Sunday, 25 October 2009

Twitter's deals with Google and Bing - changing everything and nothing

There's not been a lot made of Microsoft's announcement earlier in the week that Bing would include real time results from Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) in its search results at some unspecified time soon. It has mostly been interesting to the likes of Mashable and ReadWriteWeb because of Google's counter a few hours later that they would also being doing so, so removing any competitive advantage that this might have brought Bing.

Leaving aside the debate about how scalable this level of traffic increase will be considering Twitter's notoriously unreliable infrastructure (discussed in the comments of ReadWriteWeb's coverage of the announcement), it also raises some interesting questions for brands that haven't so far found a role for themselves on Twitter.

In most cases brands that are successfully using Twitter at scale are succeeding because they have understood that it offers an opportunity for dialogue with their customers - whether that is Comcast's customer service, Compare the Market's advertising character backstory (Disclosure - client), or Ford's combination of one-to-one dialogue, customer relations and comms campaign amplification. Those that successfully use the service as a sales channel (usually based on exclusive offers) such as Dell tend to have an established two-way communication presence on Twitter before pushing sales messages.

This all makes sense, as to maintain any sort of following of the scale that would be useful to a major brand their Twitter stream will need to offer enough regular interest and value to encourage people to opt in to it. Sales messages alone wouldn't fit with how most people use the service. The resource cost of monitoring and maintaining this presence has tended to scare some brands away from getting involved with Twitter at all - there is no value to them in involvement at low scale.

Google and Bing's ability to index the real time web fundamentally changes this. Suddenly the value for brands pushing direct sales messages on Twitter becomes their SEO juice. It's fair to assume that Google sees Twitter as a threat, and that as people are increasingly searching for real time or as near as results, the best way to see off the threat is to push recency in their own results so that Google, rather than any development of Twitter's own underpowered search engine, continues to be the first place that you go to search. And as long as paid links continue to show up next to them, Google still hoovers up brands' marketing budgets. So results from Twitter are likely to assume a greater importance in SEO strategies over the coming months.

It will be interesting to see how the search engines rank the Twitter data they now have access to. I'd like to think that Google has acquired deep enough integration with the data to apply its own version of 'tweetrank' algorithms, but given the level of competition between the two this might be unlikely. Microsoft has already announced that Bing will search either by recency or relevancy. Either way, there is now no reason for brands not to be on Twitter, as even running a sales channel feed to no followers has a potential SEO benefit.

However, a brand Twitter presence, however one-way and SEO orientated, will still attract lovers and haters of the brand to start conversations with it - it isn't ever going to be just a box to tick o improve ranking. While SEO will be the reason to get involved, brands will need a defined Twitter strategy covering customer relations, PR, marketing and SEO. And by the sound of it, they will need one fairly quickly given that both Google and Bing are going to be integrating their Twitter data access this year (indeed Bing already has a rebrand of Twitter's own search in beta at the moment)

Thinking through this, I worried at first that this was going to deluge Twitter with the sort of random direct response ads that you see everywhere else - after all, there is a strong rationale for DR advertisers to do this. Then I remembered that it won't make any difference to my use of Twitter because I won't see any of them, as I won't follow the brands. So while it does change how brands should view and use Twitter, the announcement makes next to no difference for anyone else.


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