Yesterday I detailed my experience of trying to use Twitter as a search engine. It wasn’t a good experience.

A lot of people have been trying to define and categorize Twitter lately with minimal success. That’s probably due to the fact that Twitter is being used by lots of different people for lots of different things; it’s hard to fit it in a neat little box.

Most of the discussions I’ve seen about Twitter and what it is are purely qualitative. So it was interesting to read an article by Hitwise that took a quantitative approach to trying to determine what Twitter is and isn’t.

Hitwise took a look at clickstream data for Twitter and attempted to compare it to other websites to see which ones it most closely resembled. The results are quite interesting:

Twitter sent nearly 1 in 5 downstream visits to Social Networks and 1 in 5 to Entertainment websites in February.

After looking at how this compared to websites in other categories, Hitwise concluded:

It appears that Twitter is being used as a social network and means of
distributing content. This is by no means the only way it is being used – just
one standout trend. Twitter.com’s clickstream profile is much closer to a social
network than to Search Engines or Email Services. Twitter’s clickstream differs
markedly from search engines in that relatively little traffic goes to retail
websites and Education (i.e. Wikipedia). It is also different from Email in that
less traffic goes to Dating websites and again, to retail and Business and
Finance websites.

The company also found that Twitter sends a lot of its downstream traffic (just over 7%) to personal sites, like blogs, which is no surprise given how popular Twitter is with bloggers and people in the social media world.

While Hitwise’s data certainly isn’t going to end the debate over Twitter’s nature, it does provide a pretty compelling case that Twitter is far more about interaction and distribution than it is about search and pure communications.

The clickstream data Hitwise collected may have significant implications for businesses and marketers looking to use Twitter.

A lot has been made about retailer use of Twitter, for example. But Hitwise’s data indicates that Twitter doesn’t exactly provide a naturally receptive market for these types of businesses. That doesn’t mean that retailers should give up on Twitter; it does mean that strategy needs to be considered more thoughtfully and the amount invested may need to be reevaluated in light of Twitter’s potential to deliver measurable ROI.