In Tweets, paid search pioneer Bill Gross sees another goldmine

April 12, 2010

Like an ancient riddle, the secret to making money from Internet social media has obsessed, and frustrated, Web entrepreneurs for years.

But Bill Gross is not your ordinary entrepreneur.

As the founder of in the late 1990s, Gross created the first successful implementation of  paid search, the concept that today underlies Google’s roughly $24 billion-a-year cash machine.

His latest project, TweetUp, aims to do something similar for Twitter messages by ranking Tweets by relevance and by allowing Twitter users to bid money for their messages to rise to the top. (Under the bidding system, a person selects keywords and bids a penny, a quarter, or more, for their Tweets to appear on searches for those keywords).

billGrossBy creating a marketplace for Tweets, Gross contends that he can provide Web publishers with custom-tailored feeds of highly relevant Twitter messages about various topics and enhance a Web site’s content. A financial news site, for instance, can integrate a live feed of Tweets to accompany articles on various subjects, like a particular company’s stock or a news event (Gross says TweetUp will split the revenue 50/50 with publishers).

But TweetUp, which launches on Sunday night, will require a big shift in the dynamics of online social media to succeed – it’s effectively instituting a price of admission for user generated content.

It’s easy enough to imagine advertisers paying money to ensure that their Tweets get visibility. But will ordinary users feel compelled to actually pay money just so that others can read their Tweets?

Gross believes that having one’s Tweets stand out from the crowd, and gaining Twitter followers, has inherent value.

“I would contend that if you have 5,000 followers you’re valuable,” said Gross. “You’re valuable to your next employer; you’re valuable because you could start a magazine.”

And he’s accustomed to skepticism. “When we launched people thought it was the stupidest idea they’d ever seen,” he says.

This time around, he has less trouble finding believers. Gross says he came up with the idea for TweetUp at the TED conference in Long Beach, California two months ago.

By the end of the conference, he’d raised the majority of TweetUp’s $3.5 million in funding from backers including Index Ventures, First Round Capital, BetaWorks and Revolution, as well as a few private investors including Jason Calacanis.

“We didn’t even have a napkin sketch” of the product, said Gross. “Just a concept.”

And as Gross knows, even in the fast-changing Internet market, a good concept can go a long way.

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