As Facebook reaches 500 million users, Twitter reaches 20 billion Tweets, and U.S. consumers spend almost a quarter of their time online on social networks, it's no surprise that businesses are seeking exposure for their brands on these networks.
A niche industry has emerged from last year’s SEO market called "social media optimization". Just as SEO became influenced by previous searches a user had made, social search is influenced by the networks and online behaviours of a user operates. One person’s “social search” results can be very different to the next person’s.
Try for example, going into Facebook and (I almost wrote ‘googling’ as the verb...tsk tsk) searching for “Nike”. A woman in Toronto will almost certainly have higher results for ‘Nike women’, ‘Nike Canada’ or ‘Nike running’ if she’s listed, liked or talked about running on her account because the results are optimized for relevancy based on your profile and behaviour. A man in Brazil who plays basketball will get search results that are optimized for his region, preferences and profile.
If you're not searching for a specific product, and you want to ask your friends for a recommendation on which shoes to buy however, you would use your status update or your wall to ask the question to your existing network. Depending on your existing networks (and how active they are), you may receive recommendations based on their previous experience. But what if your friends, family and ex-colleagues who you've befriended online don't have any experience in, say, buying a high performance digital camera that can capture high action sports shots with a 600mm zoom? How do you tap into the people who are on Facebook but who aren't in your social network? By 'liking' photography and posting your questions there?
Well this is interesting. If you search for 'photography' on Facebook, it appears as a field of study. Information about the topic is scraped from Wikipedia and you can see the friends you have that have previously 'liked' photography, as well as any posts that your friends have made that include the word 'photography'. Beneath these posts it starts to get spooky. Ok, let's say customized! 'Global related posts' tries to help you find articles and groups from Facebook and the web that have multiple links to you.
For example, I'm engaged and I like yoga and photography, so I see a lot of wedding photography offers, as well as photographers in my region and yoga photography (but no wedding yoga yet! ;) . Facebook is trying to get me to *make* connections on social media who they know suit my interests, and to let me know that *Facebook* could know more about what my friends like and are doing than I do. Facebook can help me find the people, experts and vendors that suit me best. But it doesn't know if I have a need or desire for something unless I've stated it already on Facebook.
So they launched Facebook Questions (launched recently in Beta to selected Facebook members) which will help people make a decision about something of interest to them, when they are further down the purchasing cycle with an expressed need.
Facebook Questions and Social Search
Facebook Questions allows you to ask questions to the world’s largest engaged social network about all manner of things in the style of ask.com or answers.yahoo.com.
By asking a question using a keyword of something you've liked (such as photography), you can make your question appear on the news feed of those who have 'liked' photography, without posting there directly. This helps the question reach an active audience with deep knowledge and interest in the topic. You can also follow any question thread to receive a notification each time someone contributes a new answer and ‘like’ helpful responses.
The question and answer format (how search engines originally evolved) asks a community of engaged people to draw on their personal experience to find the answer you are looking for, rather than asking people you know who may not have the most knowledge on the topic or a giant computer to find you the page results within its complex algorithms.
This has been a strategic move for Facebook pushing network connections out to people who share no history, a technique first pioneered when they gave things to ‘like’ a page of their own and fans were grouped with others who had ‘liked’ it too. Connecting people to a heavily populated digital network of personal experience could have a significant impact on the emerging category of social search with important financial ramifications.
People use Facebook Questions to ask - and answer - such questions as 'where do I go for the best ice cream in San Francisco' to 'which cruise should I send my parents on for their anniversary gift – Alaska or Hawaii?'. Answers come from personal experience and are in the spirit of helping or contributing. It is information crowd sourcing at its most responsive. And it will eat into Google's marketshare on long tail search, already dwindling because of Bing's inroads.
Twitter has also spent time building their credibility in the search space. A few years ago if you wanted opinion a day or two after an event, you went to a newspaper. If you wanted to find specific information on a specific topic, you went to Google. But if you wanted up-to-the-minute information, you went to Twitter. In 2009 Google changed their search algorithm to give more weight to current information via Twitter and to include more content that is produced on social networks.
LinkedIn also developed the Answers section where people in similar professions could share perspectives and ask things like “What is the best technique for emailing a warm database list?”. Being able to have real people answer your questions with personal experience and professional insight is more valuable than being given a list of articles to read through (and email software companies to filter out).
What does social optimization mean for business?
If people are spending time online and they want recommendations – are they going to ask:
- their friends online
- blog writers/ blog forums
- or other helpful Facebook, Linked In or Twitter users?
With search, you’re only able to reach people when they’re searching. Using advertising on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Linked In, you can make an offer that is specifically targeted to a person's likes, interests and behaviours, where they are spending a majority of their time. Social marketing can segment audiences very well but you need to communicate your message without creeping your audience out. This could drive innovation for new types of online advertising which show that they're personalized in a way that adds value rather than inhibits social sharing. It's up to businesses to be transparent and thoughtful about their audience's privacy to protect trust in the medium.
Businesses who combine SEO techniques with social media activity and market well to each segment profile will convert well in a social search environment. As always the consumer is king. But now you have to set new benchmarks in users' expectations by staying relevant, adding value and personalizing using the unprecedented amount of available information.
An SEO organization in California, Gigya, demonstrated the shift to social search by changing their business model to become social optimization specialists late in 2009. This article on social optimization says that Gigya realized that many large publishers were getting more traffic from social referrals than from search engines and they decided to focus on galvanizing this opportunity. "It became obvious to us that there is an addressable market of at least tens of thousands of online businesses who are willing to pay at least tens of thousands of dollars for both the technology and service for social optimization, in the same way they have paid for search optimization," CEO Dave Yovanno told Portfolio. He maintains that optimized the right way, social could be the top source of traffic for businesses.
How are you optimizing your business so that you rank favourably in social search?