Bill Gross, the serial entrepreneur who pioneered search advertising, is unveiling a venture on Monday that aims to make money by allowing people using Twitter to bid on key words to give their posts top ranking.
Called TweetUp, the service will also organize the posts according to their popularity as measured by how often readers repost them and click on links they contain.
Mr. Gross said he had signed deals with other outside Twitter services like Seesmic, TwitterFeed and Twidroid to display TweetUp’s rankings. A TweetUp search bar will appear on Web sites like Answers.com and BusinessInsider.com. TweetUp will split revenue evenly with each partner, he said.
The goal is to cut through the clutter of thousands of irrelevant posts on topics of interest and keep the useful ones from disappearing into a torrent of messages.
The gamble is whether Twitter users who have turned the microblogging service into global communications phenomenon will be willing to pay to get their 140-character messages noticed — and whether other Twitter users will view such paid placement as legitimate.
“We feel Twitter is unbelievably powerful, but finding the thoughtful tweets amid all the noise is unbelievably hard,” said Mr. Gross, founder of Idealab, a technology company incubator based in Pasadena, Calif. “What we’re bringing is a new sort-order to tweets.”
TweetUp has raised $3.5 million from a group of investors that include Index Ventures and Revolution, the investment firm of Steve Case, the former chairman of AOL Time Warner.
Mr. Case said he was persuaded to invest in TweetUp by Mr. Gross’s role in developing paid search at GoTo.com, an Idealab spinoff, in the late 1990s. Advertisers bid to have their listings placed at the top of search results, a controversial practice at the time. Yahoo acquired GoTo.com, which had been renamed Overture, for $1.6 billion in 2003.
“TweetUp is to Twitter what Google is to the Web,” Mr. Case said.
Here is how the service will work, according to Mr. Gross: people can bid on key words or phrases, like “iPad” or “solar energy,” to push their Twitter profile or posts to the top of TweetUp’s rankings. Bids begin at 1 cent and people will pay each time their profile or a post shows up in a search.
Mr. Gross stressed that bids were not required to appear in search results. The service will also calculate rankings based on an algorithm that uses data from a company called Klout that measures a Twitter user’s influence. Bit.ly, a service that shortens Web addresses for display on Twitter, will provide data on how often people click on a link in a post.
So who does Mr. Gross expect to pay to put something as ephemeral as a Twitter post on top of the charts? “I think everyone who is looking to build a following will pay,” he said. That means companies that want to build their brands as well as individuals who hope to drive readers to their Web sites.
Loic Le Meur, chief executive of Seesmic, said TweetUp would appear as a new search option for his one million users.
Seesmic has had discussions with Twitter executives about their moneymaking strategy, Mr. Le Meur said, but he does not believe TweetUp will conflict with those plans.
Mr. Gross said the idea of rankings intrigued him as he followed thousands of Twitter posts related to the Copenhagen climate change talks. “It was mostly noise, so I wrote a very thoughtful blog piece on renewable energy and tweeted it,” he said. “Then 20 seconds later as I gloated in my success, I typed in ‘Copenhagen’ and my tweet was bumped off the page by people saying, ‘Where do I buy mittens in Copenhagen?’ ”
At the TED technology conference in February, Mr. Gross said, he read 10,000 Twitter posts about the gathering. “There were only 200 to 300 great ones, and I thought it would be great to be able to filter those,” he said.
He pitched his idea for TweetUp to venture capitalists attending the conference, including Danny Rimer of Index Ventures, a European firm. By the time Mr. Gross left TED, he had a handshake deal to finance TweetUp and quickly enlisted Idealab workers to begin writing software.
“We have been scavenging the marketplace quite comprehensively, and we haven’t seen anyone come up with what TweetUp’s doing by adapting Bill’s original Overture model and layering it on real time,” Mr. Rimer said. “The big bet, of course, is whether people are going to adopt it.”