Are Twitter and Facebook Replacing Search?

Sorry. All of that emphasis on page one SERPs of Google may not be the funky cold medina after all. Search Engine Optimization, which is a profession that didn’t exist a few years ago may not exist in a few years. Thus, the modern era of the Internet: professions that don’t exist today may be the top job in 3 years. [check this video for an interesting communication of this phenomena]

In a recent  article, ClickZ likens the current environment to early paid search in  Social Media 2009 = Search 2002

If you’ve been in the interactive advertising business for at least the last five years, you’ll recognize the pitch for social media to be nearly identical to the ones we heard (and made) in 2002 for search. Search ads were fast and cheap to create and dirt cheap. (You didn’t even have to pay unless you got a click!) In the face of a bloated and barely effective display advertising market, search looked to be the best deal in town.

Honestly, I am not predicting that one medium will trump the other, but I believe that a single tool arsenal is not the Internet “marketing” solution. Staking one’s business upon Google results is simply not a sound solution. For a few weeks, the question, “will Twitter trump Google?” has been circulating tweets and blogs.

No, but social media will rule supreme as the top referrer of the web.

Twitter is already towering over the news sources in the UK and this doesn’t even include the API connections (i.e. Tweetdeck, Twhirl) to the social service:

TechCrunch reports:

In February, 4 million people in the U.S. visited the site, up from 2.6 million the month before, according to the latest data from comScore. That represents a 55 percent month-over-month growth rate, compared to 33 percent growth in each of the two months prior.

Twitter Growth Through March 2009

There is a good reason for this explosion in use. Social media serves niches that search engines and blogs alone cannot.

1. Internet Portal

Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter are many people’s portal to the Internet. Sorry of conjuring up imagery of AOL. But, these are the first and last accessed sites that many people use during their Internet sessions. In a recent Nielsen study, 10% of all “internet time” is spent in social networks.  Facebook is being used as their portal page to the web, and they find referral links through in-network communications.

2. Hyperlocality

National sites and search engines will always be handicapped to scale down to provide accurate poignant local results-despite the changes to the algorithm. Social Networks have the ability to scale because the content creators are local. For example, if you want a Hot Dog in a particular city, page one results and the top result are far more national with localized information (Krystal). However, tapping out less than 140 characters, “where is the best Chicago dog in Knoxville?” will likely return nuanced and accurate local results.

3. Contextual Relevancy (crowdsourcing)

In the network of friends and followers, questions are not blindly stripped and plugged into an algorithm that may or may not account for misspellings or memory lapse. For example try this query on Google, “what is the name of the place that used to be next to the pizza parlor on johnson st.” Surprisingly, the same query to Twitter will likely yield a poignant response. In addition, all of these past queries are searchable.

The key difference here is primary vs. secondary research. My network “filters” the results for me:

add context to relevant information. Searchers don’t just want facts. They want to learn more about the experiences of real people they can relate to.

Trust is key. These “relational” or “social” queries are built on trust. If I ask a question to my network and they mislead me then I turn them off (unfollow or unfriend). On the other hand, the percentage of trust in search engines results continues to decline.

4. Immediacy

On a cold day in January while staring off into my tweetcloud in tweetdeck. I noticed a surge in Hudson and Plane. At least 30 minutes before any television news network could mobilize, Twitter broke the story. The Hudson is not the only case. The Mumbai terrorist attacks were best reported via Twitter by people inside the hotel.

Users can access Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn through web, text message, mobile applications. So, unfiltered information can be in real time. As these services become more ubiquitous, we will have a variety of devices that are fully integrated with our social networks–and yes that will include more than just my washer telling me that the spin cycle has finished.

5. Direct Access

Throw your Rolodex out the window. Social networks are connecting people directly to their sources. Want to complain about comcast or tell motrin that their ad is offensive? You don’t have to write letters that may or may not be read, you can tweet or blog directly to the source.

