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Don't snack on search junk: the web search giants' fight over real-time search is just a marshmallow war, says Stephen Arnold.

In the last few months, the real-time search wars have escalated. The popular press has rallied around social media and found nuggets of information for businesses in need of a jumpstart. Podcasts--internet-accessible radio shows--refer to Twitter with reverence and awe. A representative headline for a blog post? Consider Mashable's "Twitter Speeding toward 10 Billion Tweets."

I know I'd be a fool not to understand that tweets (140-character messages sent via Twitter) are a powerful force, maybe the equivalent of the former Soviet Union's Tsar Bomba, the nickname for its AN602 hydrogen bomb. But are Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo really using heavy social artillery? I don't think so. The Big Three in web search are doing little more than throwing marshmallows at one another. It's a war that won't so much leave the enemy reeling as let them pick up a few PR calories. I know marshmallows. You probably do too. They're the spongy confection used to entertain campers as they tell stories around a log fire. I remember getting mine too close to the fire and watching it melt and turn into a gooey mess.

When it comes to real-time search of social content, my view is that the Big Three of Microsoft Bing, Google and Yahoo are toasting and throwing marshmallows. They are not yet delivering information services that have substantive knowledge-food value. They just offer a mix of low-cost, artificial ingredients and marketing steroids that will add little muscle to an organisation's finances.

ORGANIC

Microsoft rolled out Bing Twitter last year. You can find it at www.bing.com/twitter. It shows a word cloud of hot topics as well as a list of shared links about the hottest topics.

A normal Bing query for Chile returns groups of results; for example, news about Chile. The most recent news when I checked was two hours old, but your query may return more timely results due to the latency in the system. The results seem to be what the search engine optimisation crowd call "organic"--a buzzword that means Microsoft is not adding extra lift to a Facebook or Twitter result just because it originates on a social media platform. Some Twitter results may be highlighted, but Bing does not consistently emphasise certain tweets. Whether that's a bug or a feature is unclear.

As a result, anyone looking for real-time information should navigate to Bing Twitter. Latency in the Twitter content was in the 15 to 30-minute range when I tested it. The direct link to news about Chile returned results that lagged behind by between 30 minutes and one hour. The Most Recent Tweets about Chile link appeared to be lagging Twitter's own search results by about two minutes.

Google brought a live pig to the real-time search cookout early in 2010 by adding social functions to Gmail, its popular email service. The dust from this product launch continues to swirl because Google skipped its traditional beta-test practice and simply made Google Buzz a product. But Buzz may have been a misstep by the company. It continues to fiddle with the service and now faces litigation over privacy complications it has caused. Instead of being able to deploy a solid phalanx of invincible Googlers, the firm clearly has some soldiers with feet of artificial American cheese.

SPECIAL TREATMENT

In February, Google expanded its real-time inclusions to updated web pages, Facebook fan page updates, tweets, and support for Jaiku updates and a handful of other services. As an example of Google's special treatment, Google updates posts to podcast host Leo LaPorte's TwitArmy. LaPorte runs a weekly, Google-friendly podcast and Google gives LaPorte his own Google channel.

If you run a query for Chile on Google, the results list includes links to news stories and an inset box that scrolls the real-time results processed by Google. Spot checks showed that latency varied from about a minute for tweets to as much as three or four minutes for other services. The delays may be due to the lack of content on these systems because the tweets displayed with reasonable consistency. A few items carried the label "seconds ago", but these were not the majority when I ran my tests in March.

CALORIE COUNTING

So which company's approach to real-time search delivers more calories?

Microsoft makes it easy to focus on Twitter content. The separate web page handles tweets as a collection. The inclusion of content from Facebook most often requires an explicit query; for example, Facebook hoarders. In general, Facebook posts are handled as normal search results. There is nothing particular to Facebook about these hits.

Google's upside is that it has integrated real-time search results into a standard Google results list. Microsoft requires knowledge of how to use the www.bing.com/twitter service. Google appears to tap into results from Twitter as well as a handful of other websites. These range from the high-profile Facebook service to the StatusNet-powered Identi.ca (http://identi.ca) and the former all-beef-patty, MySpace, which has morphed into a veggieburger for music fans.

The downside for Google is that its results list approach is increasingly cluttered. The subtle design does not help me grasp what I am supposed to review for information. The information itself is as vast and sprawling as Arlo Guthrie's song "Alice's Restaurant". But when you run a specific query such as Facebook SSNBlog, it works reasonably well. The problem is that you have to know exactly what you want to find, which just might be a problem for some consumers.

Now instead of building a social content indexing system itself, Yahoo's management inked a deal with OneRiot (www.oneriot.com), a specialist in real-time search. Yahoo has a leg up on Google because the results list for my test query of Facebook hoarders and Facebook SSNBlog struck me as less cluttered.

The drawback to the Yahoo approach is that neither news or Twitter results, which are accessible via a tab on the results page, provide tightly filtered results. A Wikipedia listing appears right below tweets. The CIA Facebook entry is certainly not a real-time source in my opinion nor appropriate for content in the Twitter tab. Yahoo has a good presentation, but the logic of what is displayed needs work. Social content displayed in Yahoo results reminded me of my getting hit with an errant marshmallow before climbing in my sleeping bag.

So of these three services, which is the leader in real-time search? The answer is: none. To get the freshest, most relevant real-time search results, I rely on specialised search systems.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

The most used systems in my browser bookmark list are Collecta (www.collecta.com), Scoopler (www.scoopler.com), and Twitter's own search engine (http://search.twitter.com) because they all provide fresh content with acceptable relevance. The notion of having a few results scrolling past in an embedded box or scattered like grains of brown rice after a green wedding is not useful. I prefer the full-page scroll of Collecta or Scoopler.

Each time I take a look at the Big Three's approach to real-time search, it becomes evident that considerable opportunity exists in this sector.

In the US, the Department of Defense has opened some of its doors to social content. Companies are becoming more aggressive with their efforts to use social media as a way to communicate information about new products or prices.

For researchers and competitive intelligence professionals, the new content streams are a potentially valuable source of information. But like other types of content, the casual approach of free search services delivers a partial solution. Industrial-strength processing of real-time content requires a more rigorous approach.

For now, what the Big Three are delivering is more marketing-inspired services than business solutions or tools. The dark horse in real-time search is Facebook. Not only does it have more traffic than Yahoo, its content continues to expand as a result of the growing number of business pages in the service.

For information nutrition, rely on those real-time search services that pack protein and vitamins. Cut down or just skip the empty calories delivered by the Big Three. Go direct and get natural social content search from the real time-content farmers, not the industrial combines. And avoid the Big Three and their marshmallow food fight.

Stephen E Arnold is an IT consultant
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Title Annotation:OPINION
Author:Arnold, Stephen
Publication:Information World Review
Date:Apr 1, 2010
Words:1387
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