How Search-Like Are Social Media Sites?

Like search? Who doesn’t — great traffic, huge brand value and an audience ready to convert. Like social media? What’s not to like — huge growth, tons of buzz and an entire new marketing frontier that is opening up. For the search marketer looking at social media, how does it measure up? Which social media sites are most “search like?” This article looks at the issue and tries to chart it all out for easy comparison.

To answer, let’s start with some definitions. The terms “social media” and “social media site” are often used to describe web sites and online services that can be radically different from each other. Facebook gets grouped with Flickr because they’re both “social.” Social, yes — but there are subcategories that are important to know.

This is how I breakdown social media sites, based on watching the space and talking with social media marketers over the past few years:

  • Social News Sites (such as Digg, Reddit, Yahoo Buzz)
  • Social Bookmarking Sites (such as Delicious, StumbleUpon)
  • Social Networking (such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn)
  • Social Knowledge (such as Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers)
  • Social Sharing (such as YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Urban Spoon, Yelp)

I’ll define these further as I go along. But the key question is this. How do these sites measure up against search?

I like charts, so I wanted to see if I could somehow graphically illustrate where the sites overlap with search in various ways. To do so, I considered three metrics:

  • Traffic: How many visitors do they drive?
  • Demand/Search Intent: How likely are those visitors to be after something specific?
  • Branding: How can these sites influence branding by appearing in search results?

Start Your Charting: The Search Engines

For a baseline, the chart below starts with Google and search engines themselves:

Search Versus Social

For these charts, the bigger the circle, the more traffic a type of site (search, social bookmarking, etc.) sends. The circles aren’t precise — they just give you a rough idea if something will send lots of traffic or not. Google drives tons.

As for demand, the beauty of search is that people go to search engines in search of something specific. They’re ready to convert, which is why search visitors are so highly valued. On the charts, the more a source sends people with strong “search intent” or “demand,” the more the site will be shown to the left.

Finally, branding. Various studies show search can have branding value. There are few stories of entirely new brands being built from search, but brand lift has been shown in various ways. More important, brands can be hurt by bad reviews that show up in search and helped by positive references. Since every search listing on a search engine has brand potential, search is very high in brand value — and so shown at the top of the chart.

Social News Sites & Search

Social news sites are where people go to share current news topics or information. Digg is the classic example, where stories are voted on by others. Reddit is another example. For internet marketers, we run our own Sphinn social news site. How do these chart against search?

Social News Sites & Search

There’s no question that social news sites can drive huge amounts traffic. The Digg Effect is when a site gets so many visitors from Digg that it crashes. So on the chart, a big traffic circle for social news sites.

Social news also has some degree of search intent. That because people do go to social news sites in search of something — news. They just don’t necessarily know exactly what news they want. Rather than exhibiting search behavior (“I know exactly what I want”), they’re in discovery mode (“I want something in general, but I don’t know exactly what that is”).

If you have news content that matches the serendipity of someone’s interest, you may have a good converting person. Having said this, visitors from Digg are notorious for driving down ad conversion rates. They may be interested in your content, but your ads? Not so much.

So for demand and search intent, I put social news sites about midway down the line. How about branding? Well, content at social news sites can rank well in search engines. When I looked recently, I wasn’t finding that this was so much an issue for brand names. For example, a search for apple wasn’t getting me a page from Digg that outranked the official Apple site. But for product “issues,” it’s more noticeable.

Consider this story at Digg:

Poison Cup Noodle Recall On Digg

It appears in the top results at Google for a search on poison cup of noodles:

Google Poison Cup Of Noodles

If someone does that search, curious about what happened, then clicks over to the Digg story, they find brand inspiring comments like this:

Digg Noodle Comment

Remember when Apple dropped Firewire from new Macbooks? That hit Digg, which a few weeks ago put Digg in the top results on Google for apple firewire (right now it’s on the second page of results):

Apple Firewire - Google Search

What do those who click from Google over to Digg discover?

Digg Firewire comment

If you’re concerