13 Comments

Summary:

The back-and-forth between Google and Twitter over Google’s new social-search results is only the latest manifestation of a much deeper problem with the relationship between the two former partners. The reality is that both sides need each other more than they would probably like to admit.

3375999258_758066383e_z

If Google and Twitter were to describe their relationship in one word, it would probably be “complicated.” For the past week or so, the two have been sniping at each other about Google’s new social-search features, and how Twitter doesn’t show up as high as it should in those results — thanks to what it sees as favoritism of Google’s own Google+ network. But this particular brouhaha is only the latest manifestation of a much deeper problem between the two, like a fight over the toothpaste, or who did the laundry last. Both sides need each other more than they would probably like to admit.

When Google launched its new “Search plus Your World,” which the search giant claimed would give users a view of what their social networks were recommending and sharing, Twitter was among the first to point out that all Google was really doing was promoting its own social network in search. Twitter said it was “disappointed” in the move, and suggested Google wasn’t fulfilling its chosen role as an impartial search provider, and Twitter’s general counsel (and former Googler) Alex Macgillivray went even further and said the search company’s move was “a bad day for the Internet.”

Not one to take criticism lying down, Google responded with a somewhat passive-aggressive statement about how it would love to show more Twitter results, but was obeying the “rel=nofollow” rules laid down by Twitter (which are designed to prevent Google from assigning page-rank value to certain links as part of its indexing process). The search company also pointed out that Twitter was the one that broke off the previous deal between the two which gave Google access to the full “firehose” of Twitter data, which formed the basis of Google’s short-lived real-time search offering.

Google: “It’s your fault.” Twitter: “No it’s your fault”

This week, Twitter came back with its own argument, and stuck a thumb in Google’s eye to boot: Developers with the company collaborated with Facebook Director of Product Blake Ross on a browser plugin called “Don’t be evil,” which is designed to show what Google’s search results would look like if the search giant gave content from Twitter and Facebook the prominence it deserves, instead of favoring Google+ results.

In a lot of ways, listening to Google and Twitter feels like watching a divorced couple fighting in court over who gets custody of the kids. And while neither side wants to go into detail about what’s keeping them apart, or what the root of their problems are, there are clues there to be found: For example, Google is clearly miffed it spent so much time developing its real-time search based on Twitter’s firehose feed, only to have Twitter pull out of the deal and leave it hanging. According to several sources, the breaking point in that discussion was that Twitter wanted more money for access to its data.

Twitter, meanwhile, keeps pointing out that Google can and does index its content without any kind of special access. Twitter’s communications team noted Google hits its servers more than 120 million times a day, and Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan has described how there is plenty of content from Twitter in Google’s results. But the real issue is more complicated: According to some observers, including Rakesh Agrawal, Google can’t index all the content that streams through Twitter in real time without special access, because with 250 million tweets a day or so, there’s just too much of it.

Google could crawl Twitter more aggressively and more often, these observers say, but that would cost more time, money and bandwidth — and on Twitter’s side of the coin, if Google were to crawl more aggressively, it could impact the network by slowing it down or even causing it to crash, which Twitter definitely doesn’t want. Having raised almost a half billion dollars in financing last year at a valuation of $8 billion, the last thing the company wants is to have the “fail whale” start popping up because Google is hammering away at its servers trying to catch up with all the new content.

Google and Twitter both need each other

As with most troubled relationships, the saddest part of this whole situation is that Google and Twitter really need each other, and in many ways they should be the perfect couple: Twitter has a huge and rapidly-growing information network, but it has no real search function to speak of — or at least not one that works very well. Indexing and searching 250 million tweets a day is not a small problem. Google, of course, is an expert at making sense of huge quantities of data, and it also needs more social signals in order to improve its search. That’s why it started Google+ in the first place.

Theoretically the two have plenty to offer each other, and plenty to gain from a better relationship — which is why Google has reportedly tried to acquire the company in the past. But Twitter seems determined to build a standalone entity, and appears to be heading towards an IPO rather than an acquisition — and a market valuation of $8 billion or so makes it a rather large mouthful, even for Google. And so we have a classic standoff, in which neither side wants to admit that it needs or wants what the other one has to offer.

Is there some kind of relationship counsellor who could fix this broken couple? No one seems to be stepping up to offer their services.So users wind up with no functional Twitter search, and Google results that are one-sided to the point of being distorted, which as I’ve pointed out before is a breach of the search company’s promise to users when it went public in 2004, not to mention a red flag for antitrust regulators. In other words — as with so many dysfunctional relationships — no one wins.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users fPat Murray and Stefan

  1. they should stop defining themselves in terms of someone else …. as should religions and countries

    and i give them 5-10 years before they are either unrecognizable, or non-existant

    life is moving quickly now, no chance for old-paradigm thinking to last

    Share
  2. Twitter shouldn’t have their hashtags in a wad.

    Share
    1. Thanks for that, Crystal — good advice :-)

      Share
  3. I’ve tried the “Don’t be evil” bookmarklet. Conclusion: it produces the same results as the “hide personal results” function built-in by Google. Just press the little world icon on the top right toggle button.

    I’ve used 3rd party software for years now to perform searches on Twitter. It’s silly for them not to leverage Google they way they could.

    Share
  4. i’ve been thinking of creating a browser/search engine/social network/blogger/mail service/calendar service/to-do list/movie, music, and gaming service/cloud server service/app store/anything else. i will crush them. all of them. but in a canadian, swiss kinda way. you’ll love me for it.

    Share
    1. Sounds like a great idea — looking forward to it.

      Share
      1. it’s going to be awesome!!!!

        Share
  5. Hey, when twitter and facebook dont want to play ball no one has much to say but when Google does something for itself to build a better long term product, everyone cries wolf!

    If you have issue with Google, just dont use their products … its very simple. Yahoo and Microsoft would be damned glad to see you!

    Share
    1. YES!!!!!! my thoughts exactly!!

      Share
  6. on a serious note, i don’t want to have to decide who to choose in a divorce.

    Share
  7. Google should partner with Twitter again, and maybe even Myspace, since they were part of this, too, and leave Facebook out in the open. It’s not like Facebook would give them the data anyway.

    I really don’t know what Facebook is complaining about, other than just trying to make Google look bad and get them investigated for anti-trust violations. Didn’t Facebook try to smear Google last summer, too?

    Share
    1. I agree if Google and twitter work together again the noise about how Search plus is Evil will fade

      Share
  8. Until the big companies play nice with each other, there’s an opportunity for third party tools to bridge the gap. At Wajam, we do so by giving users social results from all your friends, regardless of which platform they are on.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post