Alan Xie

Introduction to Topsy

What is Topsy?

Topsy is a real-time social media aggregator that compiles information from Twitter, web pages from millions of individual websites, blogs, and other social media platforms. Many different web tools offer the same kind of social media tracking (usually using tweets as their primary source of data), but Topsy is unique to the field. Rather than simply indexing trending topics like some of its competitors, Topsy actively analyzes the data to rank content and gives its users the ability to predict and make decisions based on quantifiable data.

Also unique to Topsy is its ability to produce historical trends and data. While some competitors may only provide a continuous stream of new information, Topsy tracks its sources going back several years, which is all available to users within a fraction of a second. This offers users the ability to see trends going forward and backward, while competitors might only allow users to track data on a forward basis.

Who uses Topsy and why?

Topsy was created with the idea that social media can be a driving force for industry leaders to better understand their customers. The ability to analyze popular sentiment about a certain topic from primary social media sources has had a groundbreaking impact on how companies market to and interact with customers. Because of Topsy’s unique position as a fully-integrated historical and forward social media tracker, it is used by many large companies such as ESPN, the National Football League, The New York Times, Yahoo!, and Geico.

So why would any company want to have historical and real-time analytic data about consumer sentiment? The answer should be obvious: it allows companies to determine what products and services are popular during different periods of time, and it can allow companies to forecast what the next popular products and services will be.

But, why would this kind of service be useful to you, a regular college student interesting in learning about new trends in social media? Don’t worry. Topsy provides enormous value to you as well. Whether you’re interested in getting the video of the best play from last night’s football game or trying to understand general sentiment about a controversial issue in the news, Topsy has you covered.

Topsy Features & Instructions

The free trial version of Topsy is broken down into two main parts: Social Search and Social Analytics. Each section has a main purpose and different ways of engaging with the content it compiles.

Social Search

The Social Search feature of Topsy is a Twitter search database. Much like how Google can browse the entire internet for news, videos, and images, Topsy does the same, but focuses solely on tweets.

As you can see, the format is very similar  to Google’s front page. When you search for a term like “Michigan,” you are directed to a page like the one shown below. The tweets that have been delivered to you are ranked according to factors like relevance, views, re-tweets,  and more. You may also “favorite” different tweets, which are linked directly to your own Twitter account, and create email alerts for different search terms.

You can add more granularity to your search by adding specifications that can be seen on the control panel on the left hand side. You can restrict your searches by time, specific results generated (links, tweets, photos, etc.), and even the network that information is pulled from (Google Plus or Twitter).

A nice thing about Topsy is that you can use search operators that overlap with Google. You can search for specific phrases with quotation marks, eliminate terms with the “-” function, and even use the ‘OR’ feature. Combined with the control panel restrictions, you have a significant amount of control over the results you get from a Topsy search.

The full  list of search operators available to Topsy users can be viewed here.

However, if you want a more straightforward way of narrowing your search, you can use the “advanced search” feature.

Social Search Influence

Topsy also includes a feature for identifying “Influential” posters in its re-tweet section. This page displays all the users that re-tweeted a link.

According to Topsy, influence is determined in the following manner:

“Topsy Influence measures the likelihood that, each time you say something, people will pay attention.Influence for Twitter users is computed using all historical re-tweets: millons of real, public statements indicating who’s listening to whom. On our website, roughly the top 0.2% most influential of all Twitter users are tagged “Highly Influential”, and “Influential” tags appear for the top 0.5% most influential Twitter users.” Topsy

This feature allows the user to see which tweets are the most impactful and meaningful for any given search term as the originator of the tweet has historically posted strong content, which was then re-tweeted numerous times by others. By focusing on tweets from those with the highest influence, you can sift through large amounts of data to hone in on those tweets that are likely to have the greatest sustenance and meaningfulness to you.

