Business

How and why to search Twitter

Twitter has quite possibly become the widest, most insightful, and perpetually open window into the minds of the masses that the world has ever seen. Its large and growing group of users post everything from news about current events to, yes, the occasional photo of what’s for lunch. All this tweeting can be invaluable for any number of uses—but only if you know how to find what you need.

Why to search

There are now over 200 million users who constantly post just about anything you can imagine: links to important news, complaints about a product, design tips and inspiration, favorite new bands, family photos—you name it. These diverse nuggets are getting posted by Twitter’s equally diverse share of the world’s population: the general public, celebrities, politicians, authorities, marketers, customer support, and more. Fun fact: 70 percent of Twitter’s usage now comes from outside the United States. If Twitter is the world’s largest water cooler, its search tools are an omnipresent pair of ears that can give you an instant perspective on any topic at any time.

Twitter’s popularity is due in part to how easy the company made it for users to post content. But the service’s architecture, rich API, and organic culture also make it easy to mine this increasing mountain of data for just the information you need. Want to check how a product launch is going or how you’re stacking up against a competitor? Need to monitor tweets about a major event? Or perhaps you want to get more personal with your customers and provide one-on-one support when they post complaints. These ideas are just scratching the surface, but a number of clients, tools, and tricks make it easy to find what you’re looking for.

Search basics

There are a plethora of ways to mine Twitter, but let’s start with the basics at search.twitter.com. This decidedly Google-like page offers a very simple interface. It also displays Twitter’s signature list of trending topics—things that have captured the momentary attention span of Twitter users the world over.

Type your query, hit Return, and off you go. You can search for the name of a product, a person, a topic, a specific Twitter username, or a hashtag—a word with a pound sign (#) in front of it (such as: #io2011).

Hashtags on Twitter are akin to tags on Flickr or Pinboard—they’re a tool that grew organically out of the community as a way to tag a topic or event. You can click, or tap, on a hashtag on Twitter.com and most of its clients to see all other tweets that contain the same tag. You can also track hashtags, a technique that I’ll get to in a moment.

Hashtags
Want to see what people are saying about an event or topic? Search for a related hashtag.

A useful perk of search.twitter.com is that its search results page is fluid. Instead of merely giving you a static list of results at the time you ran your query, it will actually continue watching Twitter for mentions and alert you at the top of the page when there are more to view. Dedicated apps for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad often provide a continuously updating live stream of these search results.

One drawback of Twitter’s search tools is that, because of the sheer volume of tweets its users generate, Twitter only provides access to a few days’ worth of archives. Twitter recently published some staggering stats: as of March 2011, users now create one billion tweets per week, or 140 million tweets per day. The company’s search index simply cannot keep up with that activity, which is something Twitter has been working to improve for over a year. In other words, our tweets are all still there; you just can’t search much farther back than a few days until Twitter improves its search infrastructure.

Twitter recently announced that its search results will include user-posted images and videos as well as just text tweets. At press time, this feature was still rolling out—some users could see it and some couldn't.

Other tools

Of course, when you talk about search, two of the biggest names—Google and Bing—can lend a hand when it comes to Twitter. Both companies made agreements with Twitter to index tweets from a broader date range, but results can be hit and miss. The way you search Twitter also differs slightly between each service.

Google To search Twitter on Google, go to google.com/realtime. This is Google’s custom tool for searching social networks like Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, and more. Here you can enter any combination of keywords, hashtags, and usernames, and take advantage of other perks like the “nearby” option (to look for tweets made by people close to your location) or Google’s timeline that lets you specify a period of time other than “right now.” Alternatively, you can run a typical Google search and click the Realtime filter in the sidebar.

If you want to search for mentions of “iPhone” from a certain user, you can get even more specific by customizing your search string further to something like iphone site:twitter.com/macworld.

Google Twitter searches
Search for any combination of keywords, hashtags, usernames, and more with Google's Realtime search tool.

Bing While the previously mentioned queries will work on Microsoft’s Bing search engine, some users might prefer its dedicated bing.com/social section. Of course, you can search Twitter here, but Bing also provide a little more integration by adding things like Twitter’s real-time Trending Topics list, as well as filters for Twitter, Facebook, trending topics, or just tweets that contain links.

