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Thanks to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. information is being collected, aggregated and distributed faster than ever. That's a good thing for a number of reasons, but keeping track of what's taking place on the 'real-time' web can be challenging.

Plenty of companies are trying to do just that. From helping consumers stay on top of the latest news to assisting companies with their online reputations, players in the social media search and monitoring spaces are taking numerous approaches.

But some of the best positioned companies are those that collect the seemingly countless links that are shared every day on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

One of those companies, bitly, offers a URL shortener that is used to share tens of millions of links each month. Increasingly, the company is looking to turn the data it's collecting about those links into new products. Yesterday, it announced two of them: a search engine and reputation monitoring solution.

In a post announcing bitly's new products, platform manager Matt LeMay seemed eager to contrast bitly's new search engine, which is in private beta, with the world's largest search engine, Google:

This is the challenge of the realtime search space — many of the pages are so new, so fresh, that they don’t have any pagerank. A personal blog post isn’t authoritative in the way that the New York Times or Wired magazine is authoritative, but stories don’t find their way into Wired unless people like Jonathan Zdiarski speak out. Increasingly, they do, and often they reach a broad audience on social media before more conventionally-authoritative newsgatherers amplify their messages.

He went on:

So instead of pagerank we’re using a different filter — for any given search query, we display the stories that we predict will get the most attention over the next 24 hours. Then we use bitly’s analytics to refine our predictions in realtime. Our search technology is based on the the most valuable measure of engagement: the click. 

Obviously, it's worth pointing out that Google isn't exactly clueless about real-time search. The search behemoth, which turned in another strong quarter of financial results, has been experimenting with real-time search for some time, and has licensed Twitter's firehose. It's also built its own URL shortener and is almost certainly collecting lots of data from the still-nascent Google+.

But while there's no doubt that social signals are making their way into Google's algorithm, it's unclear whether consumers have a significant interest in real-time search. Perhaps recognizing this, bitly isn't aiming for the moon; it's leveraging its search engine to power a reptuation monitoring service for customers of its Enterprise service:

We added a layer of sentiment analysis to our search results and built an alert system that lets our customers know what people are saying about products, brands, or about any topic on social media. Unlike a typical clipping service, which lets you know the things that people have already said about you on Facebook, this is an early-warning system, designed to alert you in realtime to swings in volume and sentiment related to specific keywords.

Such an offering makes sense for bitly, but the big question for bitly and companies like it is how long they can maintain their positions in the market. bitly's data, of course, comes from its URL shortener, and although it's still shortening some 80m links each month, there's no guarantee that large sources of those links, like Twitter, won't increasingly push bitly out of the market.

Patricio Robles

Published 17 October, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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