How to use Social Search

  1. Go to Topsy
  2. In the top left corner, click on “Social Search” (going directly to the Topsy homepage takes you automatically to Social Search)
  3. Enter your keyword(s) into the search box with or without the search operators mentioned above
  4. After entering your search, you can directly access the trending articles by clicking the main title of the article on the results page
  5. To look at the actual tweet that references the article, click the Twitter icon in the bottom left corner of each result
  6. To look up the users who re-tweeted a post, click the orange icon in the bottom right corner of each result

Social Analytics – Free Version

The second feature of Topsy is its analytics product. This is the revenue generating, value-added feature that Topsy provides its corporate clients. Fortunately for the normal user, Topsy offers a simplified free version. The free Social Analytics version allows you to search and compare three keywords. In this example, I searched for “obama,” “romney,” and “election” during the past month.

As expected, the tweets spiked dramatically for Obama on the night of his election win. What is interesting to note is that historically, it appears that Obama had a higher tweet count than Romney, potentially indicating greater positive popularity. While such conclusions are extremely broad and cannot be empirically validated from a single graph, it does give you an idea of the types of analysis that tracking social media can provide. But, Topsy’s analytics function does not stop there. Rather than just simply providing a graph of tweet trends, Topsy  provides a list of interesting web links.

 This section of the Social Analytics is very helpful for learning about critical news stories surrounding your search term. In the case of “obama,” it is not surprising to see that stories regarding health insurance and other political events are ranked the highest, with the exception of a misplaced story about car manufacturers. You can organize links based on several different criteria: influence, momentum, velocity, and peak. Topsy defines these in the following ways:

  • Influence: measures the likelihood that, each time you say something, people will pay attention
  • Momentum: measures popularity and speed; high momentum indicates good volume and still peaking
  • Velocity: measures speed of increasing popularity; high velocity indicates speed of popularity is increasing
  • Peak: peak period occurs at max mentions per 24 hours

Each of these breakdowns is a measurement of how popular a given link is. Thus, depending on whether you’re searching for high influence news or stories with the greatest peaks, you can decide which web links are most relevant to you.

You are able to lookup the recent news stories for each of your three search terms.

How to use Social Analytics – Free Version

  1. Go to  Topsy
  2. In the top left corner, click on “Social Analytics”
  3. Select three keywords for which you would like to see Twitter trends
  4. Select a time period over which you would like to see the trends
  5. Click on “Lookup”
  6. In the recent news section at the bottom of the page, you can look through recent stories for each of your search terms

Social Analytics – Professional Version

Topsy allows a 14-day trial period for its professional analytics tool. The difference between the regular and professional versions is like night and day. The professional version provides significantly greater detail and analyzes information in many more ways.

The chart above comes from a search for the term “black friday” over a period of 365 days. As expected the tweets peak in mid to late November. Once again, you probably already knew this. But, if you dig deeper into Topsy’s “pro” analytics, you can find more very interesting trends. Topsy allows you to search based on 6 different forms of analysis: activity, discovery, top results, geography, exposure, and sentiment. The graph depicted above is the same as the tweet activities chart.

The discovery and top results features allow you to search for popular terms that are similar to your keyword. These features also track each related term’s tweet activity, momentum, acceleration, and peak (the same type of analyses as the web links from the free version mentioned earlier). These tools are focused on allowing you to explore the momentum and popularity of similar terms as your search keyword.


Top Results

Topsy also offers a geography feature that allows you to track how popular search terms are by country. As expected, only the United States had any significant number of tweets for “black friday.” But, for other keywords like the “arab spring uprisings,” the results will surely be more global. This can give you greater insight into which geographies play the most vital roles for different stories.

Unfortunately, there has yet to be any significant new information learned about “black friday” from the analyses we’ve seen so far. But, there remains one final area of analysis that is perhaps most important to the user: sentiment. Topsy’s sentiment feature uses a proprietary algorithm to determine if tweets are positive or negative for a search terms.

From this sentiment analysis, you can finally draw interesting facts and information from the data.  The first graph depicts a general sentiment assessment of your searched topic. Trends in the green display positive sentiment, while trends in the red display negative sentiment. The second graph depicts the volume and sentiment of trends. The green line (visible at the far left) displays positive sentiment, and the red line shows negative sentiment. The black line in the smaller graph below displays the difference between positive and negative sentiments. At the beginning of the period, there was net positive sentiment, and as the year goes on, sentiment is neutral. Interestingly, sentiment plummets into negative territory as stories of horrible shopping experiences begin to resonate on Twitter. While this may seem obvious to you from past experiences, being able to actually verify your experiences with quantitative data driven by Twitter analysis is very significant.