As far as hits and misses go, though, I’ve found that Google provides more accurate results that go further back. For example, this query on Google for any of my tweets that contain "WordPress" found a number of my tweets, a couple of which are from early April—over two months ago as of this writing. The same query on Bing found nothing.

Hone your search

Much like big search engines like Google, Twitter offers its own handful of search operators, though with some unique twists. Sure, you can search for a phrase, omit a specific term, and use boolean operators such as “and,” and “or” to hone your results. But Twitter’s search operators also allow for some extra polish by letting you specify elements like location, whether the tweet includes a question, or even what the user’s mood was.

Twitter’s more powerful search page at search.twitter.com/advanced makes it easy for any user to leverage the power of its search operators without having to memorize them. On this page you can plug in specific values to craft a search such as specific usernames, location ranges, and mood. Perform your search and the results page works like any other. Note that if you specify a location, a small map will appear in the results page’s sidebar to verify that Twitter is looking in the right place.

Advanced Twitter searches
Twitter's Advanced Search page makes it easy to put together a complicated and very specific search.

If Twitter’s advanced search page feels too confining or you’d rather craft queries yourself, the company offers a cheat sheet of its search operators that you can use at search.twitter.com and in virtually any client. You can extend your search phrase with hashtags, @-usernames, locations, and even smiley faces. So a search like: iPhone near:chicago :( will let you know whether Chicagoans have been having i-trouble lately.

Tools that can help

Twitter’s search tool offers some extra functionality if you’re getting more serious about sifting through all those tweets. For starters, your search queries are bookmarkable, so you can quickly return to them whenever you need the latest snapshot. Just bookmark the results page with your favorite browser tools and return to it whenever you like.

Search widgets Twitter offers some basic tools for turning search results into real-time widgets that you can easily place on your blog. You could use these to show off, say, tweets from an event you’re partaking in or happy tweets about your company’s product. You just have to go to Twitter’s widget page, then pick the “Search Widget” option. There you can customize a search query like I’ve discussed earlier, and Twitter shows you a preview of the widget and gives you a snippet of code you can paste into your site. For example, you could run a query like “yourproductname :)” which will return happy tweets from users who mention your product. You can paste that widget code snippet into your website tools, and there are certainly more powerful options available for platforms like WordPress.

If you need integration with other apps or more functionality than Twitter's Advanced Search page can offer, there is a seemingly endless supply of Twitter tools that can help take your data mining to the next level.

Saved searches in apps Many apps on both the Mac and iOS allow you to create “saved searches” that continuously update in your app. Echofon for Mac ($20) and iPhone/iPad ($5;  ), as well as Twitterrific for Mac, iPhone, and iPad ( ), are good examples. They offer clean Twitter interfaces (which many prefer over Twitter’s own cluttered Web app) and straightforward search and saved search options. Echofon even ups the ante by letting you syncronize your tweets’ read and unread states between your desktop and mobile clients.

Business extras If you need something more business-oriented, Hootsuite includes strong support for Twitter search queries and keyword tracking. With its highly customizable interface, you can add multiple tabs, each containing multiple columns, to keep a bird’s-eye view on a multitude of Twitter and other accounts, search queries, and tracked keywords. This full-featured social media Web app supports a number of services beyond Twitter, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress. It’s great for individuals and teams, as you can do things like assign tweets to other members for follow-up and schedule tweets to go out at a later time.

Track trends Klout is another useful service, though not exactly a Twitter search tool. This is more of a “personal analytics” tool, which allows you to see how much influence a user has on his or her Twitter community. It’s a good way to find out not just who is tweeting about your product or an important topic, but which users are the big hitters among your community who can help get the word out about news or beneficial changes.

If analytics are your thing, the powerful tool Trendrr can act as a dashboard for your social activity across Twitter and other services. Use this tool to create dynamic charts that display a term’s appearances over a period of time, compare the activity of two or more keywords, and use filter by criteria like mood and even gender.

Get the most out of Twitter

I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible when you decide to harness the power of searching Twitter. Whether you’re looking to build a community for your Website, gather feedback to guide product development, crowd-source support for a cause or recent disaster, or simply meet new people who share your undying enthusiasm for Babylon 5, the pulse of world—or just your local area—is just a Twitter search box away.

Subscribe to the Apple @ Work Newsletter

Comments