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Google vs. the Real-Time Web

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Just how big a threat is the real-time web to Google (s goog)? As Om has pointed out, real-time content marks a still-amorphous but important new phase of evolution in the web, allowing for the instantaneous discovery of newly added information. And Twitter and Facebook are emerging as an alternative to the traditional engine, which presents a big challenge to Google’s core business. As Larry Page admitted this week, the company finally gets that.

It’s easy to imagine Google falling further behind in the real-time content game. The company’s slow entry puts it in the position Yahoo has held for years in search: behind the leader, always playing catch-up instead of spending creative energy on new advances. Google has struggled with social content, producing mixed results. Orkut, for example, was a hit in Brazil, but not in other major markets; initiatives like Friend Connect have shown little traction. It’s had better success as a search partner, as with its MySpace deal.

Google’s search engine has thrived because PageRank uses democratic algorithms that tracked page links. By contrast, real-time discovery engines like Twitter and Facebok use a more dynamic kind of democracy, linking to content that users finds worthwhile. As a result, content on the web is splitting into two basic models, and understanding this distinction makes clear why Google’s centralized role is being threatened.

Simply put, it’s the difference between discovery and search, between the “Now Web” and the “Then Web.” Here’s a more specific analogy: In college, most of us spent a lot of time in the library but also in a social hub like the campus coffee shop. One was a place for digging up information, the other a more dynamic, conversational setting, where ideas were casually exchanged. Google has been the web’s library: archival, organized and oriented around research. Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, are coffee shops: instantaneous, conversational and oriented around discovery.

I doubt Google will ever make a good coffee shop. But I also don’t see real-time content shutting down its library. Instead, it’s breaking open a new arena of the web over which Google has little control. That makes Google more of a specialized player, but still relevant.

Of course, Google is going to try to dominate this new terrain, just as it does in search. To that end, it essentially has three immediate options: It can buy Twitter or Facebook. It can create a competitor to them on its own. Or it can partner with them – maybe indexing their content into its search and even buying a small investment stake to deter similar deals with Yahoo (s yhoo) and Microsoft (s msft).

A buyout is unlikely: Twitter has said it’s not for sale and Facebooks seems more interested at raising money to remain independent. Google’s efforts to replicate their success on its own, meanwhile, have disappointed. So it’s more likely to forge partnerships, giving it a place at the table but not the lead spot.

Such an ancillary role won’t satisfy Google for very long. Sharing more and more of the pie with others can’t really be much of an option at the Googleplex. In that case, Google has one last, longer-term option – hitting the upstarts where they are weak. For Twitter, that means its lack of an efficient filter. Google built a great filter for the millions of URLs scattered on the web. Its engineers will be working to do the same for real-time content with the hope that Google can maintain its role as gatekeeper to the web.

But whether or not Google succeeds, its presence in real-time search would push Twitter and Facebook to innovate that much faster, thus accelerating the web’s evolution even more.

47 Responses to “Google vs. the Real-Time Web”

  1. WarLord

    I’m guessing the future of “realtime” is somwhere between Twitter and FriendFeed

    re: hoaxs on twitter I was present during the Swayze hoax and lest we forget the death story started in RADIO to be amplified but also debunked on Twitter in realtively quick fashion.

    hash tags allow a quick ad hoc community building that is often just for silliness but also given a specific real event useful and informative. One need only [email protected] or #iranelection to see the promise of real time for actual things that matter

  2. Arnd Jan Gulmans

    Ok, so the past web is currently owned by Google. The real-time web is heavily contested, and will probably involve Twitter and Friendfeed at some point. But who will own the ‘future web’? For example, I’d like to be able to search for ‘apple 2010’ and get a well-structured overview of information about future events, product launches, financial forecasts, trends etc.

  3. Arnd Jan Gulmans

    The promise of Google has always been delivering relevant search results – not in being first. I’d rather see them extend their relevance capacities with a social dimension (ie friend weighted pagerank) then give me realtime rubbish.

  4. Could the real time web now evolve into a much bigger search engine as opposed to the web then where Google currently is. Is it too much to compare Google to Netscape, AOL and eBay where each were once a dominant player until something else came and sept it away. Could the now web topple Goolge?

  5. Well thank dog that Google hasn’t swallowed everything up yet. I admire much about Google and many of its employees, but the fact remains there are uncomfortable parallels with Microsoft’s rise to dominance. I hope there will always be substantial chinks in the Google armor. We sure don’t need a Google version of Vista; know what I mean?

  6. Or google could acquire an existing filtering mechanism like friendfeed and focus on being a backend service provider for the real-time web

  7. Yes, it’s quite interesting to see folks who haven’t yet come to rely on real-time tools to dis them out of some fear of the unknown. Really, fellas, chill a bit and take a dip! I truly use FriendFeed search now daily with great, and actionable results. They are different kinds of searches, in some cases, than I might have done previously with Google. But i am searching in new ways and finding different things, results that I most certainly will not find searching on Google.

