Time for the third part of my beginners guide to Twitter. Here's how far we've got:

  1. Twitter basics: messages, followers and searching;
  2. Confusing conventions: @s, #s and RTs;
  3. Useful tools to make your Twittering life easier (this post).

Today, I’ll be making a whistle-stop tour of some of the tools and websites that can take your twittering to a whole new level. There are far too many of these to include here, so I’ll just try to give you an overview of some of the ones I’ve come across so far. As I come across more, I’ll certainly tweet about them (follow me on Twitter here) and I’ll blog in more depth about some of them too.

Useful tools

First, an aside. One of the things that makes Twitter so powerful is its Application Programmer Interface or API. An API is a well defined standard which allows direct communication between a service, such as Twitter, and another piece of computer code. Because Twitter has a well-documented public API, anyone with the requisite know-how can write a software tool to add new capabilities. Not all of the tools we’ll be looking at today make use of the API, and you don’t need to know anything about how it works to use them, but I just wanted to mention another great design feature of Twitter.

URL shrinking

If you’ve been using Twitter for any length of time, you’ve probably used it to pass on the URL (web address) of a web page to your network. In that case, you might have noticed that since URLs can be pretty long, you don’t get much space left to describe what it is you’re actually passing on. This is where URL shrinkers come in.

A shrunk URL

A shrunk URL

Quite simply, a URL shrinker takes your long, unwieldy URL and spits out a nice, short URL which points to the same web page. You can copy-and-paste a URL from your browser’s location bar into the URL shrinker, but most of these services will give you a bookmarklet; a link which you can drag to your browser’s bookmarks/favourites bar which becomes a button to automatically grab the URL, shrink it and copy it to the clipboard ready for use. Look this up in the online help for your URL shrinker, or look for links with titles like “Trim this”.

There are loads of URL shrinkers out there, but here’s a few that I’ve come across:

Of these, my favourite is snipr.com because of the options it provides, but I encourage you to try a few until you find one you like.

This class of tools are, by and large, completely independent of Twitter: you can use them to shrink any URL for any reason whatsoever. For example, I’ve used them to make URLs more manageable to distribute in print, since readers will have to type these in by hand. There are a few, though, which will allow you to shrink a URL and automatically post it straight on Twitter (yes, using the Twitter API). My favourite of these is TwitThis.

Searching, trends and hashtags

As I mentioned in the previous posts, searching and hashtags provide a great way to follow specific conversations or trends on Twitter. However, Twitter’s built-in search isn’t ideal for this, particularly if there are keywords or hashtags that you search for on a regular basis. There are a whole range of search-based websites out there which allow you to track specific words or hashtags more easily.

The first group simply provide you with an automatically-updating stream of tweets matching a specific search. Some of these allow you to save searches that you perform regularly or display several searches onscreen at once. Here are a few to try:

The second group actually allow you to interact with the conversation you’re interested in by turning the hashtag of your choice into a modern version of the old-fashioned chat rooms: they display a live log of tweets with a particular hashtag and allow you to post your own tweets which will have the hashtag in question automagically appended. These include:


The next tool, TwitterFeed helps to combine your online offerings: it takes any RSS feed (typically a list of blog posts or news items) and checks it on a regular basis, posting any new items automatically to Twitter. So, for example, my Twitter followers will have received a brief message with a link to this blog post, which happened completely automatically a short time after it was published.

A word of warning: it’s easy to overdo this. Some people use Twitter and Twitterfeed purely as another outlet for their blog or news site. Your view may differ, but I find this quite annoying, particularly if there’s a high volume of traffic. If I notice a user doing this, I generally subscribe to there RSS feed elsewhere if it interests me and then stop following them: I prefer to keep my news and blogs in a separate place. However, I think for low-volume, infrequent, personal blogs such as this one it’s a great way to let people know what you’ve written, as well as a legitimate answer to the question “What are you doing?”

Twitter clients

If you’re becoming a regular Twitter user, you might be finding it a bit of a pain to log in to the Twitter website every time you want to get up to date. This is where clients come in. These bring Twitter right to your desktop in a dedicated application. Many of them incorporate features of other tools, such as URL shrinking and searching. Most of them have an option to check automatically for new tweets and pop up an alert to tell you when there’s something you haven’t read yet: make up your own mind about whether that’s good or bad! All of them, though, let you read your latest incoming tweets and post new ones. There are far too many to list them here, so after pointing out that I currently use Nambu on my laptop and Tweetie on my iPod Touch, I’ll send you in the direction of this list on the Twitter website and this more comprehensive list. Download one and give it a go.


If you’re really interested in that kind of thing, you might want to look at some statistics about your Twitter account and network. I won’t go into much detail on this, as I’ve not used them very much, but here are the ones I’ve come across so far:

Twitter on Facebook

Twitter on Facebook

Other social networks

There are, of course, other social networks out there, and there are a number of ways to get them to play nicely with Twitter. There’s a Twitter app for Facebook, which allows you to tweet from within Facebook, and even offers to post each tweet as a status update in your Facebook profile. I don’t use Facebook much these days, but this is an easy way for me to keep it updated.

FriendFeed is a kind of meta-social-network. It aims to tie a number of other networks together in one place, so that you can read and post without having to visit a dozen different websites. I haven’t found it that useful yet, but give it a try.

Ping.fm is slightly different again. This one allows you to update your status, micro-blog, post full-length blog posts and save bookmarks in a huge variety of different social media websites simultaneously. It also gives you a wide variety of ways of doing this: through the website, by SMS (in the US only at the moment, I think), by email, by instant message (Jabber/GTalk, Yahoo!, MSN/Windows Live, AIM) and many more. An increasing number of Twitter clients are also supporting it, so you can transparently update your status on a number of different sites as you tweet.

More tools

There are plenty of tools that I haven’t had space or time to mention. I’ll try to blog about some of them in the future, but for now, you might want to have a look at this wiki — there are plenty listed under Apps, plus lots more useful information about Twitter.

Have you got a favourite tool that I’ve missed? Share it by posting a comment below: it’ll be great to hear from you.

That’s it for this series. If you’ve found these posts helpful, you can find out when I write new stuff by signing up for email updates or subscribing to my RSS feed: just click on the appropriate link at the top left of this page.