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The future of search?

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The future of search?

Something interesting was reported in Hitwise’s report for UK web traffic for May 2010- traffic to social networking sites was higher than that to search engines. Does this spell the beginning of the end for the search engines? Highly unlikely but what it does show is that when (and if) websites such as Facebook are able to tie customer intent (“I want information about this”) with advertisements as effectively as Google, then the search landscape will change dramatically.

It is often said that people browsing Facebook are not interested in looking for information as they would be on Google, rather they just want to socialise with friends- that there is no “customer intent” to find information or purchase. We have seen this in our own experiments with paid advertising on Facebook in the form of very low click through rates.  However, more and more people use their Facebook status for finding recommendations from their friends, e.g. “can someone recommend where I should stay in Paris?” and it is in this area- recommendations from friends- that sites such as Facebook have the best chance to compete directly with the search engines.

Here is the graph from Hitwise for UK traffic in May 2010. Social networks (Hitwise includes YouTube in this figure) accounted for 111.8% of web visits, with search engine visits at 11.33%. Facebook visits accounted for over half of this traffic to social networking sites.

Hitwise social network data

Hitwise social network data

We have also seen that with the distribution of Facebook Like buttons across the web, Facebook are trying to own what they call the “social web” (despite assurances from Facebook that there is no sinister marketing ploy behind this), showing people what their friends like. The new questionsanswers application that Facebook have released (similar to Yahoo! Answers) appears to be further proof that this is their intent.

Whether or not the idea of recommendations from friends will replace partially or fully the way people use search engines (it will certainly be difficult to recreate the depth of information that the search engines are able to give from their indexes), what if Facebook tried to compete head on with Google by building its own search engine? Microsoft have already invested in the company, so making Bing more prominent in the Facebook user interface could be a definite possibility. The advantage that the search engines have is that many people use them to begin their web session- even typing the full domain address in the Google search box for example- but as more and more people use Facebook as the first site they visit (from their mobile for example) and if search becomes more important in the user experience on these sites, it is not very difficult to imagine the social networks taking more and more market share from the search engines.

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