If Google and Twitter were to describe their relationship in one word, it would probably be “complicated.” For the past week or so, the two have been sniping at each other about Google’s new social-search features, and how Twitter doesn’t show up as high as it should in those results — thanks to what it sees as favoritism of Google’s own Google+ network. But this particular brouhaha is only the latest manifestation of a much deeper problem between the two, like a fight over the toothpaste, or who did the laundry last. The reality is that both sides need each other more than they would probably like to admit.
When Google launched its new “Search plus Your World,” which the search giant claimed would give users a view of what their social networks were recommending and sharing, Twitter was among the first to point out that all Google was really doing was promoting its own social network in search. Twitter said it was “disappointed” in the move, and suggested that Google was not fulfilling its chosen role as an impartial search provider, and Twitter’s general counsel (and former Googler) Alex Macgillivray went even further and said that the search company’s move was “a bad day for the internet.”
Not one to take criticism lying down, Google responded with a somewhat passive-aggressive statement about how it would love to show more Twitter results, but was obeying the “rel=nofollow” rules laid down by Twitter (which are designed to prevent Google from assigning page-rank value to certain links as part of its indexing process). And the search company also pointed out that Twitter was the one who broke off the previous deal between the two that gave Google access to the full “firehose” of Twitter data, which formed the basis of Google’s short-lived real-time search offering.
Google: “It’s your fault.” Twitter: “No it’s your fault”
This week, Twitter came back with its own argument, and stuck a thumb in Google’s eye to boot: developers with the company collaborated with Facebook’s director of product Blake Ross on a browser plugin called “Don’t be evil,” which is designed to show what Google’s search results would look like if the search giant gave content from Twitter and Facebook the prominence it deserves, instead of favoring Google+ results.
In a lot of ways, listening to Google and Twitter feels like watching a divorced couple fighting in court over who gets custody of the kids. And while neither side wants to go into detail about what is keeping them apart, or what the root of their problems are, there are clues out there to be found: for example, Google is clearly miffed that it spent so much time developing its real-time search based on Twitter’s firehose feed, only to have Twitter pull out of the deal and leave it hanging. According to several sources, the breaking point in that discussion was that Twitter wanted more money for access to its data.
Twitter, meanwhile, keeps pointing out that Google can and does index its content without any kind of special access — Twitter’s communications team noted that Google hits its servers more than 120 million times a day, and Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan has described how there is plenty of content from Twitter in Google’s results. But the real issue is more complicated: according to some observers, including Rakesh Agrawal, Google can’t index all of the content that streams through Twitter in real time without special access because with 250 million tweets a day or so, there is just too much of it.
Google could crawl Twitter more aggressively and more often, these observers say, but that would cost more time and money and bandwidth — and on Twitter’s side of the coin, if Google were to crawl more aggressively it could impact the network by slowing it down or even causing it to crash, which Twitter definitely doesn’t want. Having raised almost half a billion dollars in financing last year at a valuation of $8 billion, the last thing the company wants is to have the “fail whale” start popping up because Google is hammering away at its servers trying to catch up with all the new content.
Google and Twitter both need each other
As with most troubled relationships, the saddest part of this whole situation is that Google and Twitter really need each other, and in many ways they should be the perfect couple: Twitter has a huge and rapidly-growing information network, but it has no real search function to speak of — or at least not one that works very well. Indexing and searching 250 million tweets a day is not a small problem. Google, of course, is an expert at making sense of huge quantities of data, and it also needs more social signals in order to improve its search. That’s why it started Google+ in the first place.
Theoretically the two have plenty to offer each other, and plenty to gain from a better relationship — which is why Google has reportedly tried to acquire the company in the past. But Twitter seems determined to build a standalone entity, and appears to be heading towards an IPO rather than an acquisition — and a market valuation of $8 billion or so makes it a rather large mouthful, even for Google. And so we have a classic standoff, in which neither side wants to admit that it needs or wants what the other one has to offer.
Is there some kind of relationship counsellor who could fix this broken couple? No one seems to be stepping up to offer their services. And so users wind up with no functional Twitter search, and Google results that are one-sided to the point of being distorted, which as I’ve pointed out before is a breach of the search company’s promise to users when it went public in 2004, not to mention a red flag for antitrust regulators. In other words — as with so many dysfunctional relationships — no one wins.
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