The world’s abuzz this week with word that Twitter is getting serious about business – the proof point being Twitter’s new subdomain “business.twitter.com” and the “Twitter 101″ handbook currently living there, a white paper of sorts aimed at helping companies figure out how to leverage the sometimes befuddling service.
This all reminds me of Fall 2004. Back then, Google was coming on hard in search. And while the world viewed Google as an upstart stealing query share from the incumbent Yahoo, the real drama was happening on the business side. By the Fall of 2004, Google’s AdWord and AdSense solutions were warranting serious attention from the same ecosystem of SEO/SEM that previously had focused on Overture’s offerings.
In this Fall, 2004 thread on Webmasterworld, where SEO types hang out to talk shop, search marketers debate the relative performance and profitability of Overture compared with Google. Prior to that year, Overture was the undisputed king of paid traffic. But in ’04, Google started pulling ahead, and since that time, it’s never looked back. Why?
Well, there are myriad reasons: Google had a better consumer facing search experience than Yahoo (Yahoo bought Overture in 2003), and Google’s AdWord service including a quality ranking score (as well as paid ranking like Overture), for example. But I believe something else was at work, an upward spiral of adoption by small business advertisers.
What do I mean by that?
Well, I was covering the search space pretty closely back then, and one of the metrics touted by both Google and Yahoo were the number of advertisers who were using their service. Google didn’t publicly announce those numbers, but my sources inside the company did whisper them to me from time to time. Overture, on the other hand, touted their “active advertiser” numbers in their public filings. Its number of active, paying advertisers crossed 100,000 around the time of the Yahoo acquisition, and upwards of 200,000 a year later. Who were all those advertisers? That early in the search revolution, they sure weren’t the Fortune 500, or even the Fortune 5000. They were SMBs – the lifeblood of the US economy, responsible for two thirds of jobs and the driving force of a nascent recovery from the 2001-03 recession. These businesses live on the edge of profit at all times, and they are always the first to find tools that might help them succeed. By ’04, tens of thousands of them had found paid search.
As far as I could tell, Yahoo stopped disclosing the figure after the acquisition closed. And as I was strolling the halls of the first Web2 conference (October 2004), I got a phone call that might explain why. The call was from a source at Google, who wanted me to know that Google had eclipsed Overture in the number of total active advertisers. I couldn’t confirm that number, nor could I get Overture/Yahoo to respond, so I dropped the story (can you imagine a blogger in the tech world not printing a story like that now? How times change.).
Anyway, I was reminded of this anecdote while reading through “Twitter 101″ and it occurs to me that to really succeed, Twitter must be useful, really useful, to small businesses. It was those tens of thousands of small businesses who drove success at Overture, and then at Google. Search became an essential channel for lead generation, and Google became the dominant player in that channel.
While a lot of the attention around business success on Twitter focuses on big brands like Comcast, JetBlue, or WholeFoods, the ecosystem that will really drive value, revenue, and profit for a TweetSense like execution will be the small business ecosystem. And absent a clear service like AdWords for Twitter, a user manual of sorts that explains why Twitter can help business makes an awful lot of … tweetsense.