Twitter’s Cosmic Powers

I originally wrote this article for Connect Magazine’s December 2008 issue.

It’s been said that brevity is the soul of wit; it is also the soul of Twitter.

Twitter is the world’s most popular tool for “micro-blogging.” Every day, millions of people use Twitter to answer the question, “What are you doing right now?” As soon as they post a “tweet,” everyone who follows them can see what they are doing right now. It’s similar to updating your status in Facebook.

It’s called micro-blogging because you only have 140 characters per tweet. But you can pack a lot of info into 140 characters. Like Genie said to Jafar in the movie “Aladdin,” “Phenomenal cosmic powers … itty-bitty living space!”

Many people think Twitter is silly or a waste of time. But most of the people that I follow on Twitter are not posting what they just had for lunch or what they are watching on TV. Instead, they are smart people answering the question, “What did I just learn, read or think that is important to share?”

I don’t follow people on Twitter that post inane comments. But I do follow dozens of venture capitalists, employees at Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Web 2.0 startup companies and even a congressman from Texas. By carefully selecting whom I follow on Twitter, I have chosen to tap into an information stream, a constant flow of ideas and links from hundreds of the smartest (and most vocal) people on earth.

Twitter recently passed Google Reader (with my carefully selected blogs) as my most important source of business information. Partly because of their brevity I can consume so many tweets quickly.

The keys to success with Twitter are: 1) Getting the right client software and, 2) Selecting the right people to follow.

I use Twitterific software on my iPhone and Twitterberry on my Blackberry. And of course, Twitter on the desktop.

From Twitter I learn about things going on in Silicon Valley and New York and elsewhere that people I follow are planning to attend. Last month I learned about a social advertising summit in New York City, and within a day was signed up for it. This event was crucial in shaping our current business strategy.

Twitter, which raised $15 million in venture capital in May, recently purchased a search engine that indexes the hundreds of millions of Twitter posts. It is a powerful way to find out what thousands of people are thinking about any topic.

And it’s not just about following the conversations; it’s about starting them as well.

If I post a tweet, the 300-plus people who follow me on Twitter can read it. But it also automatically updates my Facebook status, so my 800-plus Facebook friends can see it as well. Some people using Twitter have tens of thousands of followers. If they link to a Web site or make a comment or break a news story, imagine how quickly the news can spread.

Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/paulballen.

WSJ Startup Journal: How to stand out online

Some people are born with great names and others have great names thrust upon them. In the 1960s when I was given the name “Paul Allen” it was an ordinary name. But thanks to the dynamic duo of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the name is now famous.

But what do you do if you want to be found online, but you can’t possibly stand out like the rich and famous person with the same name? Or what do you do if you have a name like “John Smith” that is so common that it can’t possibly stand out?

The Wall Street Journal Center for Entrepreneurs published an article today by Elva Ramirez that may give entrepreneurs a few ideas about how to stand out in the search engines and how to elevate your search engine rankings. One key is blogging. Another is giving yourself a unique online persona, like Phil Burns did.

I was interviewed for the article as was Phil Burns, aka Phil801, founder of TagJungle.com.

I mentioned in the interview that it’s hard to compete in search engine rankings with the Microsoft Paul Allen. He used to have the first fifty or so search results in Google. But since I’ve been blogging fairly consistently for more than three years, and have posted about 800-900 times, I’ve attracted hundreds of incoming links that have given my paulallen.net web site a decent ranking on the search phrase “paul allen.”

I’m still known as Paul Allen the Lesser, and will likely stay that way forever both in reputation and in Google rank, unless I outlive the Greater and do something so marvelous (like bring about world peace through blogging) that my web page someday outranks his Wikipedia article. Not likely, I know. I’ll settle for third or fifth and be happy as a clam.

But when you name your company, or purchase your domain name, or name your product or service, do something to make it unique and easy to find, or do something to attract so much attention that you get the search engine rankings that you need to be found.

