SANTA CLARA, Calif. The major players in search agree on one thing providing real-time results from social networks like Twitter is important to their strategy of getting users the most relevant results. What they don't agree on is the best way to do it.
"I think they're all learning, what we're seeing today is not the final product," Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of SearchEngineLand, told InternetNews.com.
Sullivan moderated a panel discussion here with representatives from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) on the topic of how the major search engines were using real-time results.
All three companies, speaking at the Search Marketing Expo, have licensed access to Twitter's so-called firehose, the data stream of millions of tweets sent out daily.
One example of the differences is in integration. Microsoft has chosen to display Twitter results in a separate Twitter page; Google and Yahoo integrate Twitter and real-time results into their main results pages.
"I don't think that's a case of Bing not believing in integration. It's just how they've chosen to experiment at this point. You could perhaps say Google is farther along in that respect," said Sullivan. "I fully expect Microsoft will integrate real-time results in the main search engine as they build it out."
All three companies revealed a few tidbits about future plans.
Google Product Manager Dylan Casey said Google will not be limited to providing real-time results from a few major providers like Facebook and Twitter.
"We want to make it possible for anyone to publish content that will show up in real-time results," he said, adding that Google is working on a public standard designed to open up the process of being recognized by search engines.
Another tidbit came from Ivan Davtchev, the lead product manager for Yahoo's real-time search. He demoed TimeSense, a tool the company uses internally to track what topics are spiking on Twitter. He hinted Yahoo may make some version of TimeSense publicly available. He said TimeSense doesn't just analyze numerical trends but actually measures language and the quality of results.
Davtchev also said that while Yahoo currently offers real-time results related to news searchers, it plans to expand that effort to other vertical markets such as finance.
He also emphasized that the freshness of real-time feeds is not the only thing Yahoo measures when deciding what to show in results. "To us, relevancy is still number one," he said. "Freshness is not the most important thing and sometimes it's not the best thing to promote."
The other panelists agreed that freshness is only one of several useful criteria otherwise they'd all simply be direct conduits to Twitter adding little value. "Since we launched in December, I'd say 90 percent of the time we spend on real-time results is [determining] the quality of the documents," said Casey.
But timeliness is definitely important.
Measuring real-time intent
Two of the panelists mentioned how they found out details via Twitter feeds about a recent small plane crash in nearby Palo Alto, California that caused a massive power failure in the area.
"Frequently, the intent of a real-time search changes," said Sean Suchter, general manager of the Search Technoloy Center at Microsoft. "A query for 'Palo Alto' meant a different thing an hour before the plane crash."
He also said this presents challenges for matching up advertisers with real-time results. "Depending on what you were advertising at a given time, the connection could be very negative."
Google's Casey agreed that companies face "super-complicated challenges" connecting users with the most relevant real-time results.
"For some topics there can be thousands of posts per minute," he said. "We have complicated internal battles about why something wasn't on the page, so we're constantly tweaking." He pointed to the example of Toyota as a topic that's recently changed results frequently as recalls and safety issues with the car company have made news.
In response to a question by Sullivan about usage, all three panelists said the early returns are that users are taking advantage of the real-time results being available, though they weren't specific on how much usage there is.
"We ask people, 'are you actually reading it?'" said Casey referring to the live feed of real-time results Google offers. "The reality is a lot say no or they pause it, we see a lot of that."
Microsoft's Suchter said Bing will eventually include Facebook and other richer media types in its real-time results. "Nobody retweets in Facebook, it's a different issue," said Suchter. "We're working on trying to bring users relevance, not just time-based results."