Twitter search suggestion: roll-your-own ‘twitterrank’

Most people would never know it, but for the last few hours there’s been a big debate on the future of Twitter’s search function. Not a big deal, but it strikes at the heart of how different people use same social media platforms in different ways.

The story starts with a blog post by Loïc Le Meur: ‘Twitter: We Need Search By Authority’

We need filtering and search by authority. We’re not equal on Twitter, as we’re not equal on blogs and on the web. I am not saying someone who has more followers than yourself matters more, but what he says has a tendency to spread much faster. Comments about your brand or yourself coming from @techcrunch with 36000 followers are not equal than someone with 100 followers.

This is followed by some people you may not have heard of with the following…

Bob Warfield:

This is a seriously good way to make Twitter search Fail big time. No better way to amplify the Echo Chamber. Is that all Twitter is? The Follower haves talking while the Follower have-nots listen? Have nots are to be seen and not heard? “Let’s move the riff raff aside, this is our conversation,” seems to be the message.

Robert Scobie:

Bob Warfield has it all right: Loic Le Meur’s call for authority-based Twitter searches is all wrong.
What is Loic’s idea? To let you do Twitter searches with results ranked according to number of followers.
You’d think I’d be all over that idea, right? After all I have a lot more followers than Loic or Arrington has.
But you’d be wrong. Ranking by # of followers is a stupid idea. Dave Winer agrees. Mike Arrington, on the other hand, plays the wrong side of the field by backing Loic’s dumb idea.

Michael Arrington:

For the record, I agree with Loic. Being able to filter search results, if you choose, by the number of followers a user has makes sense. Without it, you have no way of knowing which voices are louder and making a bigger impact. It’s a way to make sense of a query when thousands or tens of thousands of results are returned.

It looks like some of those that care about the future of Twitter think that this idea will relegate Twitter to an online version of The National Enquirer (or the Weekly World News).

Different Twitters for different folks

For some Twitter is a network for sharing status: ‘I’m off to the pub for a while,’ ‘Great weather up here in Hertfordshire!’ Others use it for personal branding or PR: ‘Why does interactive TV assume a single viewer? Why not prepare for a remote per person?’ – @alex4d, ‘My Interview of the Year: Thanks @timoreilly!’ – @Scobleizer. Those are two of the reasons for wanting people to follow you – to keep them updated on what’s going on in their lives, or to influence/inspire/impress a wider network.

Also Twitter is used by people to follow others for different reasons at different points in their day, depending on mood and status (‘Just mooching around on the computer to fill time’ – ‘Researching the use of social media platforms in theatre’)

The fact something as simple as putting your thoughts online can be used in many different ways has made Twitter very popular. As the number of users rises these conflicting uses might cause problems. That is why there is this kind of debate about something as simple as search – it might restrict or direct Twitter’s use in directions that some don’t want it to go in.

A Twitterer with fewer followers weighs in with a point

Twitter search is almost at the stage internet search was when Digital introduced AltaVista:


AltaVista became the main page used for search because its host computers could index the internet more quickly than anyone else. It was the most up to date search. The order in which results were delivered was based on the frequency of the word searched for on a page.

Eventually Google came along and worked out a method for producing the right result quickly. Their page-rank algorithm used various statistics to calculate the ‘authority’ of the organisation that created the page on which the search text is found. As the years have gone by the art of SEO, Search Engine Optimisation, has been about site designers using web content to establish the authority of the websites they manage.

I suggest that Twitter’s search function, or even home feed filtering system could use a similar system: show me Twitterers with ‘authority’ – but this authority need not only depend on number of followers, because who knows why those people follow that person. The number of people followed could be important. What about the number of direct messages, or messages responded to, or retweets, or number of links posted that no-one else has posted, but turn out to be very popular? You could also take frequency of posting into account, the amount of dialogue tweets bouncing between two people, or even the frequency of updates to the page linked to on their profile.

Some see the battle between the search engines and the SEO community as an endless arms race, where Google and others use ‘security by obscurity’ to hide the methods they use to rank search results. This battle may move to Twitter search (once Twitter starts mattering). However, a new front could be avoided if Twitter searchers could ‘roll their own’ Twitterrank algorithms.

Do you want to follow me?

What are the considerations you have when deciding to follow someone who has followed you? These are the considerations you might want to be included in your Twitterrank method: I look at the subject and frequency of recent tweets and combine that with having a look at the page they link to in their profile. Is it updated regularly with content that I’m interested in. In consider my twitter feed as a series of thoughts – some of which coalesce into ideas expressed on my blog. If a follower seems to be using Twitter and their site in the same way as me, I’m more likely to follow them. Sometimes would be useful to me for Twitter to be able rank search results or filter the main feed using these criteria. However, depending on how I happen to be using Twitter, I might want to use different search or filter ranking techniques.

If other people could get useful results with a specific Twitterrank algorithm of mine, it would be useful if they could use it too. They could take a copy as it is, or possibly subscribe to it if I feel the ranking method needs to be updated.

I guess Google defines a successful search rank when a user doesn’t click on the second page of results. Searching and filtering in Twitter is a little more complex: it depends on why the person is searching and filtering. Are they removing the clutter of thousands of tweets, or are they refining their feed to focus on a specific debate? Only by trying different ranking systems will we define which models are useful. We could then have different system for different people. That would make life more interesting for the ‘Twitter Search Optimisation’ community

A single method handed down from on high seems very Google and old-fashioned. I think a roll-your-own twitterrank system seems much more ‘2009.’ What do you think?


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