'Friendsourcing': Search Gone Social

Why Marketers Should Care About Your Friends' Interests

By Published on .

Eric Swayne
Eric Swayne

If "Wisdom of Crowds" has been the dish of the last decade, Google has been its greatest chef. After all, who else could serve up a culinary delight of perfectly algorithmic search results? It's mathematically ideal: the entire internet is cached, indexed, scored and "interrogated" to find who says which sites are most relevant for a given search term. Search engine optimization and marketing has also become a crucial element of the Marketer's toolbox, as we game this math to keep our clients' sites a part of Google's master recipe.

And while this has served us well so far, it also has its flaws. In its purest state, Google's page pank algorithm serves up the ideal result for everyone, but it's the same ideal result for everyone. My wife and I are having our second child soon (a girl!), so when I search for "family hauler," Google will always display the Edmunds article first, and all other sites will move no higher until the ranking factors realign. But how do you know that Edmunds article is the right result for me? Here's a treasure trove of information: If you knew five of my friends have tweeted or posted on Facebook rave reviews about their Toyota Sienna, wouldn't you push that listing higher? Sure you would, but it's impossible to ask me questions about every topic I'm searching for. If every search result came with a questionnaire, we'd lose the entire essence of Google: simplicity, accuracy and speed. Of course, there is a better way to get to the same result, and it takes us back to the "Wisdom of Crowds" -- in this case, my crowd.

If it were possible to ask all my friends what they thought of "family hauler" you'd probably rank the Sienna or a number of other specific vehicles higher. And not just because I seek out a more "minivan" kind of crowd -- my friends and I happen to share similar geography and circumstances for the most part, which causes some amazing similarities. Moreover, I am much more likely to trust my friends' opinions than those of strangers. Anyone that's recently been on the search for a good doctor or dentist or accountant knows intimately how important it is to get recommendations from those you trust. Instead of crowdsourcing, this is "friendsourcing" -- the concept that people I know give better and more reliable answers for me than the world can as a whole.

All of this was nice and theoretical until we saw a flurry of action from the major search engines late last year. Bing announced deals with Facebook and Twitter, then Google got in the mix with a full unveil of its social search product. Google has also started integrating real-time, public conversations with hot, trending keyword searches. (Go take a look at what they show for "red cross Haiti donations" or "stroke" and you'll see what I mean.) If you want to start using friendsourcing right now, check out this video from Google's search-quality spokesperson, Matt Cutts , to see how social search works, and how to get started.

To say this means we're on the edge of something big is a catastrophic understatement, but marketers have only started to scratch the surface of what this means for them and their clients. At very least, we've got three fundamental paradigm shifts to deal with:

What brands say and do in social media has an increasingly direct effect on how they will appear in search engines, both in search results position and in description.

The more friends in my social circle (aka my "social graph") talk about your brand, the more likely I am to see your brand, click on your brand's listing and become another voice talking about your brand.

Many brands have recognized that their impact in social media is both powerful and tangible, but now that impact will easily spill over into other channels. "Social" isn't just a silo in your channel mix anymore, and the lines will be increasingly blurred with mass media, CRM, SEO/SEM or other channels.

The good news is that it's never too late to stake a new claim in social media for your brand, and that dramatic change can happen very quickly. Another news story that got a bit buried at the end of last year was DARPA's Red Balloon Challenge -- an experiment in how fast social networking can align and mobilize people world-wide. Ten large, red weather balloons were anchored and raised aloft in separate locations across the continental U.S. on Dec. 5, 2009. The winning team to find all 10 would win $40,000 -- and a group from M.I.T. did just that, in under nine hours. So to get your team or your clients started, here's some quick first steps:

Listen, record, observe and compare.
There are a million tools on the market for searching or filtering social media conversations, and many of them are free -- Chris Brogan has an excellent list of the ones he uses here. Most organizations are doing this already, but it's usually in a vacuum from other marketing efforts. Instead of just looking through your "ego feeds" (conversations about your company), start checking on the conversations around your search engine marketing portfolio of keywords, or use Google's keyword tool to analyze your site and start your own list. It's often interesting to see the gap between what people say about you and what they say about your product or service -- this can lead to ideas for new content on your site or places for your social media team to try to change conversations. For extra credit, start comparing the trends on these terms to your offline media: are my mass communications moving this needle? Did my latest direct-mail piece with the killer offer spark some new conversation?

Start holding everyone responsible, but make someone accountable. Your organization's social "footprint" can't be managed as a hobby. Large or small, it's time to take this seriously, because the impact will be felt from cyberspace to the cash register. Almost all marketing units are affected by (and will probably have an opinion on) social media, so it's often good to start with some kind of a "task force" comprised of representatives from each. However, the business needs to make a decision of exactly which person will own its social presence. This person doesn't need to be the one running it day-to-day, but they need to be able to speak to it fluently and have the power to make a difference.

Create a social media "lodestone" within each of your marketing efforts.
Even with a cross-functional team or steering committee, it's hard to keep the social media conversation from gravitating to just a couple of marketing functions. To be truly effective, each discipline needs to know how they intersect with social media, and needs to define that in a way that attracts and excites new projects. PR, for example, can own reaching out to specific voices and generating influential conversations. CRM, however, has the opportunity to focus on longer dialogues with individual customers.

Ultimately, friendsourcing will give us a better internet experience -- one that knows us better and gives us what we're looking for, because it will be based in the human experience. The catch for marketers, then, is to get as good at playing to the right crowd as we are at gaming the right algorithm.

Eric Swayne is senior digital strategy manager for Rapp. An award-winning web designer, developer and writer, he has worked with clients across verticals, including SuperValu, Best Buy, Bank of America, American Airlines and Texas Instruments.
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