The SEO-ification of Twitter

By Richard Nieva , written on February 8, 2013

From The News Desk

History is written by the victors. That’s how the old adage goes. It’s easy to see how that might be the case for a grade school textbook (see: Christopher Columbus), but the phrase may have just gotten a new, albeit less dramatic, digital relevancy.

Yesterday Twitter announced in a blog post that it had beefed up its search capabilities, making old Tweets more searchable. Previously, only Tweets from the past 7 days were available. This isn’t the first time older Tweets have been available; an advanced search will do the trick, and some third party vendors like DataSift have had access to the Twitter fire hose for quite some time. But this is the first time it’s been so easy to scour old Tweets. And it could have implications on the very way people write Tweets, for the sake of showing up in a search.

The blog post does not specify how far back Tweet search will go, but they currently go back to the very beginning of the service. I tested this by searching for various Super Bowls, as effective a marker of modern time as any.

Here’s one from Super Bowl XLIV (not to be confused with this year’s Super Bowl XLVII, which, as a lifelong 49ers fan, shall henceforth be known as “The Game that Shall Not be Named"). No, this game was from 2010. The Tweet is semi-throwback. Remember good ol’ Blagojevich?

And here’s an older one about Super Bowl XLI, the first one played after Twitter’s launch in 2006.

Now that we know what kind of sample set we’re dealing with – a vast one -- there’s one potentially big deal passage in the announcement that stands out:

“We look at a variety of types of engagement, like favorites, retweets and clicks, to determine which Tweets to show. We’ll be steadily increasing this percentage over time, and ultimately, aim to surface the best content for your query,” wrote Paul Burstein, a search infrastructure engineer at Twitter.
Translation: popularity contest.

I’m taking the long view of history here, which I suppose only matters if this thing called Twitter sticks around. A few weeks ago, David Holmes pointed out in an excellent post the trouble that comes with the increasingly nomadic nature of Tweets. So then what becomes of in the future? Aside from being the home of a real-time feed, with this more robust search feature, it becomes most valuable as an archival database. (Perhaps you think I’m giving Tweets too much credence, though the Library of Congress thinks them worthy enough vernacularisms to preserve them.)

So in the context of a database, does this affect how people compose Tweets – especially for those intent on surfacing in a search query? Because results are in chronological order (at least for now) Twitter has less of the God complex than Google, since it doesn’t decide rank. But in a way, it raises the stakes: either show up or don’t.

Of course, the company could always change the search criteria, and even make queries more personal to the to the searcher. It’s unclear if that’s the case or not.

It’s also worth noting that the quest for the perfect, engagement-rich Tweet is nothing new. Social media agencies have been on that scent for years. But in more of a search-driven environment, SEO-laden Tweets become very important, especially for marketers. In this searchable context, one thing is certain: big brands, celebrities, and media outlets have the biggest advantage. They have the most followers, and, if only because of a numbers game, have the greatest odds for per Tweet engagement.

Not only could it call for even more manufactured Tweets from brands, but possibly  less candid Tweets from the rest of us. We presumably have less of a chance of showing up in a query because of our smaller reaches compared to brands, but could there still be a chilling effect? When Facebook introduced Timeline, people all of a sudden realized their posts didn’t just disappear into the ether, and they reacted accordingly.

A stifled Tweet-er will hurt the platform. The most interesting Twitter moments happen in real time – when Tweets are rattled off, rapid fire. Or when personalities butt heads. Will it cause pause for some people to know that their tweets can easily resurface years later?

These effects will mushroom if Twitter really decides to double down on search, as Facebook has. Only it will be worse, because Tweets hold more cultural weight than status updates. In this context, the most popular, read victorious, Tweets win. And the rest get left out.