What Search And Social Media Have In Common

Is social media the new search?

Pardon the clichéd phrasing, but it's a question I've been hearing a lot lately, and one I am at least somewhat qualified to answer. Last Tuesday, I penned my final and 224th Search Insider column for MediaPost, dating back to mid-2004. For most of that time, I've been with digital marketing agency 360i, where I've worked with marketers from major brands on their social media strategy.

Newsweek runs a feature in the front of the magazine (yes, the paper thing) where it takes two events that are often compared with each other and then analyzes why the comparison works and why it doesn't. The theme is fitting for looking at social media today and comparing it to how search emerged as a viable marketing channel early in the decade.

Why the Comparison Works

According to the Interactive Bureau, in 2001, search accounted for just 4% of the $7.2 billion in Internet advertising revenues. Forrester notes that in 2008, social media accounted for nearly 2%  of online's $23.1 billion.



Why It Doesn't

Looking at the year after is telling. In 2002, search shot up to 15% of online ad spending. Forrester forecasts strong growth for social media in 2009, but it will still account for less than 3% of the total, and in 2014 it will be less than 6%.

Why It Does

Fairly quickly, the search competition matured into a two-horse race between Google and Yahoo, with Microsoft joining a bit later. Currently in social media, MySpace maintains a lead over Facebook for now over Facebook in U.S. users and revenue. As Facebook surpasses MySpace in U.S. users and then revenues, this two-horse race could gain a third entrant if Twitter continues its growth trajectory -- and then gets a revenue stream.

Why It Doesn't

By 2002, it was clear that Google had a business model that was scalable, even if few could predict just how much it would scale. Yahoo wound up acquiring Overture, formerly called GoTo, which established the basic model that Google later adapted. No one knows exactly what the most successful marketing models for social media will be.

Why It Does

Google gained its early traction during the decade's low point for online advertising, as the company defied the doldrums of the dot-com bust and 9/11 attacks. We're in another downturn and social media usage is going through the roof.

Why It Doesn't

If there is any cause and effect related to recessions, it works better for search, where the downturn led marketers to consider more accountable direct response media. Social media is generally best suited to branding.

Why It Does

Search engines quickly established the distinction between paid and natural results. In other words, there are the listings you pay for and the listings you work for (plus some will appear organically). Similarly, social media is now often classified as paid media -- a buy of any kind from banner ads to virtual gifts, and earned media -- the exposure and interactions received by working for it through tactics like blog outreach and video syndication (plus some will happen organically).

Why It Doesn't

Search engine queries tend to fall under one of three buckets: navigational, informational, or commercial. Microsoft's adCenter Labs has a tool that predicts whether a query or Web site is informational or commercial. For instance, the query "new car" is listed as "commercial intention" with 92% probability, while "Detroit Lions" is listed as "non-commercial intention" with 94% probability. With search, there is a high probability of commercial intent for a vast number of queries.

Now try imagining how that works with social media. What do you think the commercial intent is of someone logging into Facebook, watching a YouTube video, or checking Twitter updates? There are still opportunities to reach these consumers and build relationships, but getting a direct sale is a relative layup in search compared to social media's three-point shot with Shaq and LeBron double-teaming you.

So social media isn't the new search, but the most engaging, fastest-growing online activities all have major social components, and the growth rates are so stratospheric that marketers and consumers alike are still trying to make sense of it all. Let's enjoy the process.

And on that note, I'm enjoying joining the original Social Media Insider Cathy Taylor and contributing to this community. I do hope to keep it social, so feel free to share your thoughts via email, in the comments on Twitter, on my blog, and elsewhere. Perhaps we can meet in person too, such as at the OMMA Social New York event June 23. The first way you can participate is by voting on the agenda -- but do it now, since voting ends tomorrow.

4 comments about "What Search And Social Media Have In Common".
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  1. Marc Engelsman from Digital Brand Expressions, April 28, 2009 at 6:04 p.m.

    Nice way to start on social, David. Another "why it doesn't" is that you really couldn't compare search with anything else when it was emerging like you are now doing by asking the basic question is social the new search.

  2. Donna DeClemente from DDC Marketing Group, April 28, 2009 at 8:20 p.m.

    Hey David, I agree with Marc above, what a great transition from search to social. The lines are starting to blur more and more and I'm really glad that I'm involved in the ride. I loved your columns on search, so I'm sure to love them here as well. Keep up the great writing!

  3. Bill Walker from Integrated Media Cooperative, April 29, 2009 at 10:57 a.m.

    This is a very interesting persective

  4. Les Blatt from Freelance New Media Person, April 29, 2009 at 4:39 p.m.

    It will be interesting to see how all this shakes out. I think there are real possibilities, particularly for Twitter, in local search - but the mechanics have to be worked out, obviously. And, as everyone has said, the blurring of lines is going to make it a fascinating ride. Can't wait to see who emerges - and how.

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