The Twitter Search Revolution: Popular & Promoted Tweets Mature The Service

Within the past month, Twitter Search has radically matured. It has gained “relevant” tweets in addition to search ads. The changes are as much a revolution as when web search engines increased their relevancy and integrated search ads a decade ago. Searchers, search marketers — take notice! Below, a guide to what’s happened and what […]

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Within the past month, Twitter Search has radically matured. It has gained “relevant” tweets in addition to search ads. The changes are as much a revolution as when web search engines increased their relevancy and integrated search ads a decade ago. Searchers, search marketers — take notice! Below, a guide to what’s happened and what may come.

Relevancy Ranking Vs. “Recency” Ranking

To fully understand how radically Twitter Search has changed, let’s compare to Google.

When you search on Google, the results are generally listed in order of relevancy. That relevancy isn’t always perfect. However, it’s a far cry from the mid-90s, when searching on some search engines might bring up results that often seemed almost randomly selected.

Google’s “secret sauce” was to look for ways to rank pages beyond just examining the words on those pages. In particular, it looked at how people linked to pages. Links from good web sites, and the words in the hyperlinks themselves, influenced whether a page would rank well. These days, “link analysis” like this remains a core ranking signal used by all major web search engines.

Now imagine that Google no longer ranked results by relevancy. Instead, all results are ranked by recency. Do a search, and the “freshest” or most recently published pages matching your search terms make it to the top, regardless of the quality of those pages.

I can simulate this. Here’s a search for iPhone on Google, ranked by relevancy:

iPhone search on Google

Right at the top is a link to the official iPhone page at Apple, followed by the official page for the iPhone 3GS, some shopping and news results, a Wikipedia entry about the iPhone and the Apple Store. All of these links are “evergreen” in nature. They remain largely relevant for a large class of queries over a long period of time.

Here’s the same search, where I’ve forced ranking by recency:

iPhone search on Google, ranked by time

Now the relevancy isn’t so good. A link to a “Catch The Egg” program for the iPhone probably isn’t the best thing out of millions of possible matches for “iphone” out on the web. Nor is a link about Rhapsody for iPhone getting offline playlists. There are some news items and tweets about a police search warrant issued regarding a next-generation iPhone that was lost. Those are relevant, if you’re interested in the latest news. But many Google searchers aren’t after the latest news. So ranking by recency makes little sense.

Popular Tweets = Relevancy Ranking At Twitter Search

The imaginary Google I’ve described above was the real Twitter Search, until the addition of Popular Tweets on April 1. Before then, when you searched at Twitter Search, you got the most recent results at the top of the page, regardless of how important or relevant they were, such as like this:

iPhone on Twitter Search, ranked by recency

The screenshot above (like most in this story) was taken on April 27, the day after news broke about a search warrant was issued against Gizmodo, regarding an iPhone 4 prototype it had purchased. Despite this being a huge story that day with plenty of discussion on Twitter, the top items on Twitter Search were a mishmash of iPhone-related news. Beyond that, there were tweets about iPhone apps and one mention of the Gizmodo story.

With Popular Tweets, you get top picks like these:

iPhone search with Popular Tweets

The first three items are Popular Tweets (Twitter will show up to three Popular Tweets per search, and these are identified by the blue “recent retweet” boxes shown below each Popular Tweet). One is a TechCrunch article about the Gizmodo story; one on Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak joking about Apple security, and one about a joke spelling correction on the iPhone that seems to be making the rounds.

That’s relevancy in action. That’s Twitter trying to say that at the current moment, these three are some of the most relevant tweets out there, based on how they’re being retweeted and other factors.

I’ll get back to Popular Tweets in more detail further below. But next, let’s now talk about ads….

Promoted Tweets = Search Ads For Twitter Search

When you search on Google, you also often get ads. The ads provide alternative listings that searchers find relevant, plus they provide a useful way for advertisers to be seen if they don’t show up in the “natural” or “editorial” results.

Here’s an example of search ads showing at Google in a search for recycling:

Google Ads

You can see two of them at the top of the page inside an orange box, with the label “Sponsored Links.” There are additional ones along the right hand side of the editorial results, under the “Sponsored Links” heading.

Over at Twitter, there were no ads until April 13, with the introduction of Promoted Tweets. Here’s a search for recycling with one of these showing up, from Best Buy:

Best Buy Promoted Tweet for recycling

For any search, Twitter may now show one ad at the top of the page. Ready to buy? Hang on — let’s next talk more about the interaction of the Popular and Promoted tweets.

The Two Flavors Of Twitter Search

Popular Tweets and Promoted Tweets each show at the top of Twitter’s search results. So, which comes first if there’s a search that generates a match with both? Neither. At the moment, that can never happen.

