If you are engaged in serious research on topical issues you can’t ignore Twitter. And, if you can’t ignore Twitter, then you need to grasp the best ways to tap the resource. Understanding how Twitter is used is key to getting what you want without ending up knee deep in posts about coffee breaks and late trains.
Pivotal to success is understanding that the information carried within Twitter is often not the content with value. The real value for the serious researcher are the networks of people you can access, the connections that exist between them and the links people post. You can also locate those posts in time and place.
Like ordinary search engine research – you need to be precise and have a clear idea what content you are after and where it is likely to be found. For example, the screen grab below shows results from a search for posts originating in Cairo before 27 February.
Tactics like this are easy to master. In this insite series we’ll group tactics and tools into a range of research categories including: Finding the right People; #Hashtags and Trends; and Searching the Twitter Archive. This first post explores Advanced Twitter Searching.
A lot of confusion exists about advanced searching in search engines and services such as Twitter. Most, including Twitter, offer an ‘Advanced Search‘ form. This gives you clearly useful tools to help you interrogate the Twittersphere. But more useful, flexible and powerful are the ’advanced operators‘ that are typed directly into Twitter’s search box and give you the power to construct much more precise and powerful search strings. This guide explains how to get to grips with these tools. See the insite guide to Google’s advanced operators.
The Twitter guide to each advanced operator is set out below with links to the corresponding search results. The ‘operators’ are highlighted in red.
|twitter search||containing both “twitter” and “search”. This is the default operator.|
|“happy hour“||containing the exact phrase “happy hour”.|
|love OR hate||containing either “love” or “hate” (or both).|
|beer -root||containing “beer” but not “root”.|
|#haiku||containing the hashtag “haiku”.|
|from:alexiskold||sent from person “alexiskold”.|
|to:techcrunch||sent to person “techcrunch”.|
|@mashable||referencing person “mashable”.|
|“happy hour” near:“san francisco”||containing the exact phrase “happy hour” and sent near “san francisco”.|
|near:NYC within:15mi||sent within 15 miles of “NYC”.|
|superhero since:2011-02-26||containing “superhero” and sent since date “2011-02-26″ (year-month-day).|
|ftw until:2011-02-26||containing “ftw” and sent up to date “2011-02-26″.|
|movie -scary :)||containing “movie”, but not “scary”, and with a positive attitude.|
|flight :(||containing “flight” and with a negative attitude.|
|traffic ?||containing “traffic” and asking a question.|
|hilarious filter:links||containing “hilarious” and linking to URLs.|
|news source:twitterfeed||containing “news” and entered via TwitterFee|
Operators such as the ‘OR‘ command or double quote marks to designate phrase searching are common to many search engines and can be extremely useful when treated carefully. Turning to the Twitter-specific operators – some are more important for serious research than others. Here are real examples from the best of the bunch.
The ‘people’ operators let you trace posts ‘from‘ and ‘to‘ specific people. Here we used the search term: from:blibrahim to obtain all the recent posts from that user in Cairo.
You can use the ‘to‘ operator to trace all posts sent directly to that user and the @ operator to obtain posts that reference a specific user.
The ‘location’ operators help you identify Twitter users geographically. At the height of the uprising in Libya we used this search to find Twitter users in Tripoli: near:Tripoli
You can use the ‘within‘ operator to search for posts ‘within’ a certain distance of a specific location. For example, your search string can be: near:tripoli wthin:25mi to search within 25 miles of that city. The Twitter search page also gives you drop-down options for searching ‘within’ specific distances.
You can search for answers by searching for questions using the ? operator. Use this operator to find the questions other Twitter users are asking about a specific topic. For example, this query: Ajdabiya ? was used to find posts about that town on the day it was bombed by pro-Gaddafi forces.
Finding links. Discovering other resources and breaking news about a search term is one of the main reasons researchers and journalists turn to Twitter and the best way to do that is to use the filter:links operator. This looks for posts that contain your search term and internet links. For example, here we used this search string: Ajdabiya filter:links.
Searching within specific time periods. To search for post up to a specific date use the “until” operator like this: until:2010-02-28. Equally, you can search for posts after a specific date like this:since:2010-02-28. This is particularly effective when you want to examine the reaction to a specific event before and after it has occurred. Searching by timeframe is not always reliable however. If you use a common search term then Twitter may tell you your specified date is too old.
Combining operators. As with Google, the most powerful way to use advanced operators is to combine them in innovative ways to get to the material you want with the minimum of fuss. In this example, we searched for posts that contain the term “tahrir square” and originate in Cairo. The results contain leads that are exactly on topic.
The next post in this series will look at ways you can identify the right people who are using Twitter (tweeps) and how you can identify networks and connections between people.
** Learn more about sophisticated search techniques on our one-day Advanced Internet Research course, Wednesday 16 March in London. Book soon though as only two places available at the time of writing. **