Social networks influence search engines

Social networks influence search engines

Summary: More visits on social networking sites indicate rising influence of social search, but not the end of traditional search engines, observers and analysts note.

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Social networking sites are grabbing more visitors than traditional search engines, according to Web metrics firm Hitwise. But market observers and analysts argue that the numbers are more indicative of the greater influence of the social in Web search, and therefore do not spell the end of search engines as information sources.

John Merakovsky from Experian, the global information services company which owns Hitwise, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that "social networking visits have consistently exceeded search engine usage" in both Hong Kong and Singapore since late 2007.

Quoting recent statistics pulled from both countries for the week ending Oct. 23, the director of digital marketing at Experian Asia Pacific showed that social networks in Hong Kong had 16.69 percent of user visits compared with 7.58 percent for search engines. In Singapore, the numbers were 15.57 percent for social networks to 10.15 percent for search engines.

Elsewhere, Hitwise also noted that social networks surpassed search engines in Australia from Dec. 19 to Dec. 26, 2009. More recently, social networks also overtook search engines in the United Kingdom in May this year.

Merakovsky noted that despite the high rate of visits, only 30 percent of those going to social networking sites used these as a source of relevant information, citing the Experian Simmons Social Networking Report 2010 (registration required). Hence, he felt it was unlikely that traditional search engines would see a deep plunge in their share of visitors.

In a phone interview, Claus Mortensen, principal of emerging technology research practice group at IDC Asia-Pacific, said that pitting social networks against search engines as information rivals was akin to comparing apples with oranges.

User behavior is inherently different on social networks and search engines, Mortensen argued. He pointed out that on social networks, it is "more a question of an individual being made aware of a piece of information" he did not know before, by those in his online social circle. In this case, "[the referral traffic] makes you aware of something you didn't know, and the referral comes from someone you trust, he explained.

But with topical, algorithm search engines, users have already made up their minds about what they will actively look for, said Mortensen, who asserted that the pattern of going to a typical search engine will not change.

He expects that the near future will see a merging of social information from social networks and topical search done on search engines. But short of saying that social search is revolutionizing Web search, he defined social search as simply tapping into whatever referrals or tags that one's contacts on network sites such as Facebook have made.

Steve Hodgkinson, research director at Ovum, concurred as well, stating that "social search is just a natural evolution of search made possible by the creation of social network databases that are available for exploitation by new forms of search algorithms and social networking dialog".

One example is the Bing-Facebook alliance, announced Oct. 14, where Facebook social data is added to Bing's main search results. The collaboration means users can see results generated by their Facebook friends' "Like" tags and social profiles.

A spokesperson from Microsoft, the software giant behind search engine Bing, highlighted that as ideas, thoughts, questions and answers are shared more freely and easily than ever before, the increased amount of information from social sources provides great benefits to users.

He added that in the offline world, people rely on their social circle for information and advice to complete tasks or to make decisions. The Bing-Facebook partnership "recognizes the importance of the social signal", allowing users to take their friends with them as they search, which helps them make better, more informed decisions. This ultimately provides a more personalized and improved search experience, the Microsoft spokesperson said.

James Roy, senior analyst at China Market Research Group (CMR), pointed out that one advantage which social networking sites have over search engines as an information source is that they turn up information which is likely to be useful or something the user will find interesting. In China, he noted that Internet users, particularly those below age 20, are discovering online content through their connections on social Web sites.

"People are realizing that information such as music or online videos which their friends like and recommend, are more likely to interest them than what is broadly popular on the Internet or has a high Google ranking," Roy replied in an e-mail, adding that searching on social networks also saves users time to find what they want.

Roy, however, noted one limitation of searching via social networks. "When you're looking for specific information or a specific item, social networks are not the best source", he reasoned. Roy mentioned that general search engines yield the best results because they give access to a broad knowledge base of the entire Internet, and online contacts may not have all the answers. Such a scenario, he said, is not going to change soon.

Adding on, Ovum's Hodgkinson said that social search and topical search are complementary. "Not all search queries have either a social element or a commercial motivation. [Sometimes] I want to be directed to an authoritative source, and not just to hear the opinion of friends or any other potentially ill-informed individuals," he elaborated in an e-mail.

He concluded that social search will increase in prominence in the near future, by which time "social and algorithmic search will blend and become part of a broader semantic search trend". He explained that both types of search are just two different ways of using data to make the search results as specific and relevant as possible to the information sought and to the specific circumstances and characteristics of the user.

Topics: CXO, Apps, Browser, Enterprise Software, Software, IT Employment, Social Enterprise

Jamie Yap

About Jamie Yap

Jamie writes about technology, business and the most obvious intersection of the two that is software. Other variegated topics include--in one form or other--cloud, Web 2.0, apps, data, analytics, mobile, services, and the three Es: enterprises, executives and entrepreneurs. In a previous life, she was a writer covering a different but equally serious business called show business.

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4 comments
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  • Social networks are personal and customizable hard to say the same for search. As in all applications it is time for the next generation.

    Jeff
    jeffaaa22
  • Wow, people are getting dumber and dumber these days. At least searching in search engine we may learn something. Searching in a social network site like Facebook what we learn? your **** friend changed a new bf? your wife is cheating on you? a hot chick is hungry? Most people are lazy to use their brain, that is why social networking is so popular now
    jfoo111
  • next generation of dumber people. What we learn from social networking? the pretty girl in ur Facebook friendlist is boring? and then u see 10 horny stalking guys comment that post? it is just encourage more guys to be stalkers and girls to be an attention seeking ****mongin ****... if u r this generation of dumb ****s, then i am sorry for u
    jfoo111
  • Various social networking sites have added a lot in the searching arena. there are so many networking sites in the market which have attracted millions of people toward it. gone are the days of Google and other related search engines, new kids on the block are Facebook, Twitter, etc.
    Tom Mccormick