The reason is that there are two “flavors” of Twitter search results: those you get at the dedicated Twitter Search site ( and those at Twitter itself ( Twitter Search gets Popular Tweets; Twitter gets Promoted Tweets. Neither gets both.

This is Twitter Search at the dedicated Twitter Search site:

Twitter Search

Here are the results from Twitter Search for a query on recycling:

Recycling Popular Tweet

You’ll see a Popular Tweet at the top of the results but not the ad that was also currently running if you were to have searched at

This is Twitter Search integrated into the main site, a box you’ll find along the right-hand side of the page:

Search Box At Twitter

Here are the results for a search for recycling using that box:

Best Buy Promoted Tweet for recycling

This time, you can see that a Promoted Tweet at the top of the results. The Popular Tweet we got when searching at Twitter Search? It doesn’t appear.

Why the separation?

“We wanted to launch them independently, so we could learn about them a bit more. We’ll integrate them very soon,” Twitter’s director of search Doug Cook told me, when we talked at Twitter’s recent Chirp developer conference.

Cook wouldn’t say exactly how long “very soon” was for the integration, but it seems likely to happen in weeks, rather than months.

When it does, which will come first in the results, Promoted Tweets or Popular Tweets?

“We’ll have to figure that out, what to do when you have both Popular and Promoted tweets,” Cook said. “But the right answer is that we’ll do the right thing by the user.”

Twitter Search From Twitter Partners: No Popular Or Promoted Tweets

To further complicate things, the two “flavors” of Twitter search results described above are those offered by Twitter itself on its own sites. Twitter also provides search results to a wide variety of partners, who in turn may have their own flavors of what they show.

For example, using my Twhirl software, I can send a search request through it to Twitter and get results like this:

Twhirl and Twitter Search

Similarly, I can do the same using the TweetDeck client:

TweetDeck and Twitter Search

But if these search results are from Twitter, where are the Popular and Promoted tweets?

Right now, Twitter flags Popular Tweets to partners, the company told me, but it remains up to those partners if, when and how they want to display these. To date, I’ve not heard of any partner doing so. Twitter says it expects this will change soon — that the lack of use is simply because Popular Tweets are so new.

As for promoted tweets, those aren’t being distributed to partners yet. That will change in the future, though there’s no set time. The program is still so new that the company’s not ready for distribution. However, Twitter definitely hopes partners will carry its Promoted Tweets, with Twitter COO Dick Costolo announcing at the Chirp conference that Twitter will split revenues 50/50 with them.

Twitter’s Ads On Google?

How about big partners like Google and Bing, which are currently paying Twitter for access to its index. Are they going to carry Twitter’s ads for a 50/50 split?

Costolo told me during the Chirp conference that he hopes the major search engines will be interested in Twitter’s ads but that the decision, as with any partner, is up to them.

I’d be surprised if Google does. Instead, I suspect Google will feel less hesitant about displaying its own ads against tweets within its specific real-time search service (it already shows ads against real time searches when integrated into its main results).

Only One Ad Per Search?

It also seemed odd that Twitter is going to show only one ad in response to a search. Do any search at Google, and you can find plenty of advertisers all equally relevant to a search competing against each other. Why doesn’t Twitter show more?

Costolo said the main worry at the moment is that Twitter doesn’t control exactly how paid tweets will show up outside of Twitter. Yes, it plans some guidelines on display. But imagine a Twitter software application that only lists five tweets in response to a search. If Twitter puts out up to three paid tweets, someone might feel “overwhelmed” but the paid stuff, he said. So right now, Twitter’s being cautious. But it could be in the future, there might be more ads on Twitter’s own site.

Beyond “Pure” Twitter Search

To complicate matters even more, in the Twhirl and Tweetdeck examples shown above, neither client tries to rerank the results it gets back from Twitter. Aside from missing Popular or Promoted tweets, what you get pretty much is “pure” Twitter search results as issued by Twitter itself.

That’s not the case with some other third parties. For example, here are results from CrowdEye, which taps into the Twitter database but applies its own ranking algorithm to create listings:

CrowdEye Twitter Results

In other words, run the same search at the same time on Twitter versus CrowdEye, and the lists you get back probably won’t be the same.

Similarly, here are results from Topsy, another service that that taps into Twitter:

Topsy and Twitter Search

Again, the ranking at Topsy is different than at Twitter, even though the same database of tweets is being used. Topsy also has its own form of Popular Tweets — “Featured Tweets” — which appear at the top of its results. But these Featured Tweets are determined solely by Topsy, not Twitter. Potentially in the future, Topsy could show its own Featured Tweets plus Twitter’s Popular tweets and even Twitter’s Promoted Tweets, all at the top of the page.

