360i Point of View on
How the Social Landscape Will Change Search
At 360i, we have long been speculating on the unavoidable contribution of social relevance to search. The recent Bing announcement is confirmation that the intrinsic value of social context that Facebook holds is going to improve and expand what we view as the traditional search experience. The news also seems to place Bing and Facebook at loggerheads with Google.
The battle for web users’ attention on Facebook and Google showcases a twist on the David-and-Goliath story, as Bing now finds itself the sole current beneficiary of much envied social data that its main competitor lacks. Facebook now receives more visits in the United States than Google. The latest data from Compete suggests that these two properties are neck-and-neck when it comes to the amount of time users spend on their sites.
The sheer velocity at which Facebook has grown begs the question of whether a turning point for search is here, and what that might mean for marketers. While Facebook is not a search engine itself, the value of data it collects within its user base makes it a potent force that will soon enrich how search is delivered. In this POV, we explore how the social boom — fueled by success stories like Facebook’s — will change the search landscape and, as a result, influence how marketers approach SEO.
Facebook vs. Google Referrals
Many companies have begun leveraging and harnessing the power of social media to interact with their users, as well as get more users to other digital properties (websites) they control. An excellent example of this is Levi’s. A year ago, Facebook barely made the top ten referrers to Levi’s.com; flash-forward to July 2010 and Facebook is Levi’s #2 referrer.
This pattern is similar across many brands analyzed using comScore Marketer, including American Eagle, Dell, the New York Times and even BP.
Facebook is increasingly proving to be a significant driver of traffic once integrated on a marketers’ site. According to Inside Facebook, websites that have implemented the Like button or other social Plugins have experienced huge traffic increases. Some examples:
ABC News (190% traffic increase)
Gawker (200% traffic increase)
TypePad (200% traffic increase)
Sporting News (500% traffic increase)
Facebook has also published figures on NHL.com. According to Inside Facebook, “visitors are reading 92% more articles, spending 85% more time on-site, viewing 86% more videos and generating 36% more visits.”
Google’s Forays into Social
Google CEO Eric Schmidt and search competitors alike have long recognized the importance of social data as a new indicator that may lead to a more relevant search experience, enabling further customized, timely and personalized search results. In the last year alone, Google has made several attempts to integrate social into search — including incorporating Twitter as a real-time search input, and the creation/acquisition of Google Buzz, Friend Connect, Search Wiki, Latitude, Voice, Social Circles and Wave. Unfortunately for Google, none of these efforts have resonated with its audience at a large scale. Nevertheless, persistence could pay off, as the search giant is rumored to launch a series of social upgrades to existing products in the coming months. At Google’s recent Zeitgeist conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., Schmidt touched on plans to place social media at the center of its key products by late this year — a project some have labeled “Google Me.”
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Google pioneered the relevant search experience that marketers and users alike have come to love and trust. Its chief innovation was to interpret links between websites as a signal of subject matter and authority. Google’s PageRank was born, establishing a score for websites and each of their URLs with a public facing scale of 0-10: zero meaning the site’s URL has not accrued any third-party link authority; ten meaning a URL relevancies an undisputed authority within its web index as compared to all other URLs. This measure, now more than ten years old, was created at a time when ICQ and AIM were about as “social” as it got.
Like & PageRank: Friends or Foes?
In April 2010, Facebook released the Like button, which was thought to possess similar utility as any other social plug-in. Yet, one might speculate that Facebook has sown the seeds of a comparable innovation to that of Google’s PageRank. Through the universal popularity of Facebook, its Like button has enabled online properties to tap into an ever valuable social currency upon their own website URLs.
The ubiquity of the Like button on brands’ websites will allow any Facebook user to seamlessly favor, or Like, any URL. This explicit endorsement is stored within Facebook’s Open Graph, whose individual parts consist of individual URL addresses. Of course, Google as a search engine is not going away, and its reliance on links (hyperlinks between documents on the web) is certainly not diminished by Facebook’s feature. However, it does mean that Facebook has ownership of an emerging relevancy signal. As more and more websites adopt the Like button, Facebook will be able to measure explicit user action or endorsement of Web URLs in real-time and with much greater ease than in establishing the traditional hypertext link between sites.
‘Likes’ are perhaps a direct signal that might supplement search algorithms and influence how algorithms determine authority on the Web. Of course, the concept — and significance — of rankings will never die. A brand’s online visibility and page rank will always be critical, as compared to its competitors. The web is founded on hyperlinks (or links), so if your URLs are being calculated by David and Goliath via Likes or PageRank, building up both could be a solid recipe for a new convergence of visibility and relevance. Facebook’s Open Graph system makes URL Likes a transparent metric for the world to access, similar to how Google’s toolbar publishes a PageRank score for any URL.
