How We Search With The Twitter “Help Engine”

Is Twitter a search engine or not? There’s been plenty of discussion and debate about this recently. I’d say yes, in a way. It’s clear to anyone who watches a twitterstream that people put out questions to Twitter similar to how they use search engines. But if anecdotal examples aren’t enough, a survey I conducted last week confirms that Twitter is used as a search resource.

If you’re scratching your head about the phrase “help engine” in the headline, my companion piece, The Rise Of Help Engines: Twitter & Aardvark, goes into more depth about the new class of search engines I’m calling help engines and why.

Before diving into the survey numbers, let me start out with one of the comments I received about the survey, which ran for several days:

I just want to mention that this poll is totally unscientific and thus the results are meaningless. It is likely totally biased toward those that use Twitter frequently and obviously biased toward those that use your site. If your aim is to get some anecdotal data, that’s fine, but please don’t try to draw any conclusions from this poll.

You don’t want to get me going about the number of “scientific” polls I’ve read over the years that are nonetheless meaningless for a variety of reasons. I’ll save the longer debate of the “science” behind many polls for another time. But the comment deserves some attention.

My poll cannot tell you what everyone does on Twitter with any certainty, in terms of search. Moreover, I’m not certain how anyone could get a “random” sample to produce such a poll. Those with many followers are not the same as those with a few. Do you calculate the percentage of highly followed users and ensure they answer in the same proportion as those who take a survey? And how do you “random dial” these people? What percentage of people are Twitter novices versus those with experience, which might also influence any answers about how they use Twitter for search?

No, this survey doesn’t provide a perfect picture of how people search via Twitter. But I think it’s a good first step beyond the anecdotes that people report. It provides a few preliminary hard numbers to put behind all that commentary about Twitter as search.

It’s also important to understand this survey is NOT about Twitter Search. That’s a separate part of Twitter, where people can explicitly do a search against past tweets to find information. Instead, this survey was about how people use Twitter itself — their network of followers — to ask for help directly, especially when in the past, they might have first turned to a search engine.

Finally, when I write that Twitter is a search engine, or being used by some who see it that way, I think it’s important to understand that I don’t mean this is Twitter’s primary purpose — nor that Twitter as a micro-blogging service sees itself as a search engine. I simply think this is a by-product of the service.

Let’s dive in (in a hurry? Scroll to the end, and there’s a summary). The first question asked:

How often do you ask a question on Twitter in hopes of getting an answer?

Of 467 responses, the breakdown was:

How often do you get satisfactory answers to your questions?

Less than 20% (17.3% exactly) said they’ve never used Twitter to ask a question. For this group, clearly Twitter is not a search engine. Another third (32.8%) said they use it less than once per week, so it doesn’t seem to factor heavily with them as a search alternative.

For the other half that answered this question, Twitter is among the search tools they consider, with varying frequency:

  • At least once a week: 33.4%
  • At least once per day: 11.1%
  • Several times per day: 5.4%

The second question asked about how successful people were when they turned to Twitter for answers:

How often do you get satisfactory answers to your questions?

There were 386 responses to this (another 81 selected N/A, as they didn’t use Twitter for searching). Satisfaction was mixed, more favorable than negative:

How often do you ask a question on Twitter in hopes of getting an answer?

As you can see, those dissatisfied — rarely (16.6%) or never (3.6%) getting answers — made a combined response of 20%. That was far outweighed by those who were satisfied in some way, a combined figure of 80%, which broke down into:

  • Usually satisfied: 37.6% (I know, the pie chart oddly rounded DOWN to 37%)
  • Sometimes satisfied: 34.5%
  • Always satisfied: 7.8%

Even among those who are satisfied in some ways, you can see that Twitter is not perfect, given the low percentage of “always” answers. However, various surveys I’ve reviewed of “regular” search engines over the years never have high figures of those who are “always” satisfied, either.

If Twitter is a search engine, how much of a threat is it to the existing ones out there like Google? The third question was a stab at determining some frequency of using Twitter rather than the traditional ones:

How frequently do you turn to Twitter for answers where in the past, you would have used a search engine like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft?

