Saturday, December 22, 2012

3 changes Twitter needs to make to improve its search tool

I recently concluded a year-long newsgathering exercise on Twitter that revealed huge shortcomings with search functions on the microblogging platform.
With the massive number of posts, or tweets, being uploaded to Twitter every hour, news media and other users need a better way to find information of interest to them. People are posting a lot of useful information on Twitter, but finding it can be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Let’s use my experience as an example.
I was interested in tracking citizen complaints about the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. I surmised that official complaints to the TSA were a drop in the buck compared with actual discontent with agency and its practices. And Twitter is a great way for people to bitch about things in real time, so it’s a perfect place to check for complaints.
I set up a Twitter account called TSA Rants, or @TSArants, to retweet people who had a beef with the TSA. It ran for one year, ending Dec. 18.
Early on, it became clear that I’d need to use Twitter’s advanced search feature. But it’s not advanced enough. (See “How to Use Advanced Twitter Search.”)
If you search for “tsa” on Twitter, you will get results larded with spam from people selling TSA-approved locks and other products on You also get a lot of posts from non-English speaking Twitter users where the three-letter combination appears in their languages.
Using the advanced search function, I was able to limit the search results to English-only and to exclude “amzn” (the abbreviation for Amazon used in commercial weblinks).
But that still left too many irrelevant results for my needs.
Searching for tweets with the hashtag “#tsa” yielded much better results, but they were limited to savvy Twitter users. The average person complaining about the TSA on Twitter doesn’t use hashtags.
Here are three areas where Twitter could greatly improve its search tool and help journalists like me:

1. Search for tweets that have been retweeted or marked as favorites

Giving Twitter users the ability to search only for tweets that have been retweeted or marked as a favorite would limit the results to the best tweets. It’s a way of crowd-curating the best tweets on a subject.
Better still, Twitter should give users the option to search for tweets that have been retweeted or favorited “at least once,” “twice,” “three times,” “four or more times,” etc.
The more times something has been retweeted or favorited the better the tweets should be, right?

2. Exclude tweets that include weblinks

Having the ability to exclude tweets that contain weblinks from Twitter searches will allow people to ignore all the news articles that can get endlessly retweeted. That way you can filter out the parrots from the people who have something original to say.
By excluding weblinks from search results, you also can eliminate spam. Sometimes commercial outfits will try to leverage off of popular trending topics to sell stuff.

3. Search for tweets that include photos

A picture can say a thousand words. When news is breaking, it would be nice to have the option to search only for tweets that include photos. Ideally this should include third-party photo services, but just Twitter photos would be better than nothing.

Photo: Propaganda-style poster of Twitter by Aaron Wood.

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