How Social Media Will Replace Search

Remember back before Google? Back when we had Infoseek and AltaVista and all those other early search engines? Remember back when keyword stuffing on a page actually worked, to the horror of literate people everywhere? Then Google came along, with its reliance on links and anchor text and other elements, and the game changed.

It’s changing again. In fact, it already has changed in many ways.

Links worked because they were like references; users were telling Google what a page was about. Links, back in the day, were a measure of trust. Social media also relies on this very powerful force.

The biggest indicator of this is the fact that Google and Bing are rushing to make deals with Twitter and Facebook and other darlings of social media. They know that they have to get involved. People value personalization, peer recommendations and instant updates over a static list of top-ten search results. The rush of the search engines to find their place in the world of social media says it better than anything else: the day of social media primacy is coming, if it’s not already here.

8 signs of the coming Searchpocalpyse:

  • Integrating Twitter: Google and Bing have both integrated Twitter into their search results, maintaining Twitter as a major source of information for breaking news. Google’s scrolling results are like a CNN ticker, but even more current.
  • YouTube marketing: For those who want to take advantage of YouTube in their marketing campaigns, social media is a vital part of the equation.
  • Personalization/customized search: By far one of the biggest shifts is Google’s move towards personalized search. Although results have long varied somewhat according to a searcher’s location, this was a change that actually took into account individual search inclinations. Google uses your web search history to figure out what you actually want, and deliver it to you.
  • Social media as first stops: Yelp and other specialty social sites like it are often a user’s first stop, because functionally, it’s telling you “Here’s a really good Chinese restaurant in San Francisco” not “This is the Chinese restaurant with the best SEO.” If you’re a home décor junkie on a budget, you might start your search at Apartment Therapy, because you already know it as a source of worthwhile information. Similarly, experienced travelers may gain valuable information from TripAdvisor or one of the myriad of other travel sites.
  • Facebook explosion: User visits to Facebook have been known to surpass user visits to the Google homepage.
  • Sidewiki: Google’s efforts with Sidewiki, which enables users to comment on websites in a sidebar, are revealing.
  • Foursquare: The growth of Foursquare continues: it combines real-time updates with real-place locations.
  • ORM firms: The growth of online reputation management services directly addresses the social aspects of search, helping companies manage and address social search results.

What is it about social media that makes it a necessary piece of any marketing plan in 2010? Simply put, it’s about trust, credibility, and community, pieces that are basically absent in an old-school search results page. With the ever-increasing flood of information available online, people want to find sources that have been vetted in some way. They want to read and comment on sites where they feel connected to a larger community.

Furthermore, trust is powerful; it’s the same reason why newspapers and magazines and publishing companies put out reviews and guides that were researched and vetted. People want guidance and reliability. They don’t want to be disappointed when they drop $120 on a nice dinner.

Even if (very hypothetically) artificial intelligence is someday used to implement true semantic search, where a page’s relevance to a query is perfectly judged or where the questions users ask are automatically answered, it’s not necessarily a substitute for the power of the hive mind–for good or for ill. At heart, we are social creatures. Social media is about community, and who doesn’t want to belong?

Social media isn’t perfect. Like any marketing tool, it can be used for good, or for dodgy pharmaceutical advertisement. However, the self-policing nature of social media discourages this, yielding results that visitors are more likely to trust.

SEO will still be important. But without the social media piece of the equation, it’s simply not enough.

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