To their credit, Twitter's executives are self-aware enough to know the company has been living sort of like a trust-fund child well past its metaphorical college days. Every startup needs some time in the cradle, of course, but when you're hosting 50 million messages per day and you still don't have a revenue plan, questions start getting kind of pointed.
This is not lost on cofounder Biz Stone. He recently wrote on the company blog, "Believe me, when your name is Biz and you're a cofounder of Twitter, it also means putting yourself at the mercy of folks like Stephen Colbert who hit home runs with lines like, 'So, I assume that 'Biz' in 'Biz Stone' does not stand for 'Business Model.'"
That particular blog post was the announcement of the first piece of what may indeed grow into a real business model for the microblogging service.
Any business in the world has long been able to take a free ride on Twitter -- just make an official profile for your company, and suddenly you can communicate directly with customers and shout your own message to anyone who cares to listen, just as long as you keep it brief. But now businesses will also have the option of buying Promoted Tweets. These are messages associated with a particular search term.
People search out subjects on Twitter all the time -- coffee, cough syrup, thread count, hydroelectricity, digeridoos, literally any word you can think of. If your company buys the rights to that word, your messages gets prime placement on the search results page. Organic results are up there too, but the Promoted Tweet gets the premier suite.
There is a catch. Twitter has spent years getting a feel for the general garbage tolerance of its users, and the company knows that if it starts selling tweet placement, it could easily sell itself out if it isn't careful about it.
So here's the rule for Promoted Tweets: They have to get some action. They have to be retweeted, responded to, or otherwise interacted with. If your Promoted Tweet is bland and uninteresting, it's no longer worthy of PT status, and it gets dropped. You can't just buy your way to the top of Twitter; you've got to buy and earn it!
Of course, this idea of selling search advertisements sounds a lot like what Google does. And right as Twitter started its own minor-league version of Google's game, Google announced plans for a new form of Twitter search. This is going to let people not only search what tweeters are saying about any search term; it'll also document how often a particular term was used in the past. So now we'll all have this graphical, hugely crowdsourced data stream to figure out, down to the minute, exactly when any given pop-culture term or phrase started getting overused and tiresome.
Google would probably love to buy Twitter if its founders ever decided to drop their ideals about corporate independence in favor of independent wealth. Barring that, perhaps some kind of limited partnership will eventually grow. Author Paul Gillin told us, "Both companies envy each other. Twitter would like to be a search engine and Google would like to be a social network. It makes sense for them to be together at some point."