Trending on Twitter: A Look at Algorithms Behind Trending Topics

Trending topics on Twitter show readers what the most popular conversation topics on the microblogging site are right now. Potential trends are found by polling all tweets for repeated hashtags, and their trend status is determined by a combination of time tweeted and volume of tweets containing the hashtag. Twitter aims for its trending topics to be up to the minute, relying more heavily on currently discussed topics than on the most popular overall topics for the community.

Twitter’s trends give readers a way to stay on top of news and events internationally or in specific regions, oftentimes before these topics even make it to the news. They can be very useful tools to anyone in the news, media, or advertising industries. Trends are determined by an algorithm that looks through all tweets on Twitter (there are now more than 500 million per day!). This algorithm uses the data it collects to determine which topics or hashtags will make the list. In this article we’ll take a look at the functionality of this algorithm to better understand Twitter and how it can be used as a social media tool.

How Twitter’s Trends Algorithm Works

Twitter determines its trending topics through the site’s Trends algorithm, which Twitter has not released to the public. However, there are a few resources to better understand its functionality. Twitter’s Developers’ blog has a lot of useful information on how the developers keep working to improve the site and the algorithms that drive it.

Twitter is often asked why many seemingly deserving topics do not make the trends list, and have even been accused of censoring possible trends. But Twitter claims that trends are determined automatically with Twitter’s algorithms, so it is entirely up to the data collected, and the way the algorithm interprets that data, if the topic is going to become a trend.

The Trends List is meant to share the most recent topics and breaking news from around the world or within a given region, so it draws from bursts of hashtags and quick increases in volume for a particular topic rather than topics that remain popular for an extended period of time. In 2010, it was changed to focus on immediate and breaking news over the most popular topics, and Twitter continues to refine its algorithm to better determine the most recent talking points amongst their community.

According to Twitter on their support page, around the time of this transition:

“The new algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the ‘most breaking’ breaking news from across the world. (We had previously built in this ‘emergent’ algorithm for all local trends, described below.) We think that trending topics which capture the hottest emerging trends and topics of discussion on Twitter are the most interesting.”

Issues With This Algorithm

The issue with Twitter’s constantly evolving and changing topics list is that it is difficult to apply weight or relevancy to a particular topic or hashtag. This makes Twitter’s search features fairly useless. The algorithms that drive traditional search engines such as Google allow search terms to be weighted as more people search for them or add the terms to their content.

Even though Google has been shifting its SEO focus towards newer and regularly updated material for many searches, it’s nowhere near the turnaround speed that makes Twitter one of the most responsive sources of social news. Google also has the advantage of taking search result usage into account, to improve its results. By analyzing not just the search term but also which pages people go to from there, Google can better determine what pages to direct users to in the future.

Twitter, on the other hand, cycles through new topics too quickly, so it only really has time to process the raw data – tweet content, time posted, and topic hashtag. This means a lot less customization of search results is possible, and with no human curation to aid the trended topics list, the topics that make it to the list might not always be the topics readers are genuinely interested in.

Twitters algorithms are constantly in the works though, and the company strives to share not just the most recent but also the most relevant points of discussion on its regularly updated Trends list.

New Developments

Earlier this month an Associate Professor at MIT, Devravrat Shrah, along with his design team, announced a new algorithm they had created for Twitter. They claim it can determine trending topics with 95% accuracy an average of 90 minutes before the topic trends with Twitter’s algorithms.

This algorithm relies more heavily on statistical patterns in data, unlike Twitter’s algorithm, which looks to specific parameters to make determinations. If the algorithm detects a familiar pattern in tweets on a topic, the topic will be more likely to trend.

Why Twitter’s Trends Are So Important

Twitter trends are an important tool for anyone working in journalism or content creation, as access to the latest topics under public discussion is critical in these fields. Not only can you see what topics are currently being discussed, but also by browsing the topics’ threads, you can get a sense of reactions, ideas, and opinions about it.

For anyone whose work revolves around content creation, Twitter’s Trends List provides helpful insights into ideas for popular topics that people are currently talking about and searching for.

Trending Topics for Marketing

Advertisers and marketers also have a lot to gain by understanding how Twitter’s algorithms work. Advertising and social media agencies have a good grasp of the speed and urgency of the trending algorithms, incorporating Twitter into TV broadcasts and other mediums.

Shows like Castle and The Voice have both implemented Twitter strategies. By engaging and encouraging audience interaction on Twitter while a show is live, both have become trending topics and brought in new viewers, boosting ratings.

This approach to social media marketing takes advantage of how Twitter’s algorithms work. By engaging a wide audience with a Twitter hashtag simultaneously, these programs can encourage a surge of tweets over a short period of time, which has helped these shows reach the Trends List and bring more Twitter users to watch the show right then.

It’s this sense of immediacy that sets Twitter apart from other social networks. Twitter’s community is massive, and incredibly active, with over 500 million tweets per day. And Twitter’s platform is designed around quick bursts of information that encourage user response. Twitter’s Trends List holds to the fast and dynamic pace of media on the social media site, and can be a valuable resource, not to mention a powerful tool – especially if you understand how it works.

Ignite Social Media