The sudden interest in the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett was apparently too much for Twitter’s search engine, which quickly got overloaded and returned results that were increasingly delayed — when it returned them at all. Later Thursday evening, Twitter said it had disabled the search field on users’ home pages entirely, although it did not explain why (Click on the Jackson photo to the left to see a set of images showcasing the failure). The troubles don’t bode well for Twitter’s prospects as a “real-time” search engine, which many believe is likely the service’s most valuable feature. Twitter executives have even hinted in the past that they want to expand the search engine to sift through not only posts on Twitter but also pages linked to by Twitter users.
But even before Thursday’s overload, the search engine had already been sharply criticized for being “broken.” Tweets often don’t show up in the results or are delayed in showing up. A silver lining for Twitter, however: Big news days like Thursday reinforce that people do want to turn to Twitter for news. At one point Thursday afternoon, all 10 “trending search topics” were related to this week’s trio of celebrity deaths, with Ed McMahon still getting attention.
Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center For Law and Society tweeted that his “search scripts” showed that about 15 percent of all Tweets mentioned Jackson — levels that had not been reached with either “Iran” or “Swine Flu.” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone also tells the LA Times that the news led to an instant doubling of tweets per second.