Web Watch: Dowsing for Gold

[originally published on Law.com, May 1, 2010]

Search tools help users divine useful information from the white noise of social media.

Social networking implies give and take. Marketing gurus can teach you how to give with social media and tools. You also need to find information in the maelstrom pouring across the web and take it in.

Social activity usually occurs in real-time. Take, for example, Twitter. Whether you are following a developing issue or identifying information to retweet (forward) to your own network, knowing how to monitor this real-time stream can be important.

An obvious way is to use Twitter’s search engine twitter.com/search. An alternative (and one that is probably not filtered by your law firm) is Microsoft’s Bing — www.bing.com/twitter. It highlights hot topics, but can also be searched. When you search, it returns the latest tweets matching your search terms.

Unfortunately, it only shows three at a time. But click on the “More recent tweets” link to generate a full page of tweets, updated in real time. Bing understands hash tags — shortcuts preceded by a # sign, such as #ltny (for LegalTech New York).

It also displays top tweeted links, so you can look at related content, not just a 140-character message. If you see something interesting, click through to the content. Often, a link sent on Twitter is created using an URL shortener, which takes a long web site address and converts it to something about 10 characters long. The default shortener is http://bit.ly and a link sent in a tweet might look like this: http://bit.ly/cwf1Nz.

You can mine tweets that are no longer searchable by using bit.ly. When you visit a web page and want to see who has tweeted about it, create your own bit.ly shortened URL. Bit.ly aggregates all activity about a page, so if other people have created a bit.ly link to the same page, you can log in to your free Bit.ly account and see how many people have clicked it, and see tweets referencing the link. They may be months old, but are saved by Bit.ly.

Google has just launched archive and timeline search features, helping users access the entire Twitter public archive. You also can search on Google and see a “show options” link above your search results, which generates real-time results. Click the link, and select “latest” from the menu, under “Any time.” Tweets being sent will appear in a scrolling window within your other web results.

What if you just want social media results? Search engines such as Collecta.com focus entirely on this subset. Still in beta, Collecta will retrieve results from blog posts and comments, status updates on life-streaming and microblogging services such as Twitter, and multimedia posted on Flickr,YouTube, and other photo and video sharing sites.

You use Collecta like other web search engines, but you can then filter out everything but the types of social content you need. Like any good social media site, if you find something on Collecta, you can immediately add it to a Facebook page, bookmark it to Delicious, or send it to Twitter. Most social search efforts seem to be one-trick ponies, focusing on a single social site such as Bing’s Twitter search. Collecta is an excellent example of a site with a much broader reach.

But social media isn’t always about the babble of the crowds. As on Collecta, you can find blog posts and comments posted that can be more meaningful than short text messages.

If you are part of an online network, whether Facebook (www.facebook.com) or the professional-oriented LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com), you can tap both for a mixture of information. Your own network connections and friends may be highlighting relevant information.

On LinkedIn, look for peer groups discussing the things you want to know about, and join them to see the conversation. Now that LinkedIn can be wed to Twitter accounts, you can see not only discussion posts and comments, but also tweets injected into the discussion and retained within LinkedIn.

LinkedIn also can help you crack corporate identities. Business websites are closely controlled and may not provide information about senior management, even if the CEO and CFO are identified. But the self-interest that LinkedIn serves means that you may find unidentified senior and other staff who have created personal profiles. Search LinkedIn for a job title, such as counsel, and a corporate name, and see what comes up. Even better, run the search again (or use the advanced search) and select current or past to see if you have a network connection to someone who is in or has held that position.

Tap into the social content created on the web and create a powerful resource for your own social activity. It can help you to identify peers and interesting information to share with your own audiences, without being inundated with noise.

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