Google to Twitter: You Quit Us, We Didn’t Quit You

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Prepare for a war of words (and tech blogs) as Google picks up Twitter’s implied “is what Google’s doing anti-competitive?” gauntlet and tosses it back with a nonplussed one-liner suggesting the whole kerfuffle’s actually Twitter’s fault.

If you’re just tuning in, Google launched something called “Search plus Your World” yesterday, basically a way of folding Google+ social networking content (shared with you) into your Google search results. Twitter, who had to know this was coming, reacted immediately with a prepared statement, saying in so many words that Search plus Your World is el major problem-o because it surfaces Google’s social networking content before competitors’ data. (Facebook’s keeping mum, for the moment.)

(MORE: Twitter ‘Concerned’ About New Google Search)

Here’s what Twitter wrote in full:

For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results anytime they wanted to find something on the Internet.

Often, they want to know more about world events and breaking news. Twitter has emerged as a vital source of this real-time information, with more than 100 million users sending 250 million Tweets every day on virtually every topic. As we’ve seen time and time again, news breaks first on Twitter; as a result, Twitter accounts and Tweets are often the most relevant results.

We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users.

Google responded last night with a single sentence and a link highlighting Twitter’s decision to remove itself from the search equation.

We are a bit surprised by Twitter’s comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer (http://goo.gl/chKwi), and since then we have observed their rel=nofollow instructions.

As you can see, Twitter elected not to renew an agreement it had with Google to include Twitter updates in its search results. That agreement ran from October 2009 to July 2, 2011. To date, no one’s entirely sure why Twitter opted out of its partnership with Google (Google had been paying Twitter for access to its tweet firehose, so money was probably a factor) but I’m assuming it had something to do with Google+ (launched on June 28, 2011), and Twitter’s competitive concerns about freely providing Google a motherlode of easily mineable social networking data.

So there’s reason to be sympathetic with Google’s position here — they can’t integrate results they’ve been forbidden access to — but Google’s (feigned?) surprise also seems disingenuous. Between Google search and Google+, Google holds both the spigot and the cup. It’s in many ways analogous to the relationship Microsoft Windows has with Microsoft Office, where one company controls both the underlying platform (or one of the biggest slices) while simultaneously competing with others at the applications level. If Google search is the predominant Internet search mechanism (it is), and that search mechanism surfaces Google+ content before any other social network’s, I’d call that a clear conflict of interest.

But! Google’s Amit Singhal claims the company is “open” to integrating Facebook, Twitter and other services, telling Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan:

“Facebook and Twitter and other services, basically, their terms of service don’t allow us to crawl them deeply and store things. Google+ is the only [network] that provides such a persistent service … Of course, going forward, if others were willing to change, we’d look at designing things to see how it would work.”

The trouble with Google’s “open” position here, if I’ve surmised Twitter’s original reason for opting out of Google search correctly, is that it affords Google access to massive pools of ostensibly valuable data that Twitter, Facebook and the like wouldn’t have about Google+. Google+ allows Google to paddle around in the social networking pool with everyone else, while Google search (with Twitter, Facebook et al. fully integrated) would give Google access to a bird’s eye view of usage patterns its competitors lack.

There’s no easy solution here. If Google pays Twitter gobs of money to aggregate the social networking site’s content, there’s still Google’s ability to view how that data’s accessed (via Google search) in ways Twitter can’t, giving Google a competitive leg up. And if Google and Twitter remain unpaired, Google+ stands to benefit enormously if Search plus Your World takes off, at which point Google’s holding both the spigot and cup.

[Update: It looks like Google may have to grapple with an FTC complaint over Search plus Your World.]

MORE: Google Adds ‘Your World’ to Search Results

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham, Google+ or Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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