How frequently do you turn to Twitter for answers where in the past, you would have used a search engine like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft?

There were 390 responses (another 77 selected the N/A option). So of those who say they’ve used Twitter rather than a traditional service, nearly half (45.6%) said this was a rare choice. Add to that another third (33.1%) who said using Twitter was a “sometimes” choice, and I don’t think the folks at Google (much less Yahoo or Microsoft) have to worry about widespread abandonment.

Indeed, the fourth question pondered if people could give up their favorite “real” search engine in place of Twitter:

Could you give up using search engines in place of asking questions on Twitter?

There were 405 responses (with another 55 selecting N/A):

Could you give up using search engines in place of asking questions on Twitter?

Only a tiny number, 4.2%, said yes. Combined, 95% said no. I allowed people to either say no (62.7%) or a qualified no (no, but I’d miss losing Twitter for asking questions) — 33.1% went for the qualified no.

I also liked this comment from one person about this question on giving up traditional search engines:

Of course not, and you KNOW this Danny. ;-)

I did know this. I would have been very surprised if the results went the other way. But as the Twitter hype continues to ramp up, I thought it would be useful to throw in this type of reality check question.

So far, the questions revealed that Twitter was used as an alternative to search engines, rather than a replacement. So what types of questions were being asked?

Personally, I had my own thoughts based on my own habits. Shopping recently, I twitted out that I wanted some advice about which external hard drive might be best. While I could use my iPhone to do regular searching while on the move, I knew from past experience it would be faster and easier to see what opinions came back.

I wrote up this as an option, along with some other categories that came to mind:

  • Fast answers, faster than searching and reading answers
  • Easier to use when I’m mobile for answers than searching
  • Too lazy to search
  • Trust my friends and followers more than search results

I also allowed the poll to let people add their own reasons that I might not have thought of. After getting about 70 responses, I quickly realized there were some additional categories that needed to be added:

  • Want answer from particular person
  • To get expert answers
  • Because I couldn’t find an answer on a search engine
  • To get answers to “real time” issues (is Gmail working? is Time Warner Cable broadband broken again? Was that an earthquake?)
  • Because I can follow up easily with further questions
  • To get a variety of opinions rather than a specific “correct” answer
  • For help finding something (article, news, web site) heard about but can’t remember or locate

Since these other categories were added later, they might be undercounted. But still, you can see how some of the later categories still drew plenty of responses to get them among the top choices.

The question specifically:

Why do you ask questions on Twitter?

People were allowed to pick more than one answer, which is why the percentages will not add up to 100% overall. There were 467 people who took the survey overall, and 78 specifically selected N/A for this question — meaning the percentages are based on 389 people who did use Twitter to ask questions for one or more of the specific reasons below:

Trust my friends and followers more than search results

47.6%

To get expert answers

45.0%

To get answers to “real time” issues (is Gmail working? is Time Warner Cable broadband broken again? Was that an earthquake?)

41.6%

To get a variety of opinions rather than a specific “correct” answer

41.1%

Want answer from particular person

30.1%

Fast answers, faster than searching and reading answers

29.0%

Because I can follow up easily with further questions

26.2%

For help finding something (article, news, web site) heard about but can’t remember or locate

21.1%

Because I couldn’t find an answer on a search engine

14.9%

Easier to use when I’m mobile for answers than searching

13.1%

Too lazy to search

5.7%

Other

16.7%

“Trust” was by far the top reason, with nearly half of those selecting it. Closely related was the number two reason, to get “expert answers.”

As I cover in my The Rise Of Help Engines: Twitter & Aardvark article, this is something unique that Twitter brings to the search space. General search engines simply don’t allow you to ask questions of friends en masse, something that was a top search habit until search engines came along. Twitter uniquely does allow this.

Somewhat related is the number four answer, a variety of opinions. Web search can provide a variety of opinions — but not necessarily a variety of opinions from those you trust.

