UPDATE 16/07/2009: The problem of appearing in search and hashtags has now been fixed, although it would seem that People Search is still not finding users. Thanks to @crystal of the Twitter Support team for her correspondence. She says that all problems should be fixed by 12:04am PST today.

UPDATED 14/07/2009 (see below).

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Twitter, the social media service reknowned over the last few weeks for the noise it has generated, has a quiet and growing problem. Many users are not appearing in search or the Find People tool.

I first came across the issue when @Paul0Evans1 told me he wasn’t appearing in search some months ago. At first I quite didn’t believe him, it seemed so unusual, and checked to see if this was indeed the case (which it was). He has since used another Twitter name to when talking about specific events such as Political Innovation Camp, but it’s a work around rather than a solution.

Just after Twitter Upgraded, about two weeks ago, I noticed a similar pattern occuring on my account. Appreciating that I get this service for free, and aware that what right did I have to complain, I added my query to this support post, which already had 80+ pages of comments, rather than writing out a new support ticket.

The number of comments to date on this post is over 2,300. It is currently Twitter’s largest open known issue. , and Twitter has now closed comments on the post. This known problem support post is still open for comments.

One of the many reasons that Twitter has been so successful in spreading messages rapidly through it’s system is through the use of hashtags (#) and Twitter’s own real-time search engine. As Twitter describe it themselves:

Twitter search is an incredible tool that allows you to find virtually anything and anyone by adding the ability to search for key words, locations, phrases, and more! Type in any word and you’re guaranteed to get real time results.

Twitter users can follow what topics are trending using a number of tools, including one integrated into each users homepage. It was this Twitter feature alone that enabled Digital Britain Unconferences to kick off, for example.

In the past when users have disliked a new feature or if something has broken Twitter users have used hashtags to quickly cause a storm to bring it to the attention of the site’s administrators.

But what happens when a multiple number of users are no longer appearing in search? Their accounts still exist, they are still tweeting, but they can no longer be found easily by other users, or their messages appear to the wider non-following audience. The irony is the problem is a quiet one.

Whilst this isn’t the end of the world it highlights three things:

1. Our reliance on VC funded free tools and how as users we have little leverage to complain, we are not customers after all.

2. Google has some how programmed us to believe that search is somehow simple and automatic.

3. The affects of the problem highlighted above are subtle and at first generally not that noticable, but they are ultimately quite pernicious and undermine many of the democratic qualities of the tool that have been admired so much in the last few weeks.

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Below is the email sent by Twitter in response to a support ticket sent regarding this issue.

Hi,

Thanks for your email. You can search for people on Twitter by keyword, user name, location and more. New: Twitter search in your sidebar!
http://help.twitter.com/forums/39781/entries/33972

More information about searching for people is here:
http://help.twitter.com/forums/10711/entries/14022

We’re currently experiencing a couple of issues with finding people; if you can’t find yourself in search, make sure you’ve posted updates (so we can index you and your updates.) Profiles that haven’t posted updates aren’t indexed in search.

Profiles added in the last 8 weeks aren’t being indexed by search. We’re tracking this problem here:
http://help.twitter.com/forums/31935/entries/38518

Due to high volume, support requests reporting this issue are being closed, as we’re aware of and working on the problem, and tracking it in the known issues page. Please check the thread above for updates or post comments there, and don’t re-open tickets. A solved ticket doesn’t mean the bug is fixed; bug fixes will be announced on the known issues page.

When you’re using ‘Find People’ to look for folks by name or user name, you can only perform 50 searches per hour before you’re limited– this is for abuse control and spam prevention. If you hit a search limit using Find People, try checking out Twitter Search’s advanced search:

http://search.twitter.com/advanced

If you’re not listed in search and your profile is public, we may be investigating your account for a violation listed here:
http://help.twitter.com/forums/26257/entries/18311

If you’re sure that doesn’t pertain to you and you still can’t find yourself or your friends, reply to this ticket and let us know.

Thanks!
Twitter Support

UPDATE 14/07/2009: Twitter Support has just emailed the following, which can also be viewed here

crystal said:

Update: Find People search index should be up to date. All public accounts with tweets posted for more than 24 hours should be indexed. Search is now updating regularly, on a daily basis. If you’re still not listed in search, your tweets may be filtered for search quality; find out more about this here. Search filtering is done automatically, and cannot be un-done by Twitter Support.

A rather defensive response, considering the comments on this issue (now closed) were nearing 2,500. From the tests I have done People Search is still not working and neither is Search. Twitter does seems to be experiencing capacity problems are however, so these issues may be resolved over the next few days.

Again the problem here really is that as users, rather than customers, of the service there is very little leverage in complaining. Twitter is a service that I would happily consider paying for as a Pro User (ie. with additional functionality/features), in the similar vein to Flickr or Gmail Corporate, each of which have a corresponding Terms of Service. 14/07/2009

4 Comments

  1. Good to know I’m not going crazy when I can’t find people. Thanks for the 411!

  2. Thanks for bringing this issue to light. I was going around in circles trying to figure this out, and got the same canned response from Twitter that you showed above.

    This problem is significant in re: Moonfruit’s current #moonfruit hashtag contest. How many people think they are submitting entries to that contest, when really their #moonfruits are disappearing into a black hole? None of mine have shown up in Twitter search so far.

    I wrote to the Moonfruit people trying to get an answer about this. Here’s a page with some background (including this story) and my letter to Moonfruit asking if they are basing their contest entry selection on Twitter’s faulty search index: http://lancebrown.org/twitter-stuff/letter-to-moonfruit-about-their-moonfruit-contest-and-twitters-search-problem/

    Thanks for this article Kathryn!

  3. The support system is indeed a cul-de-sac – they send messages asking you if the problem has been solved and *any* response results in the ticket being closed off.

    It’s especially frustrating because it means I quite literally can’t join in conversations when I’m at events – and I make my living at least partly doing the sort of events that twitter would feature heavily at. http://twitter.com/solobasssteve has the same problem.

  4. Thanks for highlighting this problem. The list in the forum you mentioned grows by the day

    Despite the problem being quite old it is still ongoing and with no sign of a resolution. Twitter has been conspicuous by its silence.
    Few accounts set up in the past couple of months have any indexes at all.
    No real time post searche, no hashtag searches, no people searches

    But, some accounts set up recently have at least hashtag and real time post indexes … strange and frustrating for a large group of “ordunary” users.

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