Finding Answers Online: Social Networks Vs. Search Engines

Now more than ever, people are flocking to the Internet to find information. Newspaper circulation has gone down at a rapid rate, while the era of smartphones, tablets, and the Internet continues to grow.

In February 2010, Search Engine Land reported that there are 34,000 Google searches per second. That is a lot of people looking for information. Search engine queries and information read on blogs, social networks, and other websites make up the majority of answers to questions online.

With the continuous growth of technology, one thing remains the same since our grandparents’ grandparents were alive: public opinion and sharing your experiences with others. Even though a large majority of the older members of our family tree didn’t have the Internet, cell phones, or e-mail to tell others about their experiences with businesses and products, they still shared their opinions with whoever would listen.

The Internet gives us this same platform, but with a larger audience and at an accelerated rate. Because of this, we are able to trust the opinions of our friends and total strangers for any purchase were about to make or business we are about to frequent.

Instant Gratification Online

People use the Internet to find information because in many cases, it provides instant results. However, what method you use to find information depends on what you are looking for. If you are using the Internet to make a purchase during that browsing session, you would most likely utilize a search engine and input keywords such as “buy”, “purchase”, or “order” followed by the item you want. This is the purchasing stage.

If a user is in the information seeking stage, then they could also utilize their social networks to receive recommendations and opinions on a product or experience they are curious about.

A study between Microsoft and MIT entitled “What Do People Ask Their Social Networks, and Why? A survey study of “Status Message Q&A Behavior” (PDF here) reported that 29% of survey participants had used their social network status to ask for recommendations. Eight percent used it to ask opinions specifically on places, and 5% asked about shopping for a product:

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Personal Connection: People Trust Opinion Over Search Engines

This shows that many Internet users, in the information seeking stage of online purchasing, use their social networks to see what their friends think about their online and offline activities. A study referenced in April 2009 by MediaPost.com reports that “According to the latest Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey of over 25,000 Internet consumers from 50 countries, recommendations from personal acquaintances or opinions posted by consumers online are the most trusted forms of advertising worldwide. 90% of consumers surveyed said that they trust recommendations from people they know, while 70% trusted consumer opinions posted online.”

These study results demonstrate the power of opinion and proves that a more personalized account of an experience with the business or product helps online users make their own decisions as opposed to search engine results.

The Growth Of Online Review And Question Sites

In addition to the most popular social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to share opinions and get product recommendations, business and product review sites like Yelp.com and epinions.com have continued to grow in popularity. As of August 2010, more than 38 million people visited Yelp in the past 30 days and it has over 12 million local reviews written by users.

Shopping.com, the owner of Epinions.com, says that epinions.com is a service which provides unbiased, transparent reviews  with personalized recommendations for all its users. Who wouldn’t want to use that type of website in order to ensure they are making the right purchase?

Besides looking for product and business reviews, websites like LinkedIn Answers, Yahoo Answers, Quora, and Aardvark (which was recently purchased by Google) receive thousands of new questions daily from people looking for advice on everything from relationships and the best online marketing methods to craft ideas and more. People trust getting advice from other people, even if they may not know them. Getting personalized attention seems to be what many users are looking for online.

Creating  ”Humanized” Search

Search engines have realized the need for personalized answers that users are finding on social networks. Microsoft launched Bing.com as the “decision engine” and recently announced a partnership with Facebook to “make search more social“.

The partnership allows users to share their search results on their Facebook profile and create a more customized experience. Bing is attempting to make a user search experience less confusing and faster, by providing visual search results. Since its launch, Bing has grown steadily in traffic and is behind Google in overall search engine use (if YouTube isn’t counted as a search engine).

However, creating humanized search isn’t a new concept. Many early Internet users will remember AskJeeves.com (now Ask.com), a search engine “valet” that allowed users to enter their search query in the form of a question and get results back in everyday language. The Ask Jeeves character was phased out in 2005 but was recently brought back as part of the 2009 face lift for Ask.com.

Ask still suggests users to type a search query in the form of a question or natural language, and responds with the most concise answer possible. For example, the question “what are daisies?” brings back a definition for the flower from life123.com as the top search result.

While Bing, Google, Ask, and other search engines strive to create a personalized experience for every user seeking information, it will never compare to getting a recommendation on a great restaurant to visit from a close friend, whether that is on Facebook or in person. Online or off, people are still searching for human connection and will trust others’ opinions, even if they are strangers.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Search & Social

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About The Author: is the Senior SEO Manager for the agency, Red Door Interactive.

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  • http://truelike.com truelike

    I think it’s tough to draw this distinction between search engines and social networks in the context of “finding answers”. More and more, we’re seeing search engines integrate social data into their results, like Twitter results in Google, Facebook results in Bing, and user reviews in Google Local. The data may come from social sources originally, but search engines are finding ways to present this data, so users don’t need to dig around in their social circles to get answers. In many (if not most) cases, it’s more useful to get answers in this form because you’ll get a broader set of opinions (like for product or restaurant reviews) rather than depending on 2-3 friends who have expertise in the area.

    Of course, there will always be certain questions that are better answered by ones’ close friends, but my point is that there is an increasingly small distinction between the traditionally algorithmic search results we’re used to and the social answers more typical of Q&A sites and social networks.

  • http://www.thedigitalconsultant.co.uk thedigitalconsultant

    Great article you have some good points and it it’s interesting to raise the issue of how social networks are having an increasing dominance on the consumer buying cycle from a digital perspective. We all know that word of mouth will remain to be the superior form of marketing with the biggest impact and most difficult to control. The problem as we’ve been aware since the word “social media” started to get bounded about was that this is going be an increasing problem/benefit for brands as more people can talk to each other about the bad/good points of their product and service.

    I don’t believe slapped a human face on the results will have any benefit. Putting “your friend opinions or comments” next to your search results is a small step forward. It will be interesting how search and social will merge. We see news items on a daily basis about how Google/Bing/Yahoo! are desperately trying to ingreate social into their search results. Perhaps this is backward? Are people more likely to trust search results from within a “walled garden” of user opinion and reviews? A place where brands have less of an influence on their results.

    Something perhaps Facebook should/are developing?

 

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