One of the biggest technology trends in 2009 has been the emergence of the "Real-Time Web." The real-time Web is a made up of technologies and practices that can inform users as soon as information is published, instead of requiring users to check for updates. The real-time Web discards the traditional notion of the more static “webpages,” and instead adopts the notion of dynamic “streams” of information. The real-time Web is also very conversational because it makes it possible to get instant responses across very large networks of people.

Action in the real-time Web started with companies like Twitter and Friendfeed, which built their own infrastructure for large scale delivery of real-time messages. By providing Web service application programming interfaces (APIs), these companies enabled many other developers to create applications based on the real-time Web. However, Anil Dash, a prominent blogger, points out that real time services need not be built on the back of Twitter and Facebook anymore. Due to emerging technologies, the pieces are falling together for creating a free, open and decentralized “pushbutton platform,” which makes it easy for websites to add real-time messaging services. With these developments, we can expect many more websites to jump onto the real-time bandwagon.

Growing importance to business

The real-time Web is becoming increasingly important to businesses in multiple ways. Firstly, as many webmasters and Web analytics companies have pointed out, the real-time Web is starting to rival search engines like Google as a source of website traffic. For example, Mark Cuban talked a few months ago about how his blog receives more visits from Twitter and Facebook than from Google. Secondly, the real-time Web opens up communication opportunities that the traditional Web could not have provided. For instance, if an airline wants to sell off its last minute tickets, the real-time Web provides a great outlet for advertising this very time-sensitive deal.  Thirdly, by making information instantaneously accessible, the real-time Web can create, or erase, instances of information arbitrage. As an example, take a look at Skygrid, a service that provides high quality financial news in real time, giving its users an edge, but at the same time leveling the playing field between professional investors and amateurs in terms of the speed of access to reliable information. Finally, because the real-time Web is very conversational, it becomes a repository of people’s sentiment, and mining this sentiment can be very useful to marketers and others.

Taking advantage of real-time Web

Beyond creating an account on Twitter, how can you take advantage of the real-time Web?  Here are some thoughts to get you started:

  • Engage with the real-time Web with tailored offers and content. Several companies are seeing success with time-sensitive programs that could not have been conceived without the real-time Web. Jet Blue’s “cheeps” and United Airlines’ twares are exclusive Twitter promotions for last minute fare deals. Another company that has encountered great success with offering exclusive deals on Twitter is Dell. A Dell blog post from June mentioned that Dell had surpassed $2 million in Twitter sales fro Dell Outlet, which sells refurbished items, scratch and dent items, and previously ordered new laptops. The real-time Web also acts as a place where people express their intent to shop (e.g. someone may tweet “thinking of buying an ipod touch.”) Selectively targeting such users, without spamming them, might also be a great way to help your customers make real time buying decisions. A service like Twitterhawk can be used to automate this kind of marketing.
  • Make use of real-time Web tools for business intelligence. The real-time Web is a great source of knowledge and sentiment about your customers, your competitors and your industry. You can use services like Firstrain to research the real Web for the news that matters to you. You could also use Twitter’s search functionality in simple ways to keep track of some of this information, or go to one of the many real time search engines. A recent article in mashable talks about the many tools that help analyze Twitter content.
  • Join in the conversation about your company. In one of my previous articles, I had talked about how companies like Comcast are using Twitter to understand their customers’ concerns and address them. The conversational nature of real time web can be very powerful in building relationships with your customers.
  • Create the infrastructure that allows your company to respond in real time. Real-time enterprise data integration has been around for a long time. However, with the emergence of the real-time Web and the opportunities it creates, it is becoming increasingly critical for companies to be able to access all their internal data in real time. In other words, “real-time data integration is no longer a luxury.”

Vijay Chittoor is the director of product management at Kosmix, an exploration engine that offers a 360 degree view of any topic on the Web.  A former McKinsey consultant, Chittoor is a graduate of Harvard Business School and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.  He shares his thoughts on technology at his blog.