What Social Media Means for Search

It's Not Just What's on a Page or Who Links to It; It's How It Relates to Users' Personal Networks

By Published on .

Peter Hershberg
Peter Hershberg
A young woman in Chapel Hill, N.C., wakes up sweating. Her air conditioner has died. She knows she wants a new one, but she wants one that will be energy-efficient, easy to install on her own, reliable and not too expensive.

She hops online and types, "I need a new A/C today; I have $250 to spend -- help!" into Twitter, which in turn feeds automatically into her Facebook status. She immediately begins to receive replies in both channels from friends with advice on retail outlets, air-conditioner brands and how to stay cool with no A/C. She also sees an @ reply on Twitter from a national big-box retailer letting her know its Chapel Hill location has new air conditioners in stock, as well as a link to the section of its website that shows air conditioners for under $250.

This is the new face of the "search" experience online. The separation between search and social media is melting away, and a new paradigm is taking hold. Finding the right content is as much about whom it comes from as where you find it. By building a network of credible sources via social media, we're able narrow our "searches" to a select group of people whom we trust.

For brands, this means a host of new challenges and opportunities are emerging beyond the traditional search channel.

And how far it's come: When search began, marketers used paid search and SEO to make content findable on their own web pages.


The first wave of search engines was focused on pages and the content within them. They ranked results based solely on the number of times a particular keyword showed up in the page content or meta data.

Of course, that method proved relatively easy to game by embedding high-volume, high-demand keywords such as "Britney Spears" on a site over and over again, regardless of whether those keywords were actually relevant to the content on the page. Such unethical, "black hat" methods irked quality marketers and brands and frustrated consumers who struggled to find relevant information.


With the launch of Google, the focus shifted to the network. Google looked at not just the content of sites but also the links among them, which established authority. Under its PageRank concept, links were "votes" for particular pages. Quality also became important -- how relevant a site's landing page was to the search query.

While links alone are helpful, Google proved it's also useful to have context, to know who's linking to the content and why. And just as Google values certain links and content over others, you may value what your friends/colleagues are doing differently than the activities of random people on the internet. That's where social media begins to change things.


In Search 3.0, relevance is determined not just by what's on a page and what surrounds that page but how that data relate to your personal network. As more and more people connect to each other through social networks, the resulting social graph is proving extremely powerful in helping users filter the data coming at them.

We're already seeing this play out in some of the sites and services many of us use today. Sites collect specific types of information and let their users filter and search that information based on their personal networks.

Peter Hershberg is managing partner of search- and social-media-marketing agency Reprise Media. He can be contacted via Twitter at @hershberg.
YouTube started as a service that allows people to post videos but has since become the de facto place people turn when they want to find video content on any subject imaginable.

Twitter started as a way to issue personal status updates to your friends, but is morphing into a search engine that allows you to tap into the "now" -- what's going on now? What's the groundswell of sentiment around a topic?

Facebook began as a way to see more information about people you were going to school with. Now it's become a way for friends to share interests by becoming fans of brands and lifestyles and posting articles, opinions and information.

In many instances, these sites have started to surpass Google for specific information searches. When you look for video, do you go to Google first or do you go to YouTube? (Demand for video content has made YouTube the No. 2 search engine, ahead of Yahoo.)

When you want to learn about someone you've met or are interviewing for a job, do you go to Google first or do you find out if the person has a LinkedIn or Facebook profile?

So what does this shift mean for brands, marketers and advertisers?

If 1.0 was about making sure the information within individual pages of your site could be found, and 2.0 was about making sure your site was optimized within a network of related sites, then 3.0 is going to be about finding ways to reach individuals by using their social graphs. That means reaching people where they're already sharing, linking, publishing and tagging, and becoming another node on their social networks by interacting with them and adding value to their experiences online.

Full-service search engines aren't going to go away; they still serve a very important centralizing role. Ultimately social-media properties such as Facebook and Twitter will be indexed by the major search engines on a more regular basis, filling the need for "real-time" search and offering more-relevant content.

But as traditional search begins to converge with social media, a robust presence in and understanding of social media will be a requirement of marketing in the Search 3.0 universe.

The three kinds of online connections

Marketers need to be aware of the different types of personal networks emerging through social media

DIRECT CONNECTIONS: People who are connected based on the relationships they've built in the real world. This is the hardest network for marketers to get into, because it implies some level of connection and trust.

INTEREST GENERATORS: People who don't know each other personally, but share an interest or perspective. On Twitter, these are the people you "follow." They may or may not reciprocate your interest, but you filter based on your desire to hear more of their voices.

EXPERIENCE SHARERS: Other people who have done something you're interested in, whether it's someone who bought a book you're interested in, someone who stayed at a hotel you're considering or someone who has tested different air conditioners. The interest/connection is fleeting, but it's often much farther down the so-called "purchase funnel" and can have a big impact on sales.

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