The real time component is interesting, too. One of the key areas where Twitter Search itself has gained attention is how people turn to it for news. But clearly, some aren’t even bothering to check their first. They’re asking others directly — which has the side-benefit to help track for others.

Note that being lazy is the last reason that people search. Folks turning to Twitter do seem to be doing it for very specific reasons rather than not having time to use Google or another search engine. Indeed, that was the focus of the next question:

Do you turn to Twitter first to get questions answered or search engines?

There were 403 responses (with another 64 selecting the N/A option):

Do you turn to Twitter first to get questions answered or search engines?

Just over half (55.6%) said they’ll turn to Twitter first depending on the type of question. Another 39% said they check a search engine first, and only 5% said they’ll turn to Twitter first, which should come as a relief to someone who commented:

If you’re using Twitter to ask questions that could easily be solved by Googling it, you’re a dick and you’re doing it wrong and I won’t be following you. I have no patience for morons.

Finally, I asked at the end:

What types of questions do you ask?

Similar to my question on why people turn to Twitter, I put out some initial categories (Shopping, Computer, Travel, Legal, Home, Trivia) and then quickly added a few more after I saw some of the open-ended “Other” suggestions that came in.

People were allowed to pick more than one answer, which is again why the percentages will not add up to 100% overall for this question. There were 467 people who took the survey overall, and 78 again specifically selected N/A for this question — meaning the percentage are based on 389 people who did use Twitter to ask questions for one or more of the specific categories below:

Computer / Internet Related

67.1%

Twitter Related

44.2%

Shopping / Product Advice

40.9%

Marketing Related

35.2%

Event Related (who’s going to a party, conference, etc.)

28.0%

News Related

26.5%

Travel Information

22.6%

Job Related

22.4%

Entertainment Related

21.9%

To conduct polls

17.7%

Personal or Life Issues

15.9%

Trivia Answers

13.4%

Home Related

10.8%

Health Related

3.6%

Legal Advice

3.3%

Other

11.3%

There weren’t many surprises for me here. I figured many computer or internet related questions should have been asked. And, newsflash, people ask each other on Twitter a lot of questions about Twitter.

In the end, I also allowed people to leave opened ended comments, which I found fascinating.

It’s All About Your Followers

One common theme was that Twitter was only useful for answers depending on the number of followers you have, plus the quality or trust you have in them:

