When Is a Twitter Trend Not a Trend? When It’s Promoted

Twitter has just launched the next phase of its advertising strategy: In addition to “promoted tweets,” in which a brand can pay to have its tweet show up higher in the Twitter stream, the company now offers “promoted trending topics.” The first of these appeared last night, with a “Toy Story 3” topic at the bottom of the trends list that includes the word “promoted” in yellow. Clicking the topic leads to a promoted tweet paid for by Disney (s dis). But unlike promoted tweets, the selling of trending topics blurs the line between Twitter’s role as a media filter and its growing intention to become an advertising company.

It’s not just that the word “promoted” may not make it entirely clear to users that it’s an advertisement (though hovering their cursor over the word shows a small bubble saying, in this case, “promoted by Disney/Pixar”). It’s that promoted trends aren’t just ads that sit at the bottom of the topic list — according to Twitter, they will actually rise up the list of topics just as other, real trends do, or possibly fall off and disappear from the list, based on the company’s view of how much they “resonate” with users.

And how will that decision be made? That’s not clear. Twitter says it’s developing “resonance” algorithms that determine when a trend moves up, but it’s not clear how they will apply to promoted trends. Will it be based simply on the number of people who actually retweet the trending message, or will the fact that it’s been paid for accelerate its rise? Will the company do anything to try and guard against Twitter users — employees of the advertiser, for example — gaming the trend or the “resonance” ranking by retweeting the company’s message excessively? All the FAQ says is that tweets found to “violate Twitter’s spam and abuse policy will be deleted.”

The problem is that trends are supposed to show what users are actually talking about, just as Google’s (s goog) search results are supposed to show the most relevant links for a topic. The search company has sponsored results too, but they show up at the top of the page and are clearly ads — they don’t move up and down in the search results the way Twitter’s promoted trends apparently will. Twitter is now trying to do two mutually exclusive things: be a smart communications network with filters that help users discern what is important, and sell ads that are mixed in with those filters. It’s going to be a tough line to walk.

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