Kabir Sodhi


Twitter is a social networking service in which users post tweets, or strings of text up to 140 character long. On average, Twitter’s 500 million active users post over 340 million tweets per day and utilize the built-in search engine over 1.6 billion times per day. This chapter will cover how to use Twitter’s built-in search engine.

Specialized search strategies

For the most part, a Twitter search is very similar to searching in Google. Many search operators are shared between the two, but there are a few key differences. It is recommended to use the Twitter search to find people who are passing along information regarding a subject you are interested in, and to use them to stay connected with that topic, instead of searching to find specific facts. Instruction on the uses and benefits, as well as comparison to the Google search engine, will be covered in greater detail later in this chapter.


How to use

Twitter’s search function is available to all users that create an account on the website, but can also be accessed by those who do not have an account by visiting http://twitter.com/search/. Assuming you don’t have an account, searches are entered into either the search bar at the top of the page or in the center of the page.

Searches on trending topics can also be run by clicking on one of the phrases. Additionally, a new search can be executed by clicking hashtags in the tweets shown on the results page. One advantage of having an account with Twitter, is the ability to narrow down trending topics to a more focused region (e.g. Detroit).

The average response time for a search on Twitter is 50 milliseconds and on average it takes Twitter less than 10 seconds to index a new tweet.

Twitter Search Results

Once a search is entered, by default the search results are shown by the top, or most relevant, results listed first. This option can be changed to all, which is used to display the most recent tweets, as well as only by people you follow. The ability to search by people you follow is only available to registered users.

Top results may not be the most recently tweeted results, but are determined by Twitter to have a high level of relevance to your query. According to Twitter’s Vice President of Engineering, Mike Abbott, relevance is determined “using a combination of signals, your follower graph, who you follow, who’s following you. Another aspect is just looking at the content itself and the resonance of the content.”

If your search doesn’t have any top results, it could be that your search is either too generic or too specific to generate any top results. Also, tweets that have been posted by users with private accounts will not show up in results.

Just as top tweets are determined, top image and video results are created using similar factors. Additionally, depending on the search query, if relevant a top news result or top people result is shown. For example, when I ran a search for Barack Obama, as he is in the news often, a top story appeared.

On the other hand, when I was searching for the Detroit Pistons, I was shown the Pistons’ official Twitter account as a top people result. I believe this is because even though the Detroit Pistons may make the news occasionally, the official Twitter account covers almost all relevant news and aggregates important events and findings related to the Pistons for its followers.

During certain events, nearly identical tweets may be posted by several users. In order to avoid cluttering the search with useless duplicate results, Twitter uses a technique based on MinHashing where signatures are assigned to a tweet and any tweets sharing the same set of signatures are considered duplicates. The most relevant tweet is shown on your search results and duplicates are not included set.

Promoted tweets that are displayed in your search results are also relevant to your query and “share popularity and resonance among other users” according to Twitter’s FAQ page. Example of a promoted tweet:

Search for Tweets vs. People

After a search has been entered, to toggle between searching for tweets and searching for related Twitter accounts, click on the tweets or people link depending on your search preference. You can also hit the display media button if you wish for the box to include photos and thumbnails of videos related to your search.

Further Info on Searching for People

When searching for users, enter a search with the username preceded with the @ operator, such as @barackobama. If you have the tweets tab selected, results will include tweets mentioning the username. If you have the people tab selected, results will include accounts matching the username entered.

Also, people search results aren’t updated instantly, so if a user makes a change to his or her profile regarding username, name, etc., it may be a day or two before this change is visible in the search results.

Advanced Search

Using the advanced search link available at the Twitter search page will provide a form which will automatically assign search operators to your search. The advanced search form can be useful to the casual Twitter user that doesn’t remember nor cares to memorize all the search operators Twitter employs.

A snapshot of the advanced Twitter search form:

Search Operators

Below is a table of the operators that the Twitter Search will recognize. It is recommended to learn these operators as opposed to using the advanced search as your search efficiency will increase. Additionally, you will know how to achieve search operator combinations that the form doesn’t present such as excluding search results from a specific Twitter account.

