If we are to believe everything that we read about social media and user-created content, it's reasonable to assume that there's a lot of it out there. People are busy twittering away, creating bookmarked content, creating their own pagecasts in Pageflakes – to say nothing of writing about anything and everything in their weblogs. Yet at first glance it might appear to the casual observer that very little of this is being indexed, sorted and made available for searching. As it happens, there are several different social media search engines that can be used to track down this useful (and sometimes not so useful) content.
One may be forgiven a certain amount of skepticism with regards to this content, but it can easily be argued that there isn't a great deal of difference between content produced for a weblog, tweet or a social networking post, and that produced for a Web site. I can just as easily write an article and place it onto my Web site as I can put it into a weblog posting – the location of the content really isn't that important in that respect. However, it may be worth pointing out that searching for content in user-created resources is going to provide more up-to-the-minute content much more quickly and effectively than using a traditional search engine storing traditional (and often not very current) Web pages.
Moreover, the conversations that are taking place in weblogs, on Twitter and the like are increasingly creating the message. Long gone are the days when a press or publicity department could cunningly craft a well thought-through report or press release and place it onto the company Web site for visitors to marvel at. Nowadays people will share content, repackage it, point to it from various different places on the Internet and encourage their friends and colleagues to share their own thoughts. It still amazes me to hear librarians and other information professionals tell me that blogs are banned in their organizations; or that they are not allowed to view social networking sites and the like, as if by ignoring the existence of the medium their companies can also ignore the message. If a company doesn't know what is being said about them, that doesn't stop it being said; it just means that they are not in a position to contribute to or influence that discussion. Surely it becomes more, not less necessary to be aware of and to search this content - just to keep up to date, if nothing else.
This article will look at some of the ways in which social media and user-generated content can be searched.
Twitter  is an application that people either take to quickly and find extremely useful, or it leaves them confused and puzzled. The concept is simple – users can post short posts of up to 140 characters about whatever they wish. This includes the banal – details of what someone had for breakfast, or their journey to work or where they are having their lunch – but also breaking news, links to weblog postings or Web sites, developments on products, or brief reports on conferences they are attending. Such posts can be sent directly from the Web site, or just as commonly (if not more so) via mobile devices or third party applications designed to repackage content (such as a blog posting or Facebook status) and post a snippet and pointer in a 'tweet'. Individuals can subscribe to others (the terminology is 'follow') in order to see all of their posts (or tweets) but anyone can also search for references to any subject that interests them. The search engine is oddly well hidden on the home page, placed down at the bottom almost as a footnote, but it's also available at http://search.twitter.com/ . The search interface is very basic and follows the trend of looking as much like Google as possible, although there is an advanced search function which allows users to limit in a number of ways. While all of the usual search functions are in evidence, the search engine has a few stranger elements that users will probably not have come across before. It's possible to search content written by an individual, to an individual in a reply to something they themselves have said, or that refers to a specific person. Another search option allows searchers to look for content near a specific location, within a certain number of miles or kilometres – useful if you need to do some research on a news hotspot for example. Content can be searched from a specific date or to a specific date, which allows someone to follow the chronology of a news event perhaps. Finally there is an interesting 'attitudes' option with a positive or negative attitude (as shown by using the appropriate emoticon) or by asking a question.
Results are arranged chronologically, with details of the person who posted the specific tweet, a link to the full posting, a link to a conversation if appropriate, and an option to respond to it. There is the option of taking an RSS feed for the search or to Twitter the results themselves. Finally there is an option to view trending subjects (current hot topics), such as the iPhone, Colin Powell or Halloween for example. All told, this search engine is easy to use with some clever functionality that puts more established resources to shame. Even if you have no interest in actively taking part in the Twitter community, if you need current data (and by current I mean content posted a few moments ago), and are prepared to work your way through a certain amount of chaff, it is without doubt a search engine that is worth using.
As with any successful Web 2.0-based application there are a great many other spin- off search-based applications – searching based on the American Presidential election, various mash-ups and so on; the list is almost endless. However, if you are tempted to explore and use Twitter as a search tool. it's worth starting at over 150 Twitter Applications  or Twitter Apps  which currently lists almost 400 different applications.