How to use Social Analytics – Professional Version

  1. Sign up for Topsy Pro Analytics by clicking here.
  2. Once you have accessed the main page, enter your keyword(s) in the search box at the top
  3. Modify your searches using the control panel on the left of the dashboard – constrain results by time, location, language, sentiment, and influential users
  4. Access different forms of analyses by clicking through the tabs on the dashboard page
  5. Save your searches by clicking the orange “Save as…” bottom on the top right corner of the page to be retrieved later
  6. Export the raw data for each form of analysis by clicking the “Export” button on the right hand side of each page
  7. If you are unsure what certain key terms mean on a page, you can move your mouse over the “?” icon next to them to see a description

Comparison with Google

Advantages compared to Google

  • Topsy has more advanced and thorough analytics. There is no doubt that when it comes to raw analytical processing power, Topsy is better for seeing trends and data than Google. After all, that is Topsy’s primary purpose.
  • Topsy offers better generation of related search ideas. Google may give you suggestions for keywords, but Topsy actively provides links and tweets to similar keywords you are searching for. It also provides the analysis (volume, momentum, peak activity) for each related keyword, which gives you the ability to quickly determine which related tweets are most relevant to you.

Disadvantages compared to Google

  • Google offers a more comprehensive scope of information. If you’re just using Topsy to search for news stories and events, Topsy will give you great results based on current events and peoples’ live tweets. However, Topsy only pools its resources from the Twitter universe. Google offers a much more extensive universe of information to browse through. So, Google is superior when searching for information that isn’t driven by current events.
  • Google offers more extensive media searches in terms of images, videos, and blogs. Again, because Topsy is confined to the realm of Twitter, it cannot compete against Google, which draws data from virtually all online sources.
  • Google’s search operators are far more extensive than Topsy’s. A Google web search will allow you to add many more restrictions on the results provided. As shown earlier, Topsy has very limited search operators, a fraction of what is possible with Google.

Concluding Thoughts & Recommendations

Topsy is a great analytical resource for viewing quantitative social media data. However, its obvious limitation is that it has an extremely specific focus on analyzing data from Twitter. While this may be a great resource for keeping up with current events and having a comprehensive quantitative look at trends on the internet, it may not be as useful for thorough research into a particular subject.  In that regard, Google is clearly superior because of its ability to draw from many different online sources. However, when used in conjunction with a Google web search, Topsy can be a great supplementary tool to use for academic research because of its ability to look at historical trends and public sentiment over time, which can be a driving influence on any kind of analysis.

Getting the most out of Topsy

As stated, there are many limitations that restrict Topsy’s usefulness. However, it can be a terrific resource when you’re trying to follow current events. When searching for news on the election, you can get an extremely broad base of results, from those who are die hard liberals to staunch conservatives, all of whom are tweeting about Obama or Romney. The great thing about Topsy is that it allows you to filter influential posts so you can see what will hopefully be the most interesting or impactful news. Topsy also allows you to browse specifically for videos and images that are shared through Twitter. If you want to watch highlights from a game you missed, chances are high that a highlight reel was posted on Twitter, thus making it easily searchable through Topsy.

Also, signing up for a 14-day trial of the professional analytics tool would be a great way to analyze historical trends, specifically online sentiment. Using this in conjunction with a recent historical event (such as the War on Terror or the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict) would yield very interesting results that could be used to support your own primary research driven through traditional Google web searches.

Ultimately, Topsy is a great standalone tool for following the news and looking at trends that appear with them. But for more academically driven analysis, it should be a supplemental resource, not a primary one.


About the Author

Alan Xie is a senior at the University of Michigan studying finance and accounting through the Ross School of Business. After graduating in May 2013, he will be moving to Los Angeles to join the private equity team of a large alternative asset management firm. Alan is an avid Michigan Wolverine football and Kansas Jayhawk basketball fan, and he looks forward to rooting aggressively for the Los Angeles Clippers during home games at Staples Center. Additionally, he enjoys Chipotle, XBox Live, and Reddit.


To Google or not to Google? Copyright © 2013 by Alan Xie. All Rights Reserved.