LinkedIn Signal = Exploratory Search for Twitter

October 2, 2010
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I like Twitter. Yes, I know that a lot of its content is noise. But I’ve found Twitter to be a useful professional tool for both publishing and consuming information. Publishing to Twitter is the easy part: I publish links to my blog posts and occasionally engage in public conversations.

Consuming information from Twitter is more of a challenge. I follow 100 people, which is about the limit of my attention budget. I use saved searches to track long-term interests (much as I use web and news alerts), and I perform ad hoc searches when I am interested in finding out what people are saying about a particular topic.

But Twitter search is not a great fit for analysis or exploration–unless you count trending topics as analysis. Originally, the search results were simply the tweets that contained the matching tweets in order of recency. The current system sometimes promotes a few “top tweets” to the top of the results. Still, if you’d like to get a summary view, slice and dice the results, or perform any other sort of HCIR task, you’re out of luck.

Until now.

The LinkedIn Search, Network, and Analytics team–the same folks that built LinkedIn’s faceted search system and developed open-source search tools Zoie and Bobo–just introduced a service called Signal that is squarely aimed at folks like me who use Twitter as a professional tool. It is still in its infancy (in private beta, in fact), but I think it has the potential to dramatically change how people like me use Twitter.

Signal joins the often cacophonous Twitter stream to the high-quality structured data that LinkedIn knows about its own users. For example, when I post a tweet, LinkedIn knows that I am in the software industry, work at Google, and live in New York. LinkedIn can only make this connection for people who include Twitter ids in their LinkedIn profiles, but that’s a substantial and growing population.

Signal then lets you use this structured information to satisfy analytic and exploratory information needs. For example, I can see which companies’ employees are tweeting about software patents (top two are Google and Red Hat).

Or compare what Microsoft employees are saying about Android…

…to what Google employees are saying about Android.

As you can see on the right-hand side, Signal also mines shared links to identify popular ones relative to given search–and allows you to see who has shared a particular link. This functionality is similar to Topsy, but with the advantage of allowing structured searches. Like Topsy, it wrangles the mass of retweeted links into a useful and user-friendly summary.

Signal is still very much in beta. An amusing bug that I encountered earlier today was that, due to some legacy issues in how Linkedin standardized institution names, the system decided that I was an alumnus of the Longy School of Music rather than of MIT. Fortunately, that’s fixed now (thanks, John!)–I love karaoke, but I’m not ready to quit my day job!

Also, Signal only exposes a handful of LinkedIn’s facets, which limits the breadth of analysis and exploration. I’d love to see it add a past company facet, making it possible to drill down into what a company’s ex-employees are saying about a particular topic (e.g., their ex-employer).

Finally, while Signal offers Twitter hashtags as a facet, these are hardly a substitute for a topic facet. In order to provide such a facet, LinkedIn needs to implement some kind of concept extraction to provide a useful topic facet (something I’d also love to see for their regular people search). This is a challenging information extraction problem, especially for the open web, but I also know from experience that it is tractable within a domain. Given LinkedIn’s professional focus, I believe this is a problem they can and should tackle.

Of course, Linkedin also needs to convince more of its users to join their LinkedIn accounts to their Twitter accounts–since that is their input source. But I suspect it’s mostly a matter of time and education–and hopefully the buzz around Signal will help raise awareness.

All in all, I see LinkedIn Signal as a great innovation and a big step forward for exploratory search and for Twitter. Congratulations to John Wang, Igor Perisic, and the rest of the LinkedIn search team on the launch!