  • A lot of this will depend on how many followers a person has. The more followers, the more likely someone will ask a question and get an answer.
  • As I have a small number of followers, I just don’t have the base yet to expect to get a response to any question I might tweet. On the other hand, I have often done searches at search.twitter.com to gain insight into what the hive mind might be thinking on a particular topic or to get an answer that is timely that I would not be able to find on a search engine otherwise.
  • Ask me again in a month or so, my answers might change a bit. Have recently started using Twitter & following more people who I’m getting a feel for their advice, input, etc.
  • Even though I have never used Twitter to ask a question, I could see the potential value– with a large caveat: Most people are not like search engine marketers who are addicted to social media. Not everybody will have 1000, or even 100, or probably even 50 followers available to answer a question. Also… COME ON! Twitter does not compete with Google.
  • For me, Twitter will never replace search engines because Twitter answers are limited to the size and the kinds of network I have. Also, when I Google, Twitter pages rarely come up as answers. If they do, the answers I am looking for are not on the first page because the landing page is the current, updated page. This means, I have to start digging up for an indefinite amount of older pages to find the answer if I ever choose to do so. This defeats the purpose of search engines, which brought equality and accessibility to expert knowledge to an unprecedented level, and replacing search engines with Twitter will take people back to limiting their resources to the network of people you know. It is true that in marketing, we are empowered by Twitter as we have an opportunity to network with people we never thought we’d get an access to network with. However, I still would need a way of learning about them to know who they are, and Twitter alone is definitely not enough to continue this process of the contemporary enlightenment.
  • I certainly don’t have the largest Twitter network so having an easy way to post to a “larger” audience would likely make for better results on personal type questions. For business questions even a small network seems to outweigh search engines — people don’t necessarily share information that would answer my questions in a search engine friendly way but they will sometimes post/ DM details if I ask.
  • I don’t have much followers on twitter and I don’t follow much people either. I use it as complement to blogs news. So the real-time-answer does not work much for me…
  • I don’t use Twittter exclusively yet as a search tool. I don’t have the network of folks I follow big enough yet. But I do like to use it as a “verification” sort of tool. Sort of “here’s what I’m thinking…where are other people at?”
  • I think it depends on who follows you and whether people see you as an “influencer” or someone they want to respond to, i think there’s still a HS sense in twitter, where people dont view all of their followers as equals to themselves. so they will probably only address questions from people who they consider at their same level or higher.
  • I think that Twitter users who have more followers will be more likely to ask questions of their followers. I have around 20 followers, it’s not enough to ask too many questions. If/when I have 2000 followers I would be more likely to ask them questions.
  • If you have a good mix of followers then I think you can get your questions answered. I spend more time answering other people’s questions more then asking some of my own.
  • In relation to questions, Twitter is only as useful as the followers you have and the connection you have with these followers. If you have a broad cross-section of people following you and you interact with all of them regularly, then Twitter could be a great source of answers. If you tend to have followers all from the same niche, or if you don’t use Twitter frequently or effectively enough, getting relevant answers can be a little harder. I find searching tweets for product related terms (such as model numbers) can be a good way of getting honest reviews of items, so although I’m not asking the question, Twitter has been able to provide relevant advice from skimming tweep’s general comments about items they own/use.
  • It’s not the number of followers or followings. It is their Profiles and the Value Added Informations, Insights and Relation Building. Quality Saves time.
  • Until you reach “critical mass” in terms of followers, I think it’s a bit like shouting to an empty room hoping someone next door might hear. Still, it’s nice to have that empty room to shout into… it’s a bit like trying to catch a fish. You throw a line in and you may or may not get a bite, but hey, it was nice going fishing regardless.
  • We you are only followed by a dozen of people you actually know and then another dozen marketing bots asking questions does not make sense. Now if you are David Pogue or Kevin Rose then ya, it is way more useful. If there was a way to ask the WHOLE twitter world via a opt in topic specific method that would be good.

And It’s About Your Friends

  • Asking questions on Twitter is like geo-targeted marketing. You get specific answers, already filtered, so you don’t have to waste your time weeding out the irrelevant information. Twitter has completely changed how I learn on the internet.
  • Generally, I use Twitter for questions that search engines aren’t so good at answering. Previously, I might have contacted a few people by email or posted a question on my blog for similar answers.
  • Twitter SEARCH isn’t very compelling yet and I have only used it around events (SMX, Pubcon, Superbowl), but it is a fantastic way to locate resources/experts, to network and to coordinate with friends at social events. More importantly, Twitter is a PLATFORM that is being re-invented every day by the users, which is why it is very interesting, but it is not a search engine.
  • I have a relatively small following (circa 350) so I don’t tend to get the massive or rapid responses to my questions that users with larger followings recieve, but I have found that sending questions as @ messages to people I follow who I know have experience with the things I’m asking about will often get me an answer and/or a link to a useful resource that I would be unlikely to find using Google search.
  • I like that I can ask my followers questions about specific things and I know a human on the other end is going to give me an honest answer. For instance, when I am looking for things to do/events in Denver, I always ask my Denver Tweeple what they recommend. Usually they have already experienced it and can give me an honest review unlike going to a search engine. Just yesterday I asked about great motivational runners that I could follow for advice and answers and got tons of answers. I love that it is a community of people that are willing to help each other out. You can’t ask for a better “search engine.”
  • I like using twitter to ask questions that involve personal opinion rather than straight facts. Often I can then follow-up with people as to why they say what they say, rather than the website author who may or may not be available for comment.
  • I liken asking a question on Twitter to asking a question in a group or forum. Search engines will provide the broad answers, but asking to a smaller group of people who you’re more familiar with sparks further discussion.

