Is Twitter a search engine? It’s a question a lot of people are asking, myself included.

I signed up for Twitter at the beginning of the year and even though I’m not a hardcore user and only have a modest ‘following‘ of around 225 people, I do like the service. I’ve found it to be very useful in staying on top of industry trends and seeing what interesting people are talking about.

But when it comes to Twitter serving as a search engine and even possibly competing with Google, I have to give Twitter a failing grade.

Why? I’ve been trying to use it as a search engine with very little success.

I performed my first Twitter search on February 4 and since then, I’ve tried tweeting for a handful of things that I’d also been searching for at the time. My queries, in descending order:

  • Anybody have hotel suggestions for Atlanta? Looking for something good…3-5 star…
  • does anyone know of a site with good sample facebook application code? preferably using PHP to interact with the API
  • does anyone know of a reliable freight forwarder in brazil?
  • anyone use microsoft adcenter? decent conversions?
  • looking for a merchant account provider … non-US-based … any suggestions?
  • does anyone know where i can find a searchable db of IP blocks associated with the companies that own/use them?

Obviously, some of them are a bit more long tail than others but that’s the point. The average search isn’t for the latest news about Google or Apple.

I received responses to only 3 of the queries above. The answer to one was not close to being what I was looking for. I received one response each to “looking for a merchant account provider … non-US-based … any suggestions?” and “Anybody have hotel suggestions for Atlanta? Looking for something good…3-5 star…“.

Both were legitimate responses (although it’s worth mentioning that one was an affiliate link) but needless to say, there are plenty of hotels in Atlanta meeting my criteria and there are plenty of non-US merchant account providers. The fact that I was only given one option for each isn’t exactly satisfactory when a quick Google search gives me lots of options.

Obviously I don’t have thousands of followers (you can change that) so the number of people who would reasonably see my tweets and respond to them isn’t optimal. But 225 followers is probably a decent number for an ‘average‘ Twitter user, showing that most people (especially new users) are going to have a hard time turning Twitter into a powerful social search tool from which peer recommendations are easily obtained.

Using search.twitter.com didn’t help my experience either. When I searched for information on what people were saying about Microsoft AdCenter conversions, for instance, there weren’t any results. And today, you can see that there are only 4 results that mention ‘adcenter‘ and ‘conversions‘. My tweet is one of them. A Google search, on the other hand, quickly brings up several relevant results on the first page.

The truth is that the 6 simple
questions I tweeted are really no different than the millions of searches on
millions of other topics that are conducted daily about Google. In nearly a month and a half Twitter hasn’t been able to provide satisfactory answers to them, even though 3 were explicitly commercial in nature and could have provided any number of businesses with an opportunity to earn a customer.

My conclusion based on this: Twitter can be whatever you want it to be but it definitely isn’t going to be a search engine as far as the general public is concerned.

There are lots of great conversations taking place and lots of great information about popular topics being shared on Twitter but search is a long tail game. If the most Twitter can deliver when it comes to Atlanta hotels is a single possibility, this does not bode well for Twitter as a commercially viable search engine.

Search is also a fast game in which the players demand immediate results. It’s true that Google can’t tell you what people are ‘talking about‘ this very moment like Twitter can but when I’m searching, I don’t care what people are generally talking about. I want immediate answers to my questions.

Google provides lots of answers very quickly on almost any mainstream topic and Twitter unfortunately doesn’t so for now I have no choice but to label Twitter a ‘fail‘ as a legitimate ‘search engine‘.

Have you had the same experience? Or are you luckier than I? I’d love to hear about your Twitter search experience so please leave comments if you have one to share.