You might have heard a lot of chatter about real-time search recently, with Facebook buying Friendfeed (a microblogging service with some strong real-time search technology) and Google unveiling Caffeine, a more real-time focused version of its own search technology. Although real-time search is currently more hype than reality, it seems likely we’ll see the technology being used a lot more over the next 12-18 months, so online PR and marketing people should be paying attention.

What is real-time search?

In conventional web search, results are influenced by the authority of a page – well established websites with a high number of links from other trusted sites tend to rank highly. Real-time search is much more focused on what’s hot right now – what are people currently talking about on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

If you searched on the word “Pie” using a conventional search engine, you would expect to see some websites of big pie manufacturers, pie recipes from big cookery sites, the Wikipedia page about pies, and so on.

Real-time search, would be more likely to show you a current news story about the Prime Minister being hit in the face with a custard pie, a popular viral video of puppy stealing a pie, or some reviews of a new American Pie movie -anything related to pies that is currently generating a lot of buzz.

This is all very exciting, so it’s led a few people to declare that old-search is dead and real-time search is the future. This is nonsense. While real-time search is certainly going to get bigger, conventional search isn’t going away – if anything, the two will simply merge to provide blended results of high authority content alongside real-time results.

What does this mean for brands?

We know what we want from conventional search – our clients should be at the top of the page for relevant keywords, and the rest of the page should be filled with authoritative third party recommendations. This is what SEO and online PR is all about.

But what’s the goal with real-time search? If you want to consistently appear at the top of real-time search results, your brand is going to have to consistently be interesting enough to get people talking. This, I would suggest, requires a kick-ass online PR strategy.

What should you do about it?

Brands need to get a lot better at monitoring what’s happening online, to stay informed about what the rising trends are in their key markets and what subjects are generating online buzz. Forget monthly or even weekly reports – too slow, you lose.

Second, reaction times need to improve. If it takes you a week to get anything approved, you’re wasting your time. As real-time search becomes more important, comms teams will need the flexibility to respond to issues quickly, while the public is still interested. When one of those funny complaint letters about your company goes viral, nobody will care that you responded brilliantly if it doesn’t happen until a week or two later.

Take a look at your crisis comms plan and consider updating it for the real-time comms environment.

It’s not just about responding quickly to the bad stuff. Keeping on top of trending topics will help you to spot opportunities for positive conversations that your brand can be a part of, although this doesn’t mean you have to pounce on every new meme and beat it to death with corporate messaging.

The essence of all this is reaction time. If your brand wants to be involved in fast moving online conversations, you will have to find ways of keeping up or risk being left behind.

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