Twitter, Google and SocialRank

posted 17 March 2009

I started to write this a couple weeks ago, and then forgot about it. Better late than never, eh?


Over at TechCrunch, Brian Solis has a post about blogs losing their authority on Technorati to what he calls the "statusphere". It's based on an observation that Technorati's "Authority" index of blogs, which is based on incoming links to those blogs, has remained largely unchanged over the last few months, but the number of actual links measured has been dropping sharply. His conclusion is that authority is moving away from blog-to-blog links to other sources -- like Twitter, Facebook, and others.

I couldn't agree more, and I think in fact he doesn't go far enough. This isn't just about blogs. This is a sea change in the measurement of authority, relevance and popularity of online content, and the company that should really be worried isn't Technorati (which was kind of screwed already). It's Google.

Google's single, gigantic, all-powerful insight that saved and changed the web and the business of web search is this: the importance of a website can be measured by measuring how many the other sites link to that site, and how many link to them, ad infinitum. That's PageRank: like all the best ideas, it can be explained in a sentence or two but is enormously powerful. It is even relatively easy to implement a first-pass solution but it is very, very difficult to perfect.

PageRank has never been perfect, and the cracks are beginning to show. People are demanding more and more accurate and real-time information. Conversation moved from websites to blogs, and is now moving from them to even shorter, faster forms like tumblogs, twitter, and Facebook shared items. All the while, there's been a steady tidy of information moving in email and instant messages that is also poorly indexed.

Pure-web PageRank is losing its claim to be the real authority on the relevance of information. This is a market opportunity. To usurp Google's place as the way people find information, you have to use PageRank as just one piece of the puzzle. You have to find a way to index email, instant messages, social network activity, twitter feeds, SMS, phone calls -- all the ways we share content. You need to meld those together to form a new authority. There are signs that Google wants to do all of these things, but nothing practical has emerged yet.

But the day of a unified information authority is a way off. The more immediate opportunity is that of real-time search. Google's news search covers only things that news outlets cover, and only as fast as the relatively glacial newspaper organizations can publish it. Their blog search is no faster than blogs. Twitter on the other hand can find things that happened just a few seconds earlier, and more importantly Twitter's trending-terms tech can tell you what's happening right now without you even needing to look for it.

There are signs that Twitter is beginning to work this out, although the pace of change within the company given its size is pretty slow -- one wonders if they really are just sinking everything they've got into staying up and scaling to their ever-growing user base. If they don't do it themselves, somebody else is going to start indexing the twittersphere and they'll blow this enormous opportunity. (Note, however, that I'm not going to trot out the old "this could be their business model" chestnut. Twitter already has a business model.)

My point? Well, it's a blog, so I don't need to have a meaningful conclusion, but I guess it's just that the world of search is due for a big change, and Google may be unprepared for it.

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