Facebook: Does Social Beat Search?

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

If Facebook traffic really is going to be bigger than Google traffic, then a lot of people will have to change the way they operate on the web, says Peter Judge

The news that Facebook traffic overtook Google has provoked a lot of comment, discussion and disbelief. How can a mere social network beat the search site which most of us have come to see as the main way to get round the Internet?

It turns out that Facebook beat Google traffic in the US, and a lot of people see this as immensely significant, as the final victory of that now-quaint sounding term, “Web 2.0”. The web really is personal now, just as people predicted five years ago.

Facebook: a matter of time and search

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There are two interesting aspects to the statistic that show there is more to this than mere clicks. One is the number of searches carried out on Facebook, and the other is the sheer amount of time people spend there. Facebook takes about five percent of people’s online time. It’s a destination. For some people, it’s the portal where they now expect to get all their email, IM and other interaction, and it’s the first place they search for people and things.

Google has apps like Maps and Street View (which is proving very popular), which are an end in themselves, but the vast majority of visits to Google are simply a way to find something else – with Google pushing some text ads at them as they pass by.

By contrast, Facebook has been able to introduce its own currency, Facebook Credits, and time-and-money sinks such as the irritating Farmville application.

All this is changing even as we speak of course, as the move to mobile shifts the balance again. Facebook, Twitter and other social sites lend themselves to mobile use, while mobile search is still failing big time, given the over-hyping of the power of location, and the difficulty in actually producing anything real from it.

It’s way too early to pronounce that Social has beaten Search. For one thing, despite a slow start, Google’s mobile play, based around Nexus One and other Android phones, is still in its early phases. Nexus One only sold 135,000 units in four weeks, a result which has exposed the fact that the phone is not ousting the iPhone any time soon – but doesn’t preclude a comeback.

Power and Privacy

Clearly both Google and Facebook have great power – which as Stan Lee said brings great responsibility. Both face privacy concerns, with Google Street View coming under attack, while Facebook is having to defend its child protection policy.

But a shift from Search to Social matters to people like us, because people putting content on the web need to push it at the places where people will find it. This is the reason behind the current change in website voodoo rituals. Having spent a couple of years following the dark arts of SEO (search engine optimisation), we now have to bow before the altars of SMO (social media optimisation), tweaking our stories and our presentation so their appeal is seen through the channels where people will see them.

It also matters to anyone wanting to make an impact, or make sales on the web. The shift from Google to Facebook may not keep up, but even a slight move towards social networking should produce a big reaction from marketers and anyone else using the web for their business.