How Social Media Sites & Online Profiles are Replacing Conventional Engines of Search

by Kurt

The headline might sound extreme or downright fallacious to anyone who is a webmaster or online publisher, marketer or promoter or any kind. After all, search engine traffic is the pot of gold at the end of the SEO rainbow, right? And social media traffic, well, that is the fickle here-today-gone-tomorrow set of visitors who will not click your ads or become regular readers … or is it?

If you fond this article while searching Google for ‘search engine optimization’ then: whoops, you are probably in the wrong place. This would not be surprising since search engines make ‘best guesses’ based on available information and do not always know what you want – we all are familiar with this fact from experience. However, since so many ‘search engine optimizers’ are trying to rank for these terms the chances are you will not actually end up here via an accidental search attempt. But wait a minute, what did I just say? Yes, people ‘game’ the system. Regular web surfers rarely guess just how much. In short: search engines are not the ultimate and infallible tool for finding things that many believe they are.

Moreover, many of the functions that we once relied on search engines for are now being serviced by alternative sources. KGB and ChaCha – both staffed with real-life, question-answering people – are but one example but not the most powerful and quickly-growing one. Wolfram Alpha has some parallels as well, but not enough to warrant more than a mention at this point. From the title, you know where this is going even if you do not quite believe it yet: social media sites (from the classics like Digg, Reddit and StumbleUpon to the currently-trendy Facebook and Twitter) are increasingly becoming vital places we look for assistance in finding information, recommendations, reviews and more. But why? Crowdsourcing.

By asking the ‘crowd’ for information, we add a new, more intelligent and more targeted layer to our search parameters. If KGB and ChaCha level things up by adding a human being into the mix, then posting a request for information to our Twitter followers or Facebook friends is an exponential step up from that – these are people we have hand-selected, who have similar interests or tastes in some cases but, more than anything, there are so damned many of them that someone is bound to have the necessary knowledge base.

Of course, for some things you are still best off searching via a conventional engine, perhaps surfing Wikipedia or even (please, don’t) checking Yahoo! Answers for a simple solution. However, in two cases recently I found myself relying heavily on friends and social contacts for advice and feedback on things. In the first, I was looking for a particular artist who I was unable to track down via Google. I did not know her name and none of the keywords I cold think of regarding her work were working. Posting my query on Twitter brought back multiple right answers with additional links and information in a matter of minutes, saving me both time and trouble. In the second instance, I was trying to decide (and still am, for that matter) on what to purchase in terms of an MP3 and/or video player with or without internet browsing capabilities or additional applications. Sure, I could check Google or even look at product review sites, but at the end of the day I simply trust my friends on Facebook more to relate their personal experiences with products than I do some source written by a stranger for a target audience of which I may not be a part.

So wait, then, is this really ‘replacing’ search engines or simply offering another means of searching for information that works better in some cases than others? I would suggest that the story is incomplete at this point – and that what we are seeing is a transitional phase between conventional forms of search and network-augmented variants yet to come. Already, Google is experimenting with people ‘voting’ on search results (sound like any social media sites you know? Cough, Digg, cough). How long before they factor in votes of friends with a multiplier of, say, X … and friends-of-friends with a multiplier of Y% of X, and so on and so forth. There is no way to know for sure, but if you follow the current trends to their logical conclusion this result is the obvious end product: a hybrid of social media sites and search engine tools that weighs the opinions of our friends, colleagues, coworkers and allies alongside the (supposedly) objective metrics currently used to generate relevant search results.

Perhaps the strongest argument for this endgame is an intuitive one. Consider the scenario: you perform a search on some website for a product. You get a set of results, but these results are tagged with the names of friends and their (individual or averaged) rankings – or you do not even see such tags but know that the answers put in front of you are informed, in part, by stored feedback from your network. You will trust these results more. You will not, as you do now on a typical search site, question the motives of the websites listed – or at least not as much.