Like: Bing’s Early Mover Advantage
While there is still uncertainty as to how social will ultimately persist in search, we know that social and search are on a collision course in the near future. The Like button has significant potential to become a supplementary signal to search. As of the recent announcement, Bing will benefit from an early adopter access to Like signals and other social graph information to produce more relevant results to Bing users and Facebook searchers.
Bing and Facebook’s partnership has evolved into something even bigger. Moving forward, Bing will be integrating Facebook as a social layer within its search results — initially around people-based searches, but with upcoming extensions to Product, Local and Video searches.
The partnership, which dates back to 2007 when Facebook had “only” 7 million users, has now reached a new level. Zuckerberg rationalized Bing as an obvious partner on the grounds that they are “underdogs”, and “innovative.” However, it was implied that this social integration to search is not exclusive to Bing, but that the Redmond giant proved to be the most suited early beneficiary of this social context.
Facebook, with over 500 million users, billions of sharing activities, and 25 million pieces of content shared every day offers a critical signal that can supplement and make search a better experience. For example, Bing reported that 4% of its search queries are people-related searches. The satisfaction rate against these queries is low, in the order of 20% – with the Facebook integration, Bing can provide results that benefit from rich social context. Ultimately, this will extend to further search use cases, including recommendations from your social network on product queries, restaurants or even that Banksy Simpsons video your friends told you about.
However, the Bing-Facebook relationship has not been confirmed as exclusive. This opens up the possibility for an API to become available to others, similar to Twitter’s Firehose data feed, which is now consumed by all major search engines.
What does all of this mean for marketers, and how can they prepare for a new KPI that could impact their website’s authority, URL visibility, referrals and relevance in search and social? Before making the jump into social search, there are some considerations that should be taken into account:
Does a Like button even make sense for your website and a brand’s audience?
Who: Consider whether your audience is actively engaged on Facebook, and are liable to share your brand content through Likes at a sufficient scale to drive social search and influence.
What: What are your best sociable assets that your audience would pick up and share? Do you have shareable content? Products? Contests? Deals? Tools? News Articles? Games? Tips?
How: Is Facebook’s Like button even relevant to your market (e.g. Japan, or Brazil)?
Where: Do you have the creative real estate, and do you even want to introduce a third party in such a high-profile way within your brand identity or web delivery infrastructure? Do you have a Facebook strategy in place that is geared to engage and monetize Likers?
Do you keep benchmarks and measurements of new KPIs?
Likes are fully measurable — 360i has developed tools that assess Like metrics for your Facebook Pages and individual URLs. We can assess these metrics when it comes to your competitors’ online destinations, as well.
It’s possible to view Like metrics alongside traditional SEO metrics — this can inform your strategy in preparation for social search.
Liking is not just about Facebook — the Open Graph was introduced to take the concept to the wider web. For example, measuring other forms of “liking” can be considered for “Diggs,” “Buzzes,” “tweets” and other social voting platforms.
Remember, SEO Best Practices still apply when implementing the Like button.
What Open Graph meta data you apply to your content and the URLs you choose to accrue Likes upon may play an increasingly important role.
Ensure a single URL is served for both search and social.
You can control which URL a Like button acts upon. Seemingly, this is a loophole in Facebook at the moment, as users are not pre-warned what URL they are liking.
Facebook provides a meta data language that provides critical context to Open Graph objects (such as your website home page), and may become an important signal of keyword relevance within search.
Facebook is not a search engine itself — and according to Mark Zuckerberg the platform is not aiming to become one. Facebook instead wants to provide social layers atop search results, as they’ve done with the gaming apps in the past. Zuckerberg envisions this model extending to even more vertical applications moving forward.
Given the new announcement from Bing and Facebook, the rapid rise and ever-increasing popularity of social media cannot go unnoticed. Companies are leveraging Facebook’s Like button as a means of targeting their market and becoming more search-relevant to users, while continuing to increase their online visibility via search engines. The Bing-Facebook partnership is confirmation that the intrinsic value of social context that Facebook holds is imminently going to improve and expand what we view as the traditional search experience.
These opportunities in the future might not be limited to the Bing search experience, as the partnership with Facebook is seemingly non-exclusive. Google, for example, has voiced its desire to incorporate social information into its products. According to Schmidt, “We want our core products to get better from social information. The best thing that could happen is if Facebook opened up its network and if we could just use that information. […] With your permission, and knowing more about who your friends are, we can provide more tailored recommendations. Search quality will be better.”
Contact your 360i strategic advisor to help develop a strategy for approaching the evolving social search landscape.