Twitter has quite possibly become the widest, most insightful, and perpetually open window into the minds of the masses that the world has ever seen. Its large and growing group of users post everything from news about current events to, yes, the occasional photo of what’s for lunch. All this tweeting can be invaluable for any number of uses–but only if you know how to find what you need.
There are now over 200 million users who constantly post just about anything you can imagine: links to important news, complaints about a product, design tips and inspiration, favorite new bands, family photos–you name it. These diverse nuggets are getting posted by Twitter’s equally diverse share of the world’s population: the general public, celebrities, politicians, authorities, marketers, customer support, and more. Fun fact: 70 percent of Twitter’s usage now comes from outside the United States. If Twitter is the world’s largest water cooler, its search tools are an omnipresent pair of ears that can give you an instant perspective on any topic at any time.
Twitter’s popularity is due in part to how easy the company made it for users to post content. But the service’s architecture, rich API, and organic culture also make it easy to mine this increasing mountain of data for just the information you need. Want to check how a product launch is going or how you’re stacking up against a competitor? Need to monitor tweets about a major event? Or perhaps you want to get more personal with your customers and provide one-on-one support when they post complaints. These ideas are just scratching the surface, but a number of clients, tools, and tricks make it easy to find what you’re looking for.
There are a plethora of ways to mine Twitter, but let’s start with the basics at search.twitter.com. This decidedly Google-like page offers a very simple interface. It also displays Twitter’s signature list of trending topics–things that have captured the momentary attention span of Twitter users the world over.
Type your query, hit Return, and off you go. You can search for the name of a product, a person, a topic, a specific Twitter username, or a hashtag–a word with a pound sign (#) in front of it (such as: #io2011).
Hashtags on Twitter are akin to tags on Flickr or Pinboard–they’re a tool that grew organically out of the community as a way to tag a topic or event. You can click, or tap, on a hashtag on Twitter.com and most of its clients to see all other tweets that contain the same tag. You can also track hashtags, a technique that I’ll get to in a moment.
A useful perk of search.twitter.com is that its search results page is fluid. Instead of merely giving you a static list of results at the time you ran your query, it will actually continue watching Twitter for mentions and alert you at the top of the page when there are more to view. Dedicated apps for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad often provide a continuously updating live stream of these search results.
One drawback of Twitter’s search tools is that, because of the sheer volume of tweets its users generate, Twitter only provides access to a few days’ worth of archives. Twitter recently published some staggering stats: as of March 2011, users now create one billion tweets per week, or 140 million tweets per day. The company’s search index simply cannot keep up with that activity, which is something Twitter has been working to improve for over a year. In other words, our tweets are all still there; you just can’t search much farther back than a few days until Twitter improves its search infrastructure.
Twitter recently announced that its search results will include user-posted images and videos as well as just text tweets. At press time, this feature was still rolling out–some users could see it and some couldn’t.
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