing and Google needed the partnerships to enter real-time search in a real and impactful way.

Around the same time, Facebook announced its own real-time search engine and will most likely head down a similar path to monetization with the search engines. Bing has already signed a deal with Facebook to index status updates  and has been testing the functionality. Facebook’s path to monetization and the search engines is a little bit trickier than Twitters. There’s been a raging debate about which company is better-suited to effectively dominate this space (or at the very least, create a viable revenue stream). An argument from both sides that Mashable blogged about recently:

Twitter Pros

  1. They were first. To most people, Twitter IS real-time search. Think about it – do you say you need a cotton swab or a Q-tip? Twitter is the Q-tip of real-time search.
  2. They have the experience – they’ve been playing around with real-time search for a lot longer than Facebook.
  3. Almost ALL Tweets are public – it’s a rare thing when a person makes their Twitter account private.

Facebook Pros (AKA Twitter Cons)

  1. Facebook is HUGE – they’ve got more than three times the monthly U.S. visits, 90MM compared to 25MM for Twitter, a user base of ~300MM. Facebook can provide a more accurate picture of what people are talking about.
  2. Facebook search is deeper – it indexes videos, photos, what your friends are saying and all public profiles (most profiles are not public though).
  3. The FriendFeed engine powering Facebook real-time search was created by the dudes from Google that built GoogleMaps and Gmail. Now, they work for Facebook on real-time search.

But, have you ever seen what people Tweet about and post on their Facebook status? It’s about THEIR feelings about events, not the facts of the events. Real-time search is not about capturing relevancy, it’s about capturing sentiment.

The real-time results are a good proxy for how users feel about the subject of the search, but rarely is it as information-based as the results that the engines were already serving. Don’t believe it? See the example below, with the real-time search results highlighted in the red box:


Here’s a larger screenshot of the real-time search results:


Where’s the informational value in those tweets? There IS none! But, it does show how the real-time results capture sentiment regarding a story.

This is an example of how Google displays real-time search results. Not all searches produce real-time results and I’ve been trying for weeks to figure out how Google decides which searches should show them and which searches shouldn’t.

I tried to find the rhyme and rhythm by searching on terms from two sources – Google Trends and Twitter trends.


All of the Hot Topics show real-time search results, with the exception of “umar farouk abdulmutallab.” The Hot Searches show real-time results only for four of the terms – “happy new year greeting message,” “new years eve moon,” “new years around the world” and “rush Limbaugh.”

I also looked at the top Twitter trends for a 7 day period on to see if there was a correlation with the real-time search results on Google. I wasn’t really expecting these terms to be a significant driver for the real-time search results on Google; especially since one of the top terms is “iwishyoasswould!” The trends on Twitter that are not news-related, are for the most part, specific to the Twitter audience.

You have to be part of the crowd for “iwishyoasswould” to mean something to you. And, if you are part of the crowd, then guess what? You’re ALREADY on Twitter and would perform the search there and not on a major search engine anyway. Played around with a few news-related terms, “TCU,” “Boise State” and “The Bachelor” that I found in the trends and, lo and behold, they are producing results!

“Boise State”


Look at where these results are serving – it’s pushing organic search results 4 – 10 below the real-time results. I guess that would be worth getting upset over if you could do anything about it…but it’s free and it’s Google  – who can you call? Also, I almost anticipate it improving things for folks in the lower results, as the change will probably make it more likely that people will scroll down the page and pay a little more attention.

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