Third Party Ads

Speaking of ads — and to make life for the Twitter search marketer even more complicated — consider a search engine like OneRiot. OneRiot taps into Twitter as well as many other sources of real time information. In addition, rather than trying to list tweets, OneRiot focuses on links that are being shared through social media. That means a much different set of results, such as you see here:

OneRiot and Twitter Search

Notice that in addition to showing links, there’s also an ad (called Featured Content). OneRiot has its own pretty-innovative sounding ad system that allows people to purchase ads in response to search queries. Potentially, OneRiot could also carry Twitter’s ads in addition to its own. Or, it could chose to go it alone.

Also coming on the scene is TweetUp, from GoTo/Overture-founder Bill Gross. GoTo pioneered the search ads that we take for granted today. Gross wants to do the same for Twitter.

I spoke with Gross last week and will be taking a deeper look at his service in the future. But in short, TweetUp will be a Twitter search engine that puts out both “free” or “editorial” results using its own ranking algorithm as well as paid ads. Gross hopes to attract partners in the same way Twitter does and perhaps coexist alongside Twitter. Indeeed, TweetDeck — just named as a TweetUp partner — will carry TweetUp’s results in addition to Twitter’s search results. TweetDeck users will be able to pick which search engine they want to tap into.

Little Known About The World’s #2 Search Engine

All this got your head spinning? It sure hurts mine, and I’m not done with the complications. Earlier this month, Twitter disclosed it processes 18 billion searches per month, putting it well above the number two worldwide search engine, Yahoo. Plenty of search marketers think Yahoo’s worth focusing on, but plenty also still fail to give Twitter, much less Twitter Search, a second glance.

My Twitter Does 19 Billion Searches Per Month, Beating Yahoo & Bing (Sort Of) article digs deeper into the numbers. If search marketers are ignoring Twitter Search, the article helps explain why that’s understandable.

Not all of those searches are people who are actively searching, going to Twitter and entering a query. Instead, some of them are “standing” queries, where someone is running the same search throughout the day for brand tracking or other reasons. Some queries are generated by widgets on web pages that constantly pull back the latest tweets on a particular topic.

If that’s not enough, we know very little about the search behavior across the entire landscape. What percentage of people go to Twitter Search versus doing a search from Don’t know. What percentage of people search from a client? Don’t know. Which is the bigger search engine, Topsy or OneRiot? Don’t know. None of the major ratings services report this, much less the number of Twitter searches that happen on the major search engines.

Speaking of those major services, those 18 billion searches? They do NOT include all the searches that bring up Twitter results on Google, Bing or Yahoo.

With all this unclarity, it’s incredibly tough for a search marketer to know which “Twitter” search engine to care about, much less where to buy ads or even be certain where their ads will appear.

Better clarity will come, especially as the inevitable consolidation of services happens. But as a guide for now, see the companion piece to this article, The Twitter Search Landscape. It will guide you to what I view as the current important players to watch.

Next Steps For Marketers? Build Your Authority

What to do if your a search marketer, looking to tap into Twitter search? For one, get involved with Twitter. Understand it. Either participate personally or on behalf of your company.

In terms of SEO — generating traffic from “free” or editorial listings — the move seems clear. Various Twitter search services seem to be shifting away from ranking the most recent stuff first and more toward rewarding relevancy or perceived importance (see The Origin Of #nickcleggsfault & Getting To More Relevant Tweets for some examples of this). Being fresh will likely stay very important, but having good content, being a good authority, that’s going to pay off.

In many ways, that’s the same formula for long term success with a web site in web search: have good content, be an authority. If you’re putting out good information, other people are likely to retweet you. If that grows, you might be deemed an Twitter authority. Similarly, if you can engage existing authorities on Twitter, getting them to retweet your information might make it more visible in search results and add to your own authority.

Trying to determine how authoritative you are? Each Twitter search service has its own formula, so using third party tools that give you “authority ratings” isn’t an exact science. Still, for the curious, it’s a start — check out places like Klout or recently-launched

Do Tweets In Search Send Traffic?

It’s also important to note that to date, I’ve seen little research or reports of how much traffic might come from a tweet that shows up within any of the various Twitter search services out there. There’s no doubt that tweets themselves drive traffic, as many people have reported this. But what about tweets that appear in search results. Do they generate many visitors?

Your web analytics tool probably isn’t even trying to break out this stat for you. Heck, Is Twitter Sending You 500% To 1600% More Traffic Than You Might Think? covers how hard it is to track traffic from direct tweets, much less tweets that appear in search results.

In addition, it may be that in the current systems, tweets appear in top results for such an incredibly short period of time that search itself can”t drive much traffic, despite so many searches happening. But as relevant tweets start to get longer visibility, this may change.

