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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The news that both Microsoft (whose search engine Bing currently commands just under 10 percent of the search market) and giant Google will license the twitterstream has not yet sufficiently percolated through the consciousness of the IT commentariat (or 'punditsphere').

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was talking to Gartner analysts on 22 October, the day before news of their agreement with the micro-blogging service Twitter appeared in the papers. "Watch this space," he answered in reply to a query about his company's intentions in terms of real-time web.

Once Google has a hold on the twitterstream, and has an opportunity to apply its advanced mathematical ranking formulae to it, there's little doubt that engines such as Swift will be either bypassed, made into a competitor, or acquired. Swift is a "toolset for crowdsourced situational awareness", according to the website. In other words, it is designed to respond to fast-moving events being reported on Twitter.

These events start quickly and die down just as fast. They can be very exciting for the participant or lurker. Two days ago, I suggested that newspapers still have a curatorial, or 'trustee', role to play in the new environment. This is because of the loads of unreliable information that is produced at a startling rate, when a stream really fires up in Twitter.

In fact, the Swift app URL was placed in a comment to my post. People have been thinking about this. But which people? Now, it seems, Google is ready to address the issue. It is likely that news companies, already under siege and often quick to attack Google, are about to be bypassed again.

It's a dangerous game - not acting in the face of certain instability in your major revenue stream. These large corporations still rely on print ads for most of their income, and we know that regional mastheads, which compete less with the web, are doing less badly than their metropolitan siblings.

But when Schmidt says the things he's saying at the Gartner gab-fest, newspapers should really sit up and take notice. What did he say?

From our perspective, real-time information is just as valuable as all the other information, and we want it part of Google. And real-time information is the two fine companies that you named but there are many others, as well. And our indices are able now to process real-time information and rank it. The technically hard problem is ranking the real-time information relative to its, its ... In other words ... To be precise, this person is twittering - tweeting - and this person is tweeting. How do we rank them? Who comes first in the order, what signals [do we look at]? What information [do we take into account when ranking tweets]?

That's an important and challenging technical problem. There are analogous problems in all real-time [media]. All of which are under development at Google.

But not under development at newspaper companies, who continue to focus their efforts on reporting news and (sometimes) reporting what PR operatives class as news.

It's depressing. At least it's depressing once removed, because the people who will ultimately suffer are those journalists and editors who are now finding that losing colleagues is no fun when you are asked to do more work than you can humanly handle. It's easier to rely on PR fed to your email inbox than actually go out and research original stories.

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