What Google’s figured out but Twitter hasn’t

Search. Obviously — that’s sort of Google’s thing.

The social networking giants are joined in one giant rush to rip off one another’s ideas — good ones or otherwise: As you are doubtless aware, Facebook just added #hashtags. Twitter introduced Vine a few months ago — and now, Instagram is rumored to be adding video, as well. The race is on to see which network will manage to render the others redundant and thereby achieve social media singularity.

Some of these efforts have been successful to some degree. But when these companies rush to be everything to everyone all at once, they sometimes forget the small details. In the case of Twitter it’s the search function. The microblogging service has been trying to get into search for at least four years now, and it’s easy to see why: The ability to see updates and reactions in nearly-real time can be an extremely powerful tool. Jon Stewart’s bullying aside, it’s the reason CNN & friends ask their viewers for the fuzzy products of cell phone cameras. The result is that when I want breaking news updates, I’m about as likely to head over to Twitter as I am to Google or New York Times or any other non-constantly-updating stream of information.

So it was that just today, when I heard that the Mariners had signed their second-round draft pick out of Stanford, Austin Wilson [this post is not actually about sports], I immediately attempted to confirm that rumor (he hasn’t, yet) on Twitter:

Google over Twitter

But even accounting for the inherent limitations implied by using the platform as any form of search engine, Twitter still has a long way to go before it can be considered even minimally functional. For now, I’m just going to draw your attention to two serious problems in the screenshot I just showed you.

The first is pretty obvious: I typed “austin wilson”, and the results Twitter turned up are all for “Justin Wilson”. On the one hand, I get it: there are two verified accounts for people named Justin Wilson, while Austin Wilson may or may not be a professional baseball player (depending on whether or not he, indeed, ends up signing). On the other hand, last time I checked, Austin Wilson did not recently change his name to Justin Wilson, and A and J remain different letters in the Latin alphabet (or all those AJs would suddenly become AAs). The underlying problem here is that Twitter decided it knew what I wanted to know about — something Google does — but did so without also offering something else Google does — the “Did you mean: Justin Wilson” option.*

*Such an option actually does appear sporadically — for identical, repeated searches — which is just weird. I have no theory to explain this.

Moreover, Twitter was supposed to return results for “austin wilson”. Those quotation marks aren’t there by accident, or just the way Twitter chose to present my search — they’re there because I put them there. Standard internet conventions dictate that quotation marks are used to indicate when a searcher is only interested in those precise “quoted” words in that precise order. As Michael Bluth would say, the very fact that Twitter felt comfortable not only pushing the requested Austin Wilson search results way down the list (and they were there, if you scrolled long enough), all the while bolding “Justin Wilson” as if that had been my search term, tells me Twitter’s not ready to do search.

Search is Google’s world, and Twitter’s just living in it.

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