Search With A Person Behind It

Traffic isn’t everything, however. Perhaps the most revolutionary change that Twitter search is offering, compared to traditional search, is that each “result” you find has a person attached to it.

For years, I’ve described search as a “reverse broadcast system” where each search that happens is someone broadcasting a need they have. Millions of needs are being broadcast each day. Marketers can “tune in” to this broadcast by showing up in the search results. Unlike with traditional advertising, searchers welcome this. Marketers in search provide answers that searchers want, not interruptions to their reading, TV viewing or other activities.

Twitter search is even better. Many tweets are themselves questions, needs, desires being put out to the world. Some of these are overt questions (see How We Search With The Twitter “Help Engine”), while others are implied. Regardless, each has a real person behind it.

Consider these Twitter results for huntington beach apartments that I found using Google’s real time search service:

Huntington Beach Apartments & Twitter Results

These are gems for any marketer. The top result shows someone saying they’re hunting for an apartment, as does the fourth and last two. If you have apartments in that city to rent, all you need to be doing is listening, monitoring for these types of tweets, and then you can reach out directly to them.

Try that on regular Google. Try to identify an actual person who searched for something with that much precision and have the ability to call out to them. You can’t.

Postscript: Also see The “Anyone Know” Search: How Twitter Is Good For More Than Brand Monitoring, which explains the above section in more depth.

Twitter’s Search Ads

As for paid search, Twitter has stressed that “resonance” will be important for ads in its system to do well. Think of that as being similar to quality score in AdWords. There’s an attempt to measure what you’re saying, what your account history is like, how people are reacting to your ad in accordance with expectations and more all being measured. TweetUp says it’s looking at similar metrics. So again, content and authority are important.

With Twitter, only a few select companies can purchase ads right now. Virtually everyone else has to wait. Anxious? Then testing out the alternative systems offered by with OneRiot or TweetUp may make sense.

By the way, in all this, I’m specifically talking about tweets that appear in response to a search, not paid tweets that just flow into someone’s tweetstream. There are any number of third-party firms out there that already who do this, including hiring prominent tweeters to put out ads when they tweet. Also, in the future, Twitter says its own Promoted Tweets will also show up in tweetstreams. But none of that is paid search. Those ads aren’t showing in response to someone expressing a search desire. They’re more akin to contexual ads, AdSense for Twitter, so to speak.

Consumer Issues

The emerging ad market also raises some consumer issues. I’m not fond of the term “Promoted” that Twitter is using for its ads. I don’t find that clear enough given that all the major search engines have long used “Sponsored” as the key disclosing term for their ads. That’s also the term TweetUp will be using.

When I raised this with Twitter, company vice president of communications Sean Garrett noted the “Promoted” line that identifies each Promoted Tweet links to a FAQ page designed to explain what Promoted Tweets are all about to consumers. In addition, he pointed out another large search engine uses the term “Promoted” — YouTube.

Yes, Google-owned YouTube does use “Promoted,” unlike most other Google properties. I took Google to task over this in my Google Experiments With Paid Inclusion & Does “Promoted” Meet FTC Guidelines? article from last November. I still disagree with it.

Still, the word “Promoted” probably does meet the FTC guidelines.

I’ve got more concern elsewhere in the Twitter Search ecosystem. At OneRiot, as I’ve covered, paid search ads are called “Featured,” a term the FTC didn’t seem like when drafting its guidelines in 2002. HootSuite also has “Featured” tweets but no explanation about what these are. TweetDeck’s short help info about “Recommended” tweets doesn’t clarify if these are ads or not.

The FTC guidelines apply to all search engines, not just to the big web search services. Hopefully, those in the Twitter Search space will unify around some common terminology and ensure that anything paid is clearly marked, identified and explained. Otherwise, consumers may begin to distrust the growing space, and the FTC might take an interest.

Look Forward To More!

In this article, I’ve focused on Twitter Search. Twitter is only one part of the growing real time search space. For a broader overview, see my article from last year, What Is Real Time Search? Definitions & Players. I’ll be updating that in the near future, especially to reflect the forthcoming changes you can expect now that Facebook has opened its content up to search players.

Also, we’ll have a Twitter, Real Time Search & Real Time SEO at our upcoming SMX Advanced Seattle conference on June 8 to explore these issues more. If interested, book your ticket now. We have fewer than 50 tickets left and may sell out as early as this week.

Finally, assuming you liked this long analysis, consider showing your appreciation and support by becoming a Search Engine Land member — you get some great benefits, as well!

Postscript: Also see The “Anyone Know” Search: How Twitter Is Good For More Than Brand Monitoring, which picks up more on some themes in this article

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and MarTech, and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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