Twitter is fast becoming the go-to place for breaking news. If it happens in the world it’s probably on Twitter, somewhere. Which is all well and good considering there are in excess of 200 million Twitter accounts registered, but as a journalist how can you follow 100 million users just to keep on top of potential big news stories?

And yet, Twitter can be a valuable source of information, links, sources and insights. If you know how to use it to its full potential.

This is where Twitter’s advanced search features come into play. With a bit of clever searching and filtering journalists can tap into this huge resource and, with luck, pull out a few gems. It doesn’t matter if you’re just monitoring local news (geotagging is an increasingly popular feature of Twitter) or looking for a source for a story, advanced searching can narrow down your search massively.

There are two ways of tapping into Twitter’s database: The easiest is to use the Twitter Advanced Search page, fill in couple of parameters and cross your fingers.

Alternatively, it’s worth spending a bit of time learning the various search operators and use those. Here’s a simple guide to scratching beneath the surface of Twitter.

Know what you’re looking for

Knowing what it is you’re hoping to find significantly increases your chances when searching Twitter. Without a good idea of what you’re looking for it quickly becomes the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Simple search

Looking for a person’s name, a place or a hash tag (something that looks like #keyword) is pretty simple. This is the default search: Enter what you’re looking for in the search box on Twitter.

Specific phrases

Taking it a step further you can look for combinations of words. A search for “Trevor Manuel, for example, will search for the specific phrase “Trevor Manuel”. Without the quote marks it would return results that included both “Trevor” and “Manuel” but not necessarily as a phrase.

Find this or that

If you want search for either of two words you use the “OR” operator. So a search for ANC OR Julius would return results that included either of these two words, or both.

Find this but not that

You don’t always want every single instance of a word or phrase. To exclude a particular word or phrase you can use the “-” operator. So a search for beer -root would find instances of beer but not those referring to rootbeer.

From me to you

Perhaps you want to find tweets from someone, or to someone. The format to find messages posted by someone on Twitter is from:media_hack. So long as you know the username (@media_hack) you can find the tweets we posted. Of course, this is the same as looking at our Twitter feed so it’s not that impressive, but combined with other operators it has a lot more potential.

Similarly, if you’re looking for messages posted to someone you just need their Twitter username: to:media_hack will find tweets directed at us. A good example of this are tweets posted to CNN.

A variation on this is the @username search which lists tweets that mention a user rather than being directed at them specifically. Compare the @cnn results with those that are directed at CNN.

Close to home

Looking for something or someone with a specific geographic location? Most Twitter applications now have the ability to include locations along with a user’s Tweets. One way to use this is to simply add near:location to your search. So a search for earthquake near:brisbane should return Tweets mentioning earthquakes from users in Brisbane. It’s worth looking at Twitter’s guide to search operators for ideas on how geographic searches can be refined even further, including adding a distance from a specific place.

It’s a date

Similarly to adding a geographic location to a search you can also refine your Twitter searches using dates. The main operators here are “since” and “until”. A search for earthquake since:2010-03-27 will find mentions of earthquakes after March 27 2010 (the format is year-month-date). And a search for earthquake until:2010-03-27 will find mentions of earthquakes before March 27 2010.

The extras

There are a few other ways of filtering search results to make them relevant. Perhaps the most useful of these is the “links” operator. Searching for earthquake video filter:links will return results that not only mention both words but also include links. In this case there are many tweets with links to videos posted on YouTube that document earthquakes.

Another option is to add a smiley (or emoticon) to searches. A search for movie 🙂 would return Tweets that the word movie and have a “positive” attitude. Similarly a 🙁 would return results with a negative attitude. It’s crude but with the right filtering and some tweaking results can be rewarding.

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