  8. How can you write an article about the real-time Web without referencing FriendFeed? It is the best example we have of a real-time Web service. Facebook’s search functionality is not fantastic and Twitter’s own search engine is actually less accurate than FriendFeed’s. I ran a search a little while ago on a search term on Twitter Search and the same term in FriendFeed against a user’s profile. The search results were Twitter posts that user had published using the search term and FriendFeed gave me better results than Twitter Search (the query links are here:

    If anything, FriendFeed has revealed the tremendous benefits of having a real-time stream and its search functionality is terrific. It may not eclipse Google but it does present a good vision of where search could go. I understood that Google indexes content pretty quickly and speeding that up, somehow, to real-time would bridge the gap between the current delay and what is happening right now.

    Outside Google and the other main search engines, FriendFeed is probably the best place to go for real-time updates. The conversational/discussion aspect adds huge value to the entries that are posted and seeing those comments come in real-time helps keep the news fresh and useful.

  9. Shannon

    And might I recommend that people spell check their stories before they post them on a news website such as this (Facebook not Facebok) and that is also recommended for commenters (Twitter not Tweeter) lol:)

  10. Shannon

    The real thing to consider is that with real time, facts can’t be verified and any old thing could be posted as news… Especially, think of tabloids, posting malicious things that may not be true… Archieving and near-real time posting helps to verify facts and in Google’s case keep a good search engine with accurate results.

    • Agreed. The tabloid, trendoid, trivial and dubious pablum ‘news’ that gets Tweeted, Dugg, and shoved up fresh and daily under the snoots of the masses doesn’t necessarily constitute worthwhile information. It’s just an entirely different kind of data-stream of relevance to certain types of people wanting certain types of info that others more into archival and authority information simply want no part of.

      Perhaps it’s inevitable this ancillary sideshow will get blended into conventional search – I just pray that it gets FLUSHED-OUT of results as quickly as it rises to the surface…

  11. I think GOOG is whistling past the graveyard here. Their product will fundamentally becoming obsolete if they don’t change the way their build, update & index their database.

    I turn to Twitter or FriendFeed for ‘search’ about 25% of the time now, where for almost 10 years I’ve exclusively used Google. What I’m searching for isn’t necessarily changing– where I look and what I find is.

  12. Parts of Google’s index are real-time. Thanks to the content publish/change notification mechanisms in blog software, they are able to crawl and index blogs in near real-time. Now all we need is a global content notification framework (for the entire Internet).

  13. Agree with @adam. Real-time search is good for things like news, weather, etc. Google does a pretty good job at that already.

    There is no good way to build context around twitter search. Right now, its filled with garbage for the most part. You have to filter through a lot to find anything worthwhile in there on almost any decent topic.

    The only reason for anyone to buy twitter, is its audience, which you can sell ads to. Beyond that, this whole real-time-search thing is just something that lazy bloggers keep echoing. It has not meaning.

  14. I know realtime is the new, new thing, especially in the Valley, but it has a huge limitation. There is no time available to develop meta data that separates the wheat from the chaff, or in recent terms, the stupid bacon jokes from real news about Swine Flu. I watched the Twitter stream during the Swine Flu panic weekend, and the amount of idiotic and racist jokes passing through were hard to take. Yes, it was realtime, but there was no decent filter. So we can use reputation right? What does that actually mean? Please don’t say number of Twitter followers. I get followed by “people” on Twitter with tens of thousands of followers, and 0 updates. Even if you came up with an algorithm that dealt with that type of problem, it can’t be based on reputation for the realtime subject, because reputation can’t develop in realtime. It has to have a past to give people’s reactions time to develop. But yes, right now if you say realtime, you certainly can get funded. In the Valley, at least.

    • Couldn’t agree more. When a hoax about the death of Patrick Swayze was tossed into Twitter, it circulated the news very quickly but no body checked whether or not the news was true. The real-time news on Twitter was an embarrassing thing when Swayze’s spokesperson spoke out the news was a hoax started by some radio guy in Florida.

    • I partially agree with Adam. We already saw some working Real time web search. Namely News blending into Web search. Now, Real time is not just news blending. It’s much more, but the news blending experience may be leveraged there.

      The key for news blending is to cluster (important!) news as soon as the fresh items are collected, in an ultra-fast way. Detecting new topics, and new trends while you get the real time fresh news. The fact that many individuals are suddendly talking about a new topic is the meta-information you need about the topic.

      There are already some academic papers and many patents , , . On tweeter you can additionally rank the users.