Hey, Twitter: I Want My Realtime Search. (And I Want It Now.)

Twitter bird in a bird cageTwitter’s been making all kinds of announcements about enhancements to Twitter mobile.

“Now with a new and improved Discover!”

“Now with Twitter Cards, so you can see the story from an official news organization right in your Twitter stream!”

But none of these announcements bring back the one feature that I really miss, and which should be a core part of the Twitter experience: realtime search.

Why Realtime Search Matters

When I first learned about Twitter, I was smitten.  I started tweeting like a madwoman. I launched TWTRCON, a conference entirely focused on the business use of Twitter.  “Twitter is revolutionary!” I told everyone who would listen.

There were two very specific ways in which Twitter completely changed the media landscape. The first was asymmetrical following: it was the first broadly-used service that allowed you to follow anyone you wanted (provided their tweets were public), without them having to follow you back. Celebrities love this feature.

The second killer feature? Realtime search. The ability to see what anybody, anywhere was saying, about anything.

I have spent countless hours using Twitter’s realtime search. It has put me in the middle of Tahrir Square. It let me follow what my fellow Americans were saying about the recent elections. It lets me check on the chatter from Brooklyn hipsters planning their weekend visits to Montauk, the summer resort town where I live, to see if I wanted to go into hiding for the weekend, or maybe join them at some cool event I hadn’t yet heard about.

I can do all that — but I can’t do it using Twitter’s official app on my mobile phone. And my phone is my number one access point to Twitter.

Without Realtime Search, Twitter is Just Another Media Site.

What Twitter doesn’t seem to understand is that realtime search is the one thing that makes Twitter superior to a news aggregator like, say, Google News.  If I want to know what Al Jazeera is saying about the current conflict in the Gaza strip, I can go to Al Jazeera or any number of other sites.  But if I want to see what everyday people are saying — the ones on the receiving end of those rockets, say — that’s what Twitter is for.

Or should be.  Used to be, anyway.

Here’s what I currently get if I search for #Gaza on my iPhone 4S, running the latest version of  Twitter mobile version 5.1:

The #Gaza search on Twitter's mobile app: showing "top tweets," not realtime search results

It shows pretty much the same results as if you do the same search on Twitter.com, which defaults to “Top Tweets.” What is Top Tweets?

“We’ve built an algorithm that finds the Tweets that have caught the attention of other users. Top Tweets will refresh automatically and are surfaced for popularly-retweeted subjects based on this algorithm,” chirps the Twitter FAQ.

Notice anything?  The top Top Tweet Twitter is showing me is from 4 hours ago.  The next two are from almost an hour ago.  This for a hashtag that is getting new tweets literally every few seconds.

Here’s what the same search looks like if you go to Twitter.com, enter the search term, and then click on All to display the realtime search results:


A #Gaza search on Twitter showing All Tweets - new tweets are streaming in every minute, in realtime

Realtime Search: Raw, Fresh and Unfiltered 

Look at the difference between the two feeds.  One is stale, and tells me what a lot of other people have been interested in over the last few hours.

The other — with the realtime search results — is raw, fresh and unfiltered. It tells me what is being said right now, in some cases by people who are right there.  It lets me drill down into what I want to know, not just what other people wanted to know.

But Twitter wants to be a media company. It wants to deliver pre-packaged content, with lots of spiffy top images and places to put ads.

It doesn’t understand that realtime search is probably the single-most important thing it does; it’s the thing that makes it better than a traditional media company.

Realtime search is what lets me connect with other people for no reason other than we are interested in the same topic or sharing the same experience.

When Twitter launched, it was the only platform offering realtime search.  Today, I can get a realtime search experience via any number of other platforms (Instagram, Tumblr, Google Plus and more) anytime, anywhere, on my mobile device.

But not from Twitter.


Want to read more on this topic? Check out Dave Larson’s post on tweetsmarter, Is Twitter Censoring Search Results? Will They Fix It?.

  • Ivo langbroek

    Have you simply tried pulling down in the search results window? This changes the results. One more action, similar to clicking ‘all’. Could have saved you the trouble of writing this….

    • Hey Ivo – you are correct: pulling down the screen refreshes the results *but only if there are new tweets* since you first did the search. This works for a search where there is new content constantly coming in.

      But if there is no new content, the screen will not refresh. I just tested this by searching for #montauk (the town I live in). On Twitter.com, I see that there have been 4 tweets with that hashtag in the last 24 hours. But the Twitter mobile app will only show me 2 of those tweets – even after I pull down to refresh the screen. Try it for yourself with some search terms that are not super active, and tell me if you find a different result.

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  • Left a good tip on an alternate app. Comment got deleted.


    • Hey Wade – I’m a moderator here & don’t recall seeing your comment – sorry if something went wrong. Want to let us know what app you were thinking of? Thanks!

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  • Paige_S

    Great insight into something so simple. Seems like something Twitter would have caught up on by now. Perhaps if we all start Tweeting about it, they’ll get the hint. Get your own hashtag to start trending! #MobileRealTime

    • I’m not sure this is something that Twitter really *wants* to fix – they’d rather be in control of the search results that we see; that way their sponsors and big media partners can get preferential treatment…or do you think it’s just pure incompetence? #MobileRealTime