Social networks overtake search engines in UK – should Google be worried?

Hitwise, the web analytics firm, has a report out today that claims that social networks now receive more UK Internet visits than search engines.

Which, if the case, would imply that Google should be considerably worried about its future battle with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, as online marketing spend will surely follow Internet foot-through. Or does it?

According to Hitwise, during May, social networks accounted for 11.88% of UK Internet visits and search engines accounted for 11.33%, representing the first ever month that social networks have been more popular than search engines in the UK.

At this point, it’s worth noting that Google-owned YouTube is lumped into the social networks group – is YouTube really a social network? – so that in itself significantly skews the results. But, nonetheless, social, and in particular Facebook and Twitter, continue in its ascendancy.

Facebook now accounts for 55% of all UK social networking visits, almost three times as many as the next most popular social network, which Hitwise pegs as YouTube. Twitter, on the other hand, is now the third most popular social network in the UK, putting it ahead of Bebo (no surprise) and MySpace, which seems pretty significant considering how popular the Murdoch-owned property once was with Brits.

Robin Goad, Research Director for Hitwise, comments: “although social networks and search engines perform different functions, they both act as gateways to the wider Internet. This data perfectly illustrates the key role that social media now plays in so much online behavior.”

But the money isn’t yet following, with Goad noting that “the majority of online marketing spend is currently diverted towards search, and this is likely to remain the case in the short to medium term.” Search remains the “primary source of traffic for most websites”, particularly e-commerce, such as online retail, finance and travel.

“Many marketers and brand owners have yet to grasp the full potential of social media marketing, but spending on the channel will increase as more proven success stories emerge.”

Success stories, you say.

But can social media marketing really overcome the issue of intent? Too often, ads on YouTube and Facebook work like traditional advertising, forcing themselves onto people and interrupting the conversation or getting in the way of the content. Not only is it an issue of obtrusiveness but that advertising is out of kilter with the user’s self interest.

However, when a user searches on Google, there is an intended action at the end of it, which is very often making a purchase or researching one. In which case, the interests of the user and advertiser are perfectly aligned.

Nobody is interrupting anyone.

Regardless of today’s report, it’s only once somebody really figures out how to tap into intent on Facebook that Google should be worried.

Very worried.

(Cue social media and WOM marketeers to tell me why I’m wrong.)