Search finally turns social (sort of)

by James Duthie on October 22, 2010

It’s been a huge couple of weeks in the search industry. Even in an industry renowned for constant innovation, the past couple of weeks have brought about two monumental changes. First came Google Instant. And while the concept sounded reasonable in theory, it added little to the search experience in my opinion. It kinda made me feel like I’ve got ADD (moreso…). But while Google was busy trying to convince the world that Instant revolutionised the search experience, Bing casually stole their thunder by announcing a change that truly could change search. And that was the integration of Facebook data into their search results! Which meant that for the first time, we have a serious social search product on our hands…

Social search buzz

Social search has been a buzzword within the industry for a couple of years now. It first gained momentum back in 2008 when Yahoo announced that they would integrate Delicious data into their search results. Of course, the Yahoo/Delicious initiative ultimately failed for a number of key reasons:

  • Delicious lacked the scale and usage of the larger social networks
  • Significant discrepancy existed between a user’s Delicious network, and their true circle of influencers (aka their social graph)
  • Delicious data was too easy to game

Late last year Google also attempted to enter the market with its own social search product. Yet it failed for the similar reasons (not scale in this case, but an inability to create a relevant social graph). Despite the failures, search professionals continued to salivate at the true potential of social search. The reason is simple. People trust people. More than they’ll ever trust an algorithm.¬† Even in the age of Google, friends & family are still the most trusted source of information (even if they aren’t the most qualified):

So imagine the power of a search engine that considered the content your friends and family Like alongside the standard algorithm-driven results. Bing took the first steps towards delivering that outcome last week via the integration of Facebook’s ‘Like’ data into their search results.

How does Bing’s social search work?

Well… if I run a search for ‘running shoes’, Bing will return a standard set of results, as per normal. However, at the same time, it will scan my social graph to determine whether any of my friends have Liked content related to running shoes. If my pal Chris Liked a pair of Asics cross trainers, it’s likely that content would be integrated into the search results. Suddenly, search is able to expose content from the people I trust most. Content that would otherwise have been invisible to me. Pretty cool huh?

Of course, the key reason Bing’s social search product actually stands a chance of success is their partnership with Facebook. Because when it comes to social data, Facebook is the only kid on the block. No other network has the scale to power a search engine in a meaningful way. Delicious certainly couldn’t. And even Facebook has a long way to go yet. While ‘Liking’ behaviour is common, it probably needs to increase by a factor of 1,000 before it can truly influence search in a meaningful way. But nevertheless, the seeds are in place for a powerful social search experience in the future. And Facebook has shown time and time again that they have the ability to influence user behaviour.

What Bing’s social search means for digital marketers

The implications for the digital marketing industry are incredibly profound. In particular, three digital channels seem particularly affected:

  • SEO: Of course, the SEO industry will be significantly affected if/when social search truly takes off. While many SEOs have long used social media to help spread content and generate indirect links, social search could mark the era when social media becomes a mandatory element of every SEO program. With Bing offering up two slots for social content on the precious page one real estate, it’ll be a brave SEO that continues to ignore Facebook. Much like universal search created a demand for image and video optimisation, so too will social search necessitate a unique skill set.
  • Social Media – Naturally, social media marketing will also be strongly affected by the emergence of social search. More budget will surely flow into social media as a result. And I’d also expect a far greater emphasis on Facebook above all other social networks (even moreso than now). Suddenly, the value of a powerful Facebook community increases significantly. While a Facebook ‘Like’ is a nice little engagement metric at the moment, it gains a whole lot more value and credibility when it directly influences search results for related search terms. An army of fans with a tendency to ‘Like’ branded content will become a real corporate asset.
  • Content Marketing - Like social search before it, content marketing tends to be another buzz word within the industry. Yet it too could become become a beneficiary should social search take flight. The ability to create content that people ‘Like’ will become a critical skill. Indeed, linkbait will be joined in the SEO arsenal by Face-bait. Organisations will dedicate time and resource into the production of content primarily for the purpose of gaining¬† Facebook ‘Likes’.

Before we get too carried away, it must be said that we’re still at least a couple of years away from having a social search product of any real value. Until the ‘Liking’ of external content becomes a regular habit for the average Facebook user, we simply won’t see social search have anything other than a menial impact of search results. But personally, I suspect we may look back at this in a few years as the moment when search took its next major evolution!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Parker October 22, 2010 at 3:11 am

The other key implication here is social commerce. I can see this move is going to really drive social commerce (specifically on Facebook) ballistic.

Can you imagine the impact as Facebook users become more comfortable with using the built in search function and then find they can see what their friends buy/recommend and be able to complete the transaction without leaving Facebook? We’re about to launch a social commerce experiment ourselves whereby we’re going to develop special content offers, promote it, and transact it, all on Facebook…

Is it too bold to say that in 3-4 years Facebook could be transacting $1 trillion through their site? I don’t think so

cheers Mark

James Duthie October 25, 2010 at 2:10 am

Definitely agree that social commerce is an emerging field Mark . Not convinced myself that it’ll grow that much that quickly though. It’s perfect for some industries where purchases are made on impulse. For example, I hear Supre are doing some impressive numbers via Facebook.

However, will that transfer across to other industries that can’t rely on instant gratification? And what proportion of Facebook users are in true purchase mode, ready to transact immediately?

I don’t know the answers, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see how early corporate adopters perform. Love the concept of allowing consumers to transact within Facebook, but suspect most will still turn to search when they’re ready to buy.

Pablo Edwards October 25, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Sort of is right… Search still has a long way to go before it can be deemed “social” in nature.

Prepaid Plans November 9, 2010 at 2:37 am

I think the push to invest in content on facebook and Likes is the correct strategy. The challenge for most is what do you do with your facebook site. is it a conversational tool, is it a microsite. When I ask Marketing Managers about it they say Facebook is for finding friends. So a big opportunity exists for agencies to educate customers about social media whistl learning themselves. its early days for everyone but today as oppossed to 2000 dot com boom/crash we are a lot more connected via home and work and mobile.

James Whitrow December 1, 2010 at 1:47 am

I think that social search is definately the way its heading. As for the social commerce side, that makes perfect sense. Scary but true. Everyone wants what everyone else has. This will just make it so much easy to keep up with trends and fashions

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