A Bomb in Oslo? What Google Lost by Ending Real-Time Search

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I had a sense that something was wrong pretty quickly. In between checking my email and finishing up a story for the site you're reading right now, I was casually watching some tweets stream in through TweetDeck -- as I almost always am. Every 10th or 20th tweet posted by those I follow had something to do with Oslo. "Prayers are with those in Oslo," "Not sure what the situation in Oslo is but it doesn't look good" -- messages to that effect.

Curious, I turned to Google. A blast "occurred at the government headquarters which house the offices of Jens Stoltenberg," according to a story in the Telegraph that Google led me to. "It remains unclear what caused the blast or if it was a terrorism attack. The Prime Minister was reported to be safe. The cause of the blast was unknown but the tangled wreckage of a car was outside one building. The damage appeared consistent with that from car bombs."

But I had to dig a bit to find that story. When I searched "Oslo" on Google, the first four results were a Google Maps image of the Norwegian capital, the official travel guide for the city, the Oslo entry on Wikipedia and a second Wikipedia entry, this one for the Oslo Accords. Below all of those links there were three Google News entries even though, by the time I searched, hundreds of posts had been written (355 related articles, according to Google's own crawler). Those were from USA Today, BBC News and the Telegraph -- the one I selected. All of those outlets were quick to move on the story, but none of them were as fast as Twitter. And none of them will be able to update as quickly. (In fact, the Telegraph's story opens with a video showing the damage that is hosted on TwitVid, a simple service that allows users to post and share short clips through various social networks.)

It was not so long ago that I would have been able to plug "Oslo" into Google and be automatically greeted by a curated stream of tweets in real-time right there on the search results page. Google let its relationship with Twitter end during the first week of July and, over the holiday weekend, that feature quietly disappeared.

The assumption was that Google was going all-in on Google+, its new social network, and that real-time information might one day be pulled from there to fill this void. Even though Google+ has been growing rapidly -- some reports say it now has 20 million users -- and even though I follow more than 1,000 people on that network, the first thing I saw when I logged in was a giant black-and-white picture of a headless monster. Cool! So I scrolled down: Apple's global market share of tablets drops, 7 tips for small business podcasting, can Google+ help your job search?, etc. It took a while before I found anything about the explosion.

But now go to Twitter, where both Oslo and Norway are trending. Quick: Do a search for "Oslo" and look at the depth and range of information -- updates, pictures, video -- that is pouring into the system. This is what Google lost.

Christopher Mims at MIT's Technology Review also noticed how poorly Google is presenting the news out of Oslo. He's put together a page with quick tips and tricks for following the story now that Google's real-time search is dead.

Image: TwitVid.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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