Things to note about these search operators:

  • Using 🙂 will search tweets for positive emotion, which means it will include tweets with a 🙂 as well as other related emoticons like 😀
  • Searching for tweets using “” such as “black friday” will include tweets with the phrase black friday as well as #blackfriday
  • Near: operator can also be used with zipcodes (e.g. near:48104)
  • As many retweets commonly include RT before the retweeted message, searching -RT will hide all retweets
  • The order for the until and since search operator may seem unorthodox to some users (yyyy-mm-dd)

Saving Searches

Twitter allows users to save searches, the benefit of doing so being that that each time you click on the search box, the saved search term will appear as shown in this picture:

In order to save searches, you must have a Twitter account and be signed into it. Enter a search and click the gear icon as shown in the picture below to save your search. Each account is allowed to save up to 25 queries.

To remove saved searches, simply click the saved search when it is presented in your search. Following that, click the gear button and select remove saved search.

Advantages of Being a User

In addition to the ability to save searches, narrow down trending topics by geographic preference, and showing only tweets from users you follow, there are many advantages to being a user in terms of search results.

As Twitter’s engineering blog mentions, the search “ranking function accesses the social graph and uses knowledge about the relationship between the searcher and the author of a Tweet during ranking.” Even if the user follows no accounts, search is still customized in that it delivers results based on the user’s language preference and is able to detect location.

However, the whole purpose of Twitter is to follow accounts that are relevant to you and what you’d like to be informed about. The search engine is a great tool to find relevant Twitter accounts, but without being a member, you will not get updates from these accounts. As such, the Twitter search can positively impact your experience as a user of the site, more than it can for an individual that isn’t a user.

Comparison with Google Web search

Although useful in the past, Google’s web search is no longer a strong tool when searching for tweets. Between October 2009 and July 2011, Google paid Twitter to include tweets in search results, including a real time Twitter feed which was available directly in Google’s search results. However, Twitter decided to let its contract with Google expire on July 2, 2011. Since then Google has instead shifted the focus to including results from its own social network, Google+, and no longer includes the real time Twitter feed. Google users can still enter queries such as Obama tweets to find Obama’s official Twitter handle and other results relating to his Twitter account, but usually these are usually not tweets from his or other relevant users Twitter accounts as shown below.

One way to get closer to tweet results with this specific search is to search for obama twitter and click the more results from twitter.com link, which is the same thing as searching with the site:twitter.com operator.

Google vs Twitter Search Results

I decided to give Google a fair chance and run a bit more of a specific search to see how relevant results were compared to Twitter’s own search engine. I attempted to find relevant Twitter accounts and tweets regarding the fiscal cliff. Below are the results of my search on Google:

Limiting search results to Twitter’s site with Google yielded some relevant results. The first two results were about current events regarding the fiscal cliff from legitimate sources. For the most recent result, a tweet that was posted two hours prior to my search, Google was not able to produce a preview of the tweet, a drawback for those looking to verify an account’s legitimacy before clicking through to the result.

Google also was able to find a few Twitter accounts directly related to the topic, yet these accounts had extremely few followers (none exceeding 500) and were not official accounts from reputable sources. Interestingly, the fourth results was a link to Twitter’s own search engine, simply searching the same phrase that was entered into Google. I decided to compare this with the same search on Twitter which is posted below.

Starting with the negatives, the Twitter search also yielded a few accounts with low followers and/or lacked legitimacy. It also included  a promoted search at the top of the results, which Google did not. Other than that, the accounts found were much more relevant such as the WSJ Fiscal Cliff Twitter account and the tweets were either more relevant or recent than Google’s results. The ability to view top images, top videos, as well as specify results by type (top, all, people you know) were all added benefits that Google’s search lacked.


Overall, as is evident with the fiscal cliff search exercise, Google offers little advantage when searching for tweets or Twitter accounts. Unless you know precisely whose Twitter account you’re looking for, Google’s search is not as useful as Twitter’s. However, this does not mean you should solely rely on Twitter’s search engine — there are other search specialized engines covered in the next chapter that offer advantages over Twitter’s search capabilities.


About Me

Kabir Sodhi is currently enrolled in BIT330 for the fall semester of his senior year at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.


To Google or not to Google? Copyright © 2013 by Kabir Sodhi. All Rights Reserved.