WM Commentary: Goodbye Google, Hello Social
by Mike Phillips
Google’s days of dominance may be drawing to a close. Attacks are coming from all sides — Microsoft launched Bing, WolframAlpha promises an entirely new kind of search, Yahoo!’s innovating at a feverish pace, and even Mapquest reinvigorated its battle with Google Maps with an iPhone app. But perhaps the biggest threat to Google — and search overall — is the meteoric rise of social media.
Earlier this year, for the first time in history, Facebook overtook one of the major search engines in terms of unique visitors. And it won’t stop there. According to Compete. com, Facebook’s traffic is up more than 250 percent this year, with about 113 million visitors in May 2009. That’s only 20 million visits behind Yahoo! and 30 million behind Google, whose traffic grew 2.7 percent and 7.5 percent in May, respectively. And Twitter has grown over 1,000 percent in the past year, with its traffic totals coming within 9 million visits of Ask.com.
Users are beginning to make more meaningful connections on the Web, and rely on those connections for their informational needs. Search is no longer the only means to locate relevant information online. While the three search giants are constantly finding ways to tailor results to the individual user, those same people have the option to simply tap their network to find exactly what they need. Businesses and people can be found with a simple search on Facebook, where much more information is available than in a Google search. Recent Facebook usernames make this process even easier. What’s more, the “results” on Facebook are much more interactive and entertaining than a standard search engine results page.
Twitter is an interesting phenomenon. While the majority of Twitter users and their followers are complete strangers, the information shared is hyper-targeted. You can follow just about any topic you want and what you'll get in return is timely information explicitly tied to that topic. Both media and many businesses choose Twitter as a channel to break news. Search a topic by hashtag on Twitter and you will see the most recent news available — often sooner than on major news websites. And with the impending release of an advanced Twitter search function, you can see a new way for people to find information, and a legitimate threat to the big three.
What does all this mean to the Web professional?
Every serious business should have a presence on social networks. All of these connections between users, businesses, even topics and ideas can be likened to a form of semantic search. Or, semantic non-search.
Businesses need to make their connections meaningful. On Facebook, the information presented and shared needs to be relevant to the industry. For example, a local car dealership should stay away from posting a video on their wall about the latest American Idol winner just because they think it will bring visits. That doesn’t hold relevance to the brand, the audience or the industry.
When following others on Twitter, those connections need to be relevant to your industry, brand or ideas. It gives you the best chance to be seen by your target audience, and to make the most meaningful connections with other businesses and consumers.
Many might argue that the more connections, friends and followers you have, the better. And that might be true for total visits in the short-term. But as users begin to use these networks as information portals and as search evolves to include the semantics of connections and their shared, relevant information, positioning your business as a valued member of that community, and as a provider of that information will set you up for success in the evolving world of the Web.
Finally, let’s not forget that just about everything on the Web is capable of being indexed. Search giants are not going away and users will continue to use them. But they will be forced to include results from social networks. Just like Page Rank and incoming links provide authority on Google, a user’s meaningful connections and relevance to the topic will undoubtedly be taken into account in the future. Keep this in mind when employing your social media strategy. Use relevant keywords on your Facebook wall and Twitter updates. When you shrink links, use services like cli.gs or bit.ly that allow you to modify the link to include a keyword or two. And use images and videos to provide multiple points of interest in your profiles.
Social media is not just fun and games. It’s turning into serious business. And it’s a part of your business whether you like it or not. Don’t just get involved; use strategies, and all the lessons you learned on the Web.
Is saying "Hello to Social" merely a theoretical concept? Senior Editor Mike Phillips conducted a social experiment and created @ChicagoHotDog on Twitter. A few weeks and hundreds of hot-dog-loving followers later, the Twitter handle is highly active generating targeted clicks and even a respectable position on Bing.com. Search WebsiteMagazine.com for "Chicago Hot Dog" to learn more about the project.