The caveat is that  BS detectors are very high in social mediums. For an advertiser or owner, simply setting up twitterhawk to swoop in to keyword mentions or hiring ghosttweeters to engage customers can be catastropic. Inauthentic posts or ghost written material can be obvious to readers / followers / friends, and as @guykawasaki has learned, exposure of ghost writing can be a disaster (or at least distracting).

6. Eavesdropping is Awesome

My guilty pleasure is  to eavesdrop on (interesting) conversations while dining in restarants. Whether on someone’s wall or in their Twitter feed, social marketing is largely about listening to people talking. If something is interesting, we are generally permitted to engage in that conversation. Of course, this can be exploited by marketers, but in some cases I want to be engaged while ranting about the ridiculously slow download speeds on my comcast connection.

7. Google Doesn’t Care

Some suggest that Google is “passionate” about providing quality search results. Google is an advertising company; first and foremost the objective is to generate revenue. Facebook recently redesigned the intro screen to open up more advertising, and this emphasis towards ads will like be more pervasive in future redesigns. On the other hand, Twitter’s revenue model is nebulous and undefined [probably best served and most profitable to sell to Google]. Therefore the free flow of information is not altered by the revenue model (yet).

Search engines are not going away. They will continue to improve the results, but the fact remains that people are continualy drawn to people. This is not a new phenomena as any listserve or newsgroup junkies of web 1.0 will tell you. As social networks continue to proliferate, they will become increasingly important referrers of the web.

Jeremy Floyd

Jeremy Floyd is the President at FUNYL Commerce. Formerly, he was the CEO and President of Lirio, Bluegill Creative, a marketing and communications firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition to managing the digital strategies, Floyd was an adjunct professor for the University of Tennessee Chattanooga MBA program teaching digital strategies and social media. Floyd blogs at and tweets under the name @jfloyd. Jeremy is licensed to practice law in the State of Tennessee and holds a law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree from MTSU in English and Philosophy.

  • Good questions. I think you’ve hit on something about the problem with Google. Or two problems. And then again, maybe three problems. Will people turn on Google like they did on Microsoft? (at least in the imagination of Firefox users) Ah. A smaller subset of users grows weary of Google though these users are potentialy more saavy and may be able create mo better search strings that yield worthwhile results.

    Google is in a powerful position and just like Lord MS, they will probably retain much of their kingdom no matter what happens. But there is the problem of too much freakin content. When a search yields over a million results, you’ve got a problem. While it can be helpful if you need general info (like your nationalized example) but if you need particular info, you either need to craft tight search queries or you’re going to have to figure out a way to filter those results.

    Humans make decisions based on word of mouth. After all, it makes a lot of sense. A real human can often direct your search in ways that an algorithm cannot do (don’t tell Netflix). As much as Netflix recommends drives my movie watching, recommendations of family and friends has more weight (even when they are wrong!). I guess Netflix realizes this, thus the community element of the site.

    Twitter and FB and delicious (for me) are ways we get closer to more personalized recommendations. Obviously voting (like Digg) is also helpful.

    Google has put its toes in the water on various more personalized searches but none of its experiments are really driving/replacing other recommendation tools. Google will keep experimenting and eventually beta something that probably brings us more localization and particularity.

    But in the meantime, a whole group of people are thinking in very different ways about searching and exploring, which means Google may and will lose marketshare to a matrix of other customization tools based on particular needs of individuals. I’d say most of us will continue to do both, use Google and other more customizing tools.

    And of course the great battle between advertisers trying to control our choices and our conversations controlling them will continue because no matter what companies say, social media is about them controlling people (they can’t make money on people just relating).

    I’ve rambled this whole thing, so if you can make some sense of it, good! I sure can’t.

  • Jeremy

    good job. I really enjoyed your perspective here.

    It particularly resonates with me because I’m spending far too much time trying to separate the science from the religion in Search marketing.

    The only conclusion I can come to is there’s a whole bunch of people claiming to know how to exploit Search but they can’t prove it, to me at least.

    The other thing is Search has become dominated, and therefore skewed by big budget brands with commensurate drop in quality.

    This doesn’t happen in social media because anything that isn’t “real” gets uncovered in a heart beat.


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