When Twitter grows up, it's not clear what it will be.
Facebook wants to be more like Twitter, or so the social network's recent redesign suggests, and Google doesn't see enough in Twitter to buy it, despite the growing importance of search at Twitter and of Twitter as a real-time communication tool.
For a glimpse at Twitter's future place in the world, consider the data published on Thursday by Internet metrics firm Hitwise.
"Twitter sent nearly one in five downstream visits to Social Networks and one in five to Entertainment Web sites in February," said Hitwise's Heather Hopkins in a blog post. "The top Social Networks visited after Twitter were, not surprisingly, Facebook and MySpace, followed by the Twitter Search page and YouTube."
If referral traffic predicts potential business allies, Twitter could do worse than send so much traffic to social sites and entertainment sites.
But it could do better, too. Twitter doesn't send much traffic to business/finance sites or shopping/classified sites, categories where there's money to be made from affiliate deals, sales commissions, and the like. As a consequence, its path to profitability may be more circuitous than the road available to a search engine.
That's not to say there's no value in feeding the social network ecosystem, but social networking sites have proven difficult to monetize with online ads. Search is a cash cow because searches often express a desire to find and buy something. On social networks, the interaction is, as might be expected, social and not commercial.
It's that unfortunate reality that prompts companies like consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble to hold events like the online marketing test it conducted on Wednesday, with the help of Google, Microsoft, and others. Under the fetching cloak of T-shirts sold for charity, P&G is trying to understand the commercial possibilities of services like Facebook and Twitter.
"As more and more people participate in these networks, it's really important for us to understand ways we can engage with consumers," P&G spokeswoman Tressie Long told the AP on Thursday. "You can't just walk in and flag your banner ad on a page."
It's important for Twitter to understand that, too. Tweeting about how Tide makes whites whiter isn't the stuff that attracts Twitter followers.
"It appears that Twitter is being used as a social network and means of distributing content," said Hopkins. "This is by no means the only way it is being used -- just one standout trend. Twitter.com's clickstream profile is much closer to a social network than to Search Engines or E-mail Services."
If Twitter keeps trending toward social interaction, its commercial opportunities may not be all they could be.
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