January 03, 2017
/ by Jim Dougherty
Traveling through an unnamed airport this holiday season, an emergency alarm sounded. My daughter understandably upset, I checked Twitter to see if anyone had some insight into what was going on. The first Tweet that Twitter returned was from months earlier. Reading down the list, the fourth Tweet was chronologically closest to do our date. While I didn’t get any insight into the day’s emergency (our flight took off on time), I saw that emergencies like this were typical for this airport…and I got my first experience with Twitter’s new search algorithm. I wasn’t surprised when Twitter later revealed the change – I had already experienced it.
An implementation of an algorithm for Twitter discovery is a big change for the platform. It potentially sacrifices one of Twitter’s most important points of differentiation from Facebook (real-time conversation) to prioritize popularized content. If this characterization seems dour, full disclosure: I find the new search frustrating.
I concede that my frustration is not your frustration, so in this post I want to explore the pain point that social search presents for communications and marketing professionals: chasing a moving target. Starting with Twitter, I’m going to share how different popular social platforms approach search and whether there is opportunity to budget for discovery. Spoiler alert: in nearly every case there is and I suspect this may not be a coincidence.
Perhaps the most important social change at the beginning of 2017 is the new Twitter search algorithm. Especially for communications, this change may diminish the opportunity to connect with people on a particular topic. If you look at the comparative timeline below (left is before, right is after), you see that the parent content is prioritized over the conversation about it. In the example that they provide, the conversation around Mr. Robot (great show) is deprioritized in favor of the root content provided by USA Network, and a media share from a dedicated fan account.
Twitter has been straightforward about the thought process behind the changes. Here are four identified considerations of the search algorithm:
Understanding the different factors of the search algorithm may explain aspects of how results are filtered, but the net effect is loss or diminishment of chronological results. So what can you do to earn more real-time discovery and conversation?
Twitter has advertising options to gain additional reach, most relevant perhaps to real-time engagement being the “Quick Promote” product which allows agile, targeted promotion.
In its current permutation, Facebook search has been around for about a year. Facebook search is characterized by affinity over chronology, with perhaps a higher degree of weight put on connection affinity and localization than Twitter. Facebook search also considers all public posts for a particular query.
Facebook’s capability in search is to give you local, personalized content, with very little consideration for the publish-time for the content. When Mark Zuckerberg initially prefaced this iteration of Facebook search, he described that Facebook could give you a restaurant recommendation based on feedback from your circle of friends. Because Facebook’s strength is in scale and personal connection, this may be the most appropriate way to plan for people to use search.
Facebook has one of the most mature social advertising networks, but unlike Google or Bing do not currently allow ad placement for search. Because you can place ads nearly any place, you can reach nearly anyone for discovery but not (proactively at least) for user queries.
Pinterest search is a unique in its discovery function. As writer Vee Popat describes, Pinterest is one of the world’s biggest search engines because so much of the activity on the platform is discovery. Equipped with five search options, you can search any of the following:
The Pinterest algorithm is mysterious, however. In a post on Pinterest’s engineering blog, the Pinterest Search Team writes that they are constantly tweaking the algorithm but that it is still “very young.” Factors that they consider are engagement on returned pins, demographic information, and query intent (which they try to parse from keywords).
The good news is that advertising on Pinterest is likewise incorporated into the discovery process. Whether using Promoted Pins or Buyable Pins, nearly every advertising option on Pinterest is designed to interject you into the discovery process.
Instagram caused a bit of an uproar when they introduced an algorithm into user timelines this summer, and the search feature is equally as perplexing. When you search on Instagram you get two sets of results:
While “most recent” is self-explanatory and perhaps a close-to-real-time discovery engine, “top posts” are not displayed exclusively by popularity. There’s something more to the algorithm, but there isn’t a lot of information about what signals (aside from hearts and comments) that contribute to the “top hits” ranking.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that any promoted content is displayed in search. This means that for searchers with intent, they will discover what Insta serves up via their algorithm, and (to a lesser extent) the most recent content.
Perhaps one of the more interesting social search engines is LinkedIn. As an anonymous experimenter demonstrated, the degrees of connectedness to a searcher’s network are important (we know this because they gamed the algorithm with fake profiles). We also know from an article on Muse that semantic search may not be a key feature of LinkedIn queries: exact keywords are an important factor in search results.
Of course, search intent on LinkedIn is a bit different than other platforms. There isn’t a way to promote profiles, and there isn’t a lot of reason to. But the traditional LinkedIn ad product allows you to interject promoted content and advertising on the right side of the search result page.
I was having a conversation recently with a friend about his AdWords spend, and was surprised to hear that he was spending nearly six-figures for his referral traffic. The conversation signaled to me how important paid promotion can be to discovery. While intended or not (wink wink), the implementation of algorithms into features like social search make paid promotion a reasonable way for your content to be consistently seen on social media. Twitter’s recent change is emblematic of the inconsistency that algorithms introduce.
While the search features described aren’t the only (or even most important) aspects of social platforms to consider in social media plans, understanding the function and the reliability to reach people through social search can help to reach more of the right people at the right place at the right time.
(Image credit: Pexels)
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