It often takes a ton of quality content (either company published or user generated) to generate enough incoming links to get high rankings on various keywords. But I’ve seen in done over and over and over again by SEO savvy entrepeneurs and internet marketers.

It pays great dividends to generate content that is worth linking to, because search engine rankings can make the difference between success and failure of an online business. I tried to calculate the value of high search engine rankings in an article published in December 2004 by Connect Magazine last year.

In the mid 90s, it mattered a great deal that your company name started with an “A” or better yet a number like “10x” since so many directories were alphabetically sorted. As better sorting algorithms were developed, that became less important. (But even now, in Google Book Search, the book vendors are listed in alphabetically order, meaning that Abe Books and Alibris show up ahead of Amazon.com whenever you want to purchase a book.)

How do you think names will affect the 2008 Presidential Campaign?

I think Hilary or is it Hillary Clinton has a pretty big problem. People don’t know how to spell her name. About 1/4th or 1/3rd seem to spell it wrong according to a Google Trends Report on both spellings. Her first name has two l’s.

I think Rudy Giuliani has an even bigger problem. It’s hard to find someone online when you can’t spell their name correctly. It’s taken me several searches for me to become comfortable with the spelling of his last name. The first few times I got it wrong.

Barack Hussein Obama will have the problem of getting people to spell his first name correctly (I think I typed two “r”s initially), but worse still, the Hussein might bring up all kinds of search engine results that may turn people off. Good thing for him that his last name has a “b” in it rather than an “s.”

People may wonder if you spell Mitt Romney with one or two t’s, so I think John Edwards and John McCane have the edge here in “ease of use.” Just kidding, I know it’s McCain, but I wonder if everyone else knows that as well. So may Edwards actually has the advantage.

At least I thought he did, until I did a search on Google for “John Edwards” and after the first three hits came up I saw something I’ve never seen before, a line separating the first three results from the next set of results, followed by a message:

“See results for John Edward”

Then below that were a bunch of websites dealing with a musician named John Edward.

I have never before seen Google take a plural word query (Edwards) and offer search results for a singular version of the name (Edward) partway down the page.

Can someone tell me what’s going on here? Does someone at Google not like John Edwards?

(Just kidding, I totally believe what happens at Google is algorithmically based. But John Edwards just happens to be caught in a bad spot with regards to this particular algorithm. Instead of “hanging chads” determining the outcome of the 2008 Election, maybe it will be a tweaked google algorithm.)

I wonder how many of the campaigns will try to purchase domains or build sites that include the misspelled versions of their opponents names. Would that be a base tactic in politics?

I typed in familsearch.com the other day (accidentally missed the “y”) and I found that I got redirected to the Ancestry.com web site presumably because an affiliate bought that typo version of a popular domain name and took advantage of the typo. In internet marketing this happens all the time. Some companies own thousands of domains with misspellings and typos that can redirect traffic from their competitors’ sites.

So what do you do to stand out online? And why do you think it matters?

And what advice would you give the 2008 Presidential Campaigns as they try to stand out online? Who has an inherent advantage because of his/her name, and who has a disadvantage? Which tactics should they embrace, and which should they avoid, because they might backfire? Which candidate will write the blog with the best content (hopefully not ghost-written, but genuine) and attract the most incoming links in order to get more incoming traffic and higher search engine rankings.

For a lot of reasons, including the impact of names on a candidate’s ability to be found online, it will be an interesting race to watch.

Latest Connect Magazine Articles

I finally got around to linking to my two latest Connect Magazine articles. You can read all my part articles here. I love writing this column, and as I’ve said before, my blog got me in the habit of writing regularly and was responsible for my getting this column.

I continue to encourage everyone to start blogging and keep at it, for all the various benefits that come from it. Two years ago I mentioned a few benefits of blogging, and for me, the benefits just continue to mount. The most recent being that I was invited to participate in a broadcast that might reach millions of people worldwide. I’ll share more details later, but it’s truly an amazing opportunity. It would not have happened without my blog.