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

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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.)

  • Kenny Cannon

    Facebook is taking over the internet so yeah, Google should be worried. I think that Google also made a huge mistake by getting into the content business. That probably annoyed the millions of people who spent the past 7 years trying to rank their sites only to find out that Google’s content is above theirs.

  • Max Niederhofer

    TL;DR: Yes. The answer is yes.

    • Steve O'Hear

      I had to google what “TL;DR” means. Nice work.

      • Typhoon

        It means “Too long; didn’t read” :D lol

      • Max Niederhofer

        I actually enjoy your longer and more thoughtful pieces, Steve. Keep it up.

      • Steve O'Hear

        Thanks, I’ll try :)

  • Darren

    maybe MS should look at buying facebook and slap a big search box in the middle of the page :p

    • Typhoon

      lol, yes, I think if Microsoft gets the opportunity to purchase FaceBook then they would surely put up that bing box somewhere on the FaceBook and try to increase their search impressions.

      But I don’t think that it is gonna happen in near future..Facebook will keep running independently until they start experiencing any kind loss in business.

      Sushant Risodkar

    • Dave Nattriss

      M$ already own a 2% stake in Facebook – which is probably the most that Zuckerberg wanted to sell as it got the company $250 million cash to invest in infrastructure etc.

  • what??

    comparing google with facebook is like comparing mcdonald’s with nike…the two are completely different companies and their sites have completely different purposes.

    • Sarah K

      This isn’t about how different these 2 sites are, it’s the power of influence content has on a user.

      It comes down to trust of content. Social networks are increasing in their value of content (especially with regards to search) because the content of a recommender is more trusted than online display or search.
      ie: a friend posts a reviews, shares an offer or recommends a brand on facebook, twitter, etc. This content is now more valuable, will drive purchase intent and product higher conversion rates hands down than any paid advertisement.

      Google should be worried….. paid ads will become lower in value, brand advocates will pave the way.

  • David Levesque

    On demand peer reviewed search is the killer app. Whether I am online or in a store I want to know what my friends bought and why. When Facebook integrates peer reviews, commerce and mobility…Blippy, then google should be worried.

    Look forward to your comments.

    • zerocool

      What happens when reviewers receive incentives to post “friendly” reviews about a given product? How much value would those reviews have then? Not much…

    • Ronnie

      I have never got this notion that I should follow what my “friends” think.

      If I want advice on wine , the last people I would ask are my philistine friends.

      If I want advice on sailing, none of my Facebook friends sail.

      If I want advice on books, cooking, valve amplifiers, Bach, bringing up children…..I would never ask my “friends”.

      The internet is full of much more interesting and knowledgeable people, all easily found via search.

      My “friends” are like an old style village and what the internet allowed us to do was to get out of our own village and into any number of more interesting villages.

      • Serge

        I agree that search’s interest is to get knowledge beyond your immediate contacts / friends / etc. In that sense the threat for google would come more from the Quora and Aardvark part where you get an answer from a community that is actually knowledgeable – or facebook questions (though again you’re stuck in your village and the neighboring ones), when that takes shape for good. Since Aardvark has been bought by Google, one would assume they have that angle covered.

  • Meediax

    We know this is inevitable. It’s a question of when and not if.

  • Dave Nattriss

    RE: intent on search engines, lots of people now use Facebook as a search engine too. If you want to know what’s happening with your favourite brand, search for them on Facebook and sign up to their page etc.

    • zerocool

      What data are you basing this off of?

  • John Fernandez

    *Yawn* wake me up when Social Media monetizes like Search does.

  • nick tadd

    It was inevitable, and it would appear that to “yawn” at it would be churlish.

    Google has no worries, but then neither does any of the sites – it will evolve.


  • Gomez

    The graph looks like the p@nis of the hunchback of notre dame

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  • Benjamin

    Google search advertising does an awesome job of getting buyers that are in the “intent to purchase” phase. Youtube and Facebook actually go after a different part of the advertising dollars, they go after the awareness/prospect portion. 90% of advertising dollars go to building awareness and getting people to the intent to purchase phase, but this 90% has traditionally not been spent online at all, it’s much more traditional TV and print advertising dollars still. What Facebook and Youtube will do is draw more of that money away from traditional media, not from Google. Tapping into “intent” and Google’s market wouldn’t be nearly as big a deal as if they can show how to tap into the prospective customer and brand awareness building markets.

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  • Mal Gordon

    Let’s see – referral from a friend/follower that you know, trust and respect or anonymous search result and subsequent paid ad….hmmmmmm

    • nick tadd

      Mal. I have to concur, and to not give this the correct attention could be a flaw.


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  • Misae Richwoods

    Most businesses were online and talking to customers before social media existed as a genre. Google represents the majority of traffic to them.

    The Social media bulge is the great mass of people who aren’t selling, aren’t paid writers or online services. Social media represents the majority of traffic to them.

    The ratio of people to businesses is many hundred or thousand to one. Therefore we need to expect a similar ratio in traffic.

    We also need to expect is that the ratio of profit is also inverse – the businesses are making all the money and the common folk are passing it to them. Outside of geekville, most people just use Social Media to share emotions not facts.

    Lastly, it’s important to remember that understanding intent is just a modern way of saying “mind reading”. Mystic Meg can tell you as much about what I’ll be doing at the weekend as Facebook can. Humanity has wanted for thousands of years to know what happens next. If someone does it, it’s not the Social Media revolution, it’s the Second Coming of the Messiah and we won’t be worrying about finding cheap deals on trusted hotels anymore – it’ll be mangers on the house for everyone

  • Joblist Ghana

    Social networking will eventually overtake search but I don’t think there’s any reason for Google to be worried

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  • Global Payments

    I don’t think they need to worry. It will even out eventually. Social sites and Google are two very separate things with separate goals. They’ll be fine.

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