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.