Twitter's @anywhere could usher in big improvements

Many South by Southwest attendees reportedly walked out halfway through the keynote appearance by Twitter CEO Evan Williams this week citing boredom, but the announcement he made on stage deserves careful attention, according to industry experts.

Williams unveiled @anywhere, which the company describes as a new set of frameworks to make it extremely simple for Web site publishers to integrate Twitter data and features into their sites.

Although @anywhere isn't yet available, it could have a significant impact on solidifying Twitter's position as the de facto medium for real-time updates online as well as paving the way for the company's much-awaited advertising platform, analysts say.

In addition, @anywhere could give Twitter a big push toward becoming a mainstream communications service and help spur engagement among existing users, many of whom leave their accounts dormant shortly after signing up.

Coupled with the opportunities for usage growth and revenue generation, @anywhere also presents some risks, namely that its content will clutter participating Web sites if it's not well-calibrated and that demand for it will overwhelm Twitter's servers and trigger downtime, according to analysts.

For now, Twitter has assembled a list of big-name initial partners, including Amazon, AdAge, Microsoft's Bing, eBay, The Huffington Post, MSNBC.com, The New York Times, Salesforce.com, Yahoo and Google's YouTube.

"We're trying to make it easier for sites to more deeply integrate Twitter functionality," said Jessica Verrilli, a Twitter associate who works on business and corporate development initiatives.

Instead of tinkering with custom code and APIs (application programming interfaces), Web publishers need only copy and paste into their pages a few lines of javascript and they're good to go.

With @anywhere, it will be easier for Web publishers to let visitors add contacts to follow on Twitter, post "tweets," sign into Twitter and create an account, all without leaving the publisher sites.

In addition, @anywhere introduces hover cards, which let Web site visitors hover their cursors over content on Web pages and see Twitter data or actions they can perform right from there, she said.

Ray Wang, an analyst with Altimeter Group, sees @anywhere as the foundation for the advertising platform that Twitter has said it is working on.

For Twitter to monetize its service through advertising, it must sharpen its grasp of its user base's behavior online, and creating bridges into external Web sites helps with that.

"The value is understanding the relationships people have across different Web properties. Those relationships provide information and data that can be used to anticipate what consumers want and will be doing," Wang said.

"Just having a Twitter handle is interesting, but what's more valuable to companies and organizations is being able to tie a Twitter handle back to an account ID or back to knowing whether that user is a customer or not," he added.

For industry analyst Greg Sterling from Sterling Market Intelligence, @anywhere could help Twitter improve its user engagement. "A lot of Twitter accounts aren't active," he said.

Indeed, in a recent study, BarracudaLabs found that only 21% of Twitter account holders can be considered active users, based on its parameters: having at least 10 followers, following at least 10 people and having posted at least 10 "tweets."

By surfacing Twitter data and features broadly across the Web, @anywhere could prompt people to use it more, especially those who created an account and didn't stick around long enough to build a list of people to follow, Sterling said.

According to Verrilli, Web publishers who adopt @anywhere will be able to craft custom lists of suggested people to follow for their Twitter visitors.

"This is important, because if you're new to Twitter, you don't get what it's all about unless you're following people and you have some content there to make the experience meaningful," Sterling said.

Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray thinks @anywhere could let Twitter be "anywhere you are" and thus pull away from competitors that also want to be providers of real-time updates.

"Think of Twitter following you as you visit eBay, the Huffington Post or Salesforce.com, and everywhere you visit you'll find relevant up-to-date tweets, be able to follow anyone with a click and share what you're finding and reading without leaving the site you're visiting," Ray wrote in a statement sent to reporters.

Still, Altimeter Group's Wang warns that Twitter, which isn't precisely well-known for its service's uptime and reliability, must prepare its infrastructure for what will likely be a significant increase in traffic to its servers.

"As Twitter keeps adding all these connections and integration points, it must consider performance and make sure all these integration points scale and don't take down the system," he said. "The last thing you want is a fail whale."

For Sterling, it will be important that Web publishers consider carefully the reason for adopting @anywhere and the way in which it should be implemented to be a useful addition to their sites. They shouldn't adopt it just because others are doing it and it's viewed as hip.

"The @anywhere service shouldn't create additional clutter in these sites," he said. "Sometimes it's a mixed blessing to have Twitter on sites. There can be some interesting stuff that comes out of it, but there can also be a bunch of noise."

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