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Searching Twitter - the options


I think we can all assume that we know what Twitter is by now, but in case you're in any doubt take a visit to the site or read my page of information 'What is Twitter?' on the service in case you need a quick overview. While it's a useful service in and of itself it can be very helpful when it comes to finding what you need. Of course, there is the search function on the site, but there are also other options available as well.

Twitter Search

This is available directly from the home page, top right hand corner. (If it's not there for you yet it will be shortly, as Twitter is moving the option from the bottom of the page where it's been hidden, so try down there if you can't get it from the top menu.) However, just before you take a look at this, take a quick look at the 'Trends' option to the left. This gives you an opportunity to see what people are talking about at this particular moment, and it's a good way to get a brief overview of major events taking place - at the time of writing there are a couple of Red Nose Day keywords and something about Michael Jackson.

Twitter search is fairly straightforward. Because it's real time searching that we're doing here, don't expect to get number of results since that's fairly pointless in this situation. Just expect to get results from the last few seconds back, and you get the full tweet.

Well, I say 'straightforward', but there's a huge complication. The basic Twitter search that you get from the home page is very limited, and there's no link to an advanced search function. However, there IS an advanced search option, which works entirely differently, and I'll try and point out the differences as we go.

Twitter search defaults to AND, and it recognises the OR option, but assumes that NOT is a search term, although the minus sign works in place of it. Unfortunately phrase searching isn't an option which is annoying, except that there is if you use the advanced search option.

Compare the results from the basic search for "holiday winter" which doesn't work, with "holiday winter" as searched for in the advanced search feature.





























The results are entirely different. This is a basic inconsistency that is really bad, and does need to be sorted out as soon as possible; there's no reason for it! Having poked around I can explain why it's happening though. Twitter is using 2 different search engines to deliver results, and these don't appear to be co-ordinated. The basic search options are at http://twitter.com/search?q= while the advanced search comes from the original search engine at http://search.twitter.com/search?q= and this is what leads to the inconsistencies.

Basic Twitter search offers us the option of 'nifty queries' which I think is designed to indicate how advanced search should work, except that the examples they provide don't actually do what you would expect. Their example "is down" doesn't work in basic search, but it does in advanced search. 

Search using hashtag (#) is a useful option, as long as you know what tags to use. A hashtag such as #uksnow is a neat and easy way to collate a series of tweets together on one subject, such as a conference for example. A search on said hashtag will then result in a series of tweets discussing that subject. This works in both basic and advanced search in the same way, with the same results.

Language search options. In theory in the advanced search option it's possible to search by language from the pull down menu. In practice this simply doesn't work. I'd expect a search for dog written in Icelandic to produce zero results, but I simply get a set of results containing the word dog. Trying the same search and attempting to limit to other languages also doesn't produce the desired effect. I have to say that I think this option is busted.

People search options. Both search options allow search by an individual with the function from: so from:philbradley provides a result listing all of my tweets, though you could get the same information from my profile page. However, you can then add in other search terms to limit results to my tweets that also contain a particular word. Unsurprisingly it's possible to search for tweets to a particular person, so to:philbradley shows tweets to me and adding in more terms limits the search to those tweets that also contain the searched keyword. Finally in this section it's possible to search for references to an individual using the @name option, so @philbradley will list replies to me but also Retweets (RT) as well.

Location based search options. This is another oddity. The concept is simple, working in both basic/advanced search, in that you can run a search for your keyword, a location, and a distance. A search for  internet near:exeter within:15mi will provide results for the keyword in a radius of 15 miles of Exeter. I think the location is taken from profiles, either as named or as a geo-location (I've seen a few iphone references for example.) This is of course useful, but because it's seemingly based on users, we have a problem here. A location search sometimes appears to result in replies from a person who lives in the same county as the specific location listed. The problem is compounded when two places have the same name, such as Essex in the UK and in the US. Twitter has defaulted to the US variant, and Richmond in Virginia is the default option rather than any of those in the UK. However, if we run the search as near:richmonduk we get a response based on Richmond near Darlington, but a search for near:essexuk results in an error message. While not exactly broken, I would have to say that searching by location is flawed.

Search by date. This option lists Tweets since a particular date using the function since:2009-03-11 (note the American dating system if you're not from those parts) or before a particular date using the function until:2009-03-12 This works well in both basic and advanced search.

Attitude searching. This is very nice indeed - very simple concept based on the emoticons :) for positive, :( for negative and ? asking a question. Unfortunately it's not possible to search for other symbols such as $ or % which is a real shame.

Other search functionality. A nice function, which works irregularly is the identification of particular users based on search terms. (This also only works in the basic search option as well). A search for 'cards' returns 4 users - mainly commercial that print greetings cards. A search on the word 'search' returns some search engines that have Twitter accounts. The maximum seems to be 4 hits ranked on the number of followers, but it is possible to search for more users, with the Twitter search for users resource. This is another of their neatly hidden options, but it allows you to try (note the word try) to find particular users, based on names. A search for 'search' gives several results from users who use that word in the name element of their biography. However, for this to work properly, you really do need to know the person's name before you begin - you can only find me if you search for philbradley, as philip bradley doesn't work although phil bradley finds several namesakes. It's also worth noting that this search option does give result numbers - there are over 180 who use the word 'search' in their name.

Tracking conversations. This hardly works at all in Twitter search, and not at all in the basic search option. In advanced search it's sometimes possible to see one avatar overlying another with a 'show conversation' option. This will then attempt to display a conversation between two people, but it doesn't always work since it sometimes displays a link between two individuals, but not necessarily related to a single conversation.

RSS feeds. Both basic and advanced search options allow for RSS feeds for any search, which is clearly useful. However, only the advanced search option allows for results to be tweeted in turn, for no good reason as far as I can see, other than the discontinuity between search engines.

Search functions. These are summarised at http://search.twitter.com/operators and that's certainly the place I'd suggest that you start any Twitter searching.

Summary. Twitter search is being hailed as the next big search contender to take on Google. Traffic to the advanced search function is already growing and according to Compete (you need an account) has tripled in the last 6 months. It's almost already surpassed Google's own blog search engine, though given the train wreck that's happening over there it's not surprising as people are getting fed up with it. However, for Twitter search to really take off it needs to sort out the inconsistency of two engines, clear up the few problems that I've already mentioned and add a lot more functionality. I'm looking for the ability to limit search to a group of users/followers/following, stemming, real proximity, more intelligence and proper Boolean for a start.

Twitter search competitors. Native Twitter search is only one solution however. There are other engines that you might want to try, and I'll be covering these shortly. Until then, take a look at Icerocket, Twendz, Monitter, Flaptor, Nearby Tweets, Tweet Scan, BackTweets, twopular, TweepSearch, Twitscoop, Tweetmeme, Twitterfall, MicroPlaza, AskTwitR, Twit Grid, #hashtags, Musebin, Cloud.li, Twithority, Twibs.





























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