Desire For Subjective Search

Traditional search engines might provide you with a variety of sources, but they’re really not overtly aiming to give a variety of opinions. That’s something some Twitter searchers value:

  • In my opinion, Twitter is more useful than search engines in many cases. If I cannot find something on Google I will either ask the questions to my followers or look on search.twitter.com for similar conversations taking place. The beauty in that, is I can engage in the actual conversation instead of simply reading an answer.
  • The power of the masses doesn’t always work, as with search engine results. Certain qualitative information is better suited for a person’s answer than an algorithm.
  • Twitter answers will always be subjective. Google answers will always be “subject to” how I search. The possible answers from Google are more diverse but also more time consuming. The bottom line is Twitter complements my search engine questions.

Twitter’s Overhyped

A number of people commented on Twitter hype growing:

  • Come on, this is ridiculous. Yes, a large proportion of getting-edge tech geeks use Twitter, but this is still less than 1% of the population as a whole. I’m a tech geek, I work in search and research, but I have never used Twitter in my life and have yet to see a purpose for it.
  • Have done some research for a couple of companies on where they’re showing up in the Web 2.0 space. My feeling is Twitter is a very long way from replacing certain review sites let alone search engines.
  • Honestly, I believe Twitter will fade rather than become an alternative to search. More people are joining Twitter because others are, but few realize the real value – and that real value has yet to truly reveal itself.
  • I admit that Twitter will become a great knowledge sharing tool, but it doesn’t have the scale to be useful outside of the state of California…yet.
  • I don’t see Twitter overtaking search engines in any way shape or form. For quick contact with friends or very specific advice that’s better handled with some quick back and forth, sure, but Twitter lacks the depth, specificity and authority of search engines for 99% of anything I need to look for.
  • I think Twitter at the moment is over-hyped. Period.
  • I’m more likely to trust a reliable website that specializes on the topic at hand over a friend or random person who follows me. I also wouldn’t have to wait for a response if I just searched for the answer myself. I do like the concept of getting answers to real time issues, but I can accomplish that on facebook (which I have far more connections on).

In Summary

Made it to the end? Here’s a summary of the findings:

  • Half ask a question on Twitter at least once per week
  • Nearly 40% are “usually” satisfied with the answers they get
  • Half “sometimes” or “often” turn to Twitter for questions rather than a traditional search engine
  • Only 4% said they’d give up a traditional search engine for Twitter
  • Nearly half said they ask questions on Twitter because they trust their friends or followers more than search results or are seeking expert answers
  • 40% said they seek answers to “real time” issues or they want a variety of opinions
  • Nearly 70% said questions they asked were related to computer or the internet, followed by 44% asking questions about Twitter, then 41% asking about shopping or product advice

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Features: General | Search Engines: Help Engines | Top News | Twitter

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.searchmarketingcommunications.com Cohn

    Very informative post.

    One problem with Twitter as a help / search tool is that after about 40 searches Twitter caps further searches with the “Sorry, but you’ve reached your limit on searches for now.”

  • http://blog.agrawals.org rakeshlobster

    Danny,

    I think a number of people who are really excited about this are confusing the value of their audience with what Twitter provides, which is an easy way to reach their audience.

    Kedrosky, Battelle, Zawodny, etc. have been doing “lazy web” searches (correct me if I’m wrong, I think that’s Kedrosky’s term) using their blogs for years. They’ll post a question and with their thousands of readers, they get answers on the comments to the post. Twitter is just an easier way to do that.

    Their results are in no way typical. Google will give you an answer no matter who you are. And with the exception of a little bit of personalization the results will be largely the same.

    I wrote more on this here, as well as the specific challenges of indexing twitter:
    http://blog.agrawals.org/2009/03/08/realtime-twitter-search-is-not-a-google-killer/

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    I think plenty of people who took the survey probably aren’t prominent bloggers looking for the latest way to do lazy questions. In fact, as noted, being lazy wasn’t even a top reason for Twittering questions.

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