Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Is Twitter to Facebook as Google is to Yahoo?

Normally, I don't re-post my entire Search Insider Column to this blog but the last 200 words of today's piece got cut off on Media Post so here's the full version...

Is Twitter to Facebook as Google is to Yahoo?

This analogy came to me at the recent Search Insider Summit during the Day 2 keynote conversation moderated by Gord Hotchkiss with Gian Fulgoni and Jordan Rohan. As always, these SIS-staples delivered many provocative thought-starters but I perked up when they started discussing the opportunity for richer brand experiences on the search engines.

History Lesson

Jordan said that what made Google so popular at first was its sparse page with just a search box and textlinks during a period when the trend was towards meta-cluttered portals. Over time, Google evolved its search results pages to include images, video thumbnails, maps, etc. but stopped short of overtly promoting brands beyond text ads. Jordan argued that incorporating any richer ad unit on the SERP would likely cause consumer-backlash.

I quickly wrote up a post for the MediaPost Raw Blog titled, "It Ain't the Blue Links," suggesting that what made Google so popular wasn't its clean white page with simple blue links but its incredible algorithm and relevancy. I closed with this thought -- "The lesson learned from Google is not just simplicity, it’s automation, crowdsourcing and, above all, relevance."

Lesson Learned?

Google was not the first to do search. That honor goes to Archie. And many other search engines came and went before Google. But Google was the first to take the idea of relevancy beyond mere on-page factors, incorporating an element of crowdsourcing by giving weight to inbounds links.

Today, all the major engines take link-juice into account to some extent. However, the 2 biggest contenders for search share after Google -- Yahoo and Microsoft -- still look at search as an add-on to their core offerings.

Now, let's look at the social networking space. MySpace was the first to reach critical mass (Friendster was close but never tipped) before eventually giving way to Facebook, which came along with what was considered a cleaner UI -- read: less graphics, images, audio and other junk -- and more relevancy -- read: less garage bands, porn, and sexual predators.

But what was it that everyone really liked about Facebook? It was the ability not just to connect with people you actually knew -- it was that you could know what they were doing at all times. The status updates were the golden goose.

Over time, though, Facebook began to become more portal-like. It added more tabs, boxes, app's and pages for brands to market themselves. It rolled out advertising programs that, at best, cluttered news feeds and, at worst, offended people. Oh yeah, and then there was that whole Beacon thing.

Paying Attention?

So, along came Twitter, taking the best of Facebook and stripping out the rest. As @ev and @biz told the hosts on the View, the idea for Twitter was hatched as (and I'm paraphrasing here) "a collection of IM away messages."

But they didn’t stop there. Just like Google took what some where doing already and made it better, Twitter put a twist on the idea of status updates by positioning its platform as “micro-blogging.” In turn, rather than just sharing what inane activity they were doing at the time, the Twitterati use their 140 characters to share ideas, POVs, quotes, tips, even RFPs.

As our collective attention span gets shorter and shorter and ADD is hard-wired into our DNA, people will lose tolerance for platforms like Facebook that require multiple clicks to get to the goods. Navigating Facebook is the epitome of Scott Brinker’s Golden Sprinkle.

Heck, people are even losing tolerance for blogs with the average post seeming like a novel compared to a tweet. Case in point -- with this column closing in on 1000 words, I’m sure many of you are thinking you could’ve just gotten the gist by reading the headline and moving on.

Again, there are parallels here back to the search world. In the late 90’s it became clear people no longer wanted to rely on hunting and pecking around a portal assembled by human editors to find interesting information, they just wanted to search for it and have the algo point them in the right direction.

By stripping out all the superfluous features of Facebook, Twitter is more simple and more relevant.


So will Twitter do to Facebook what Google did to Yahoo?

Twitter certainly has momentum. Over the past 2 months, its traffic has quadrupled. And it has become pop culture fodder what with all the celebs on Twitter, Ashton reaching 1 million followers, and Oprah getting onboard. And did I mention the founders were on the View?

There's one major hang up, though. While it may have taken the best feature of Facebook and built a company around it, Twitter missed one key point -- you have to own the audience.

Twitter does not own its audience. Applications like TweetDeck and Twhirl do. And while those app providers are beholden to the Twitter API to power their tools, they’re not affiliated with Twitter nor do they share revenue with it.

The fact is, very few people go to Sure, it may have 17 million monthly visits per comScore but I'd bet there are well over 50 million active Twitter accounts. (Note: as far as I know, Twitter does not release this number.)

Before Google could build out its syndication network and put its toolbar on every browser and desktop, it first got people hooked on That afforded it the luxury of dictating terms to 3rd parties that wanted to build on top of it, either by licensing its search results or embedding its ads onto their sites.

Sure, Twitter could just turn off its API one day, locking out all the 3rd party apps and forcing people to come back to but that will surely cause user-revolt -- much worse than if Google subtly introduced display ads on SERPs.

Another major issue for Twitter is monetization. Enough columns have been written on this topic so I’ll spare you my 2 cents other than to say that what made Google so successful was that its monetization engine reinforced its overall mission -- as Marissa Mayer said, “Ads are answers as well.” And, by keeping them relevant (through its Quality Score) Google’s been able to basically print money.

That said, it’s worth noting that Google didn’t rush to monetize either, taking a couple years to build its audience and work out its kinks before running ads.


So where does this leave Twitter?

Only time will tell if "status updates” or “micro-blogging" are to "social networks" what "search" was to "portals." And it remains to be seen if Twitter will find a way to drive revenue without disrupting the ecosystem.

If, somehow, Twitter can find the right balance of "simplicity, automation, crowdsourcing and, above all, relevance,” it could very well render Facebook the next Yahoo.

Unless, of course, a Twitter-killer like Flutter or Shttr emerges, stripping out just 26 characters or even going down to 10 and ditching the vowels.

Update: MediaPost corrected the error and my full column is now live on the Search Insider site. Some good chatter in the comments section too. Apparently I was not the first to notice the parallels between Twitter/FB and Google/Yahoo.

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