The Social Mention search engine  calls itself a 'social media search engine' and consequently searches user-generated content such as blogs, comments, bookmarks, events, news, videos, and microblogging services. It has a simple interface with a tabbed approach, allowing users to focus a search on blogs, microblogs (by which they mean Twitter), bookmarking services such as Delicious, , Clipmarks  and Diigo . Other options are to search comment sites such as FriendFeed , events, images from Picasaweb  Photobucket , news resources at diig  and reddit , and video from YouTube  and Daily Motion . Alternatively there's an option to run a multisearch across all tabs and resources.
The results obviously differ according to the type of data being searched, but the results are always clearly displayed with the option of ranking by source or date. It's also possible to reduce the number of results by limiting to time periods such as the last hour, 12 or 24 hours or the last week. Social Mention also supports RSS feeds and an e-mail alert function.
Although this search engine is relatively new it's certainly moving in the right direction. It doesn't take itself too seriously either – while it is collecting and collating content during a search the user is kept amused by various status messages such as 'Adjusting interweb constant' and 'Jumping to hyperspace'.
tuSavvy is another social search engine  and it's another multi/meta search engine. This one pulls content from entirely different sites however, such as Slideshare  where people post their PowerPoint presentations, Pageflakes  which is a home/start application that allows users to create their own pages (or Pagecasts), Zimbio  which is another page creation resource, Rollyo  which is a custom search engine creator, weblogs, Web pages and so on. Unfortunately tuSavvy doesn't appear to provide a complete listing of the resources that they use, so it's a slightly hit-and-miss affair; but it's equally fair to say that it does find a lot of material that is difficult to find elsewhere. Users can also bookmark the content that they find, or add it to 'MyBox', although in order to do that it's necessary to register to use the search engine.
Delver is a social search engine  with a difference; not least because the creators don't like the term – they prefer 'socially connected search engine', and having looked at the engine I think that's a reasonable position to take. Before you can use the search engine, it's necessary to create a profile of yourself for it to work with. This is as simple as typing in your name and identifying who 'you' are from a listing of people with the same name in various social networking services; if you're not currently involved with any of them, this search engine will not work for you, since 'your friends know best'. That's really the crux of this engine – once it has identified who you are, it's able to identify your friends or contacts and see what they bookmark or add to their collections of data. Delver currently indexes content from the Web and specific resources such as Flickr, YouTube, MySpace, LinkedIn, Facebook, Blogger and so on. It then uses that material to find content based on what you are searching for. Once you have identified who you are, or have claimed your identity, Delver will map out a community for you based on you and your links, and will use this as a search universe. So, for example, if you locate your Flickr account and then search for 'roses', Delver will look at your friends' content, and your friends' friends content to find appropriate matches for you.
Delver is a rather more serendipitous search engine than the others that I've looked at and it succeeds or fails on the community concept that it creates. Many of the social networking systems that individuals join find it difficult to differentiate between personal and professional aspects of one's life, so the content returned may be a confusing mish-mash of both. To be fair however, if a profile is carefully created initially, it can return interesting and useful content. It's also worth making the point that Delver can only search on public material; but equally if people are careless while setting their profiles to any sort of private mode, they may be making more information available than they realise.
There are of course many other social search engines – almost as many as there are social search networks, as each seems to have a search option. Moreover, they are increasing in prominence – if asked the question 'What's the second most popular search engine?' most people would probably suggest Yahoo, or perhaps MSN. However, according to reports , it's actually YouTube. In August 2008, 2.6 billion queries were run, while Yahoo managed 2.4 billion (though both are of course well short of Google's 7.6 billion queries).
Various other applications have search engines that solely focus in that particular universe with their own particular functions, so we have LJSeek  which is a search engine that allows searchers to look for information contained in the public postings of Live Journal writers. Consequently it's often very personal information, thoughts and opinions rather than hard factual details, but users sometimes link to specific sites or news items. Some of the groups at Live Journal do contain very knowledgeable individuals with a useful collective intelligence and they keep up to date in their specialised areas of interest; so it can sometimes be valuable to locate a group and perhaps post a question. In a more visual format the search engine at Flickr  allows searchers to identify photographs of almost anything. Photographs are also often posted to specific groups and these groups in turn often have lively discussion forums that could contain useful data or, once again, could be a place to ask a question.
Any focus on user-generated content should include weblogs, and there are indeed many weblog search engines available; last mentioned in this column back in July 2003 . They do however deserve more than a passing mention and so will be featured in detail in a forthcoming issue.
In conclusion, the growth in social search is reflected in an increasing number of focused search engines and searchers should always bear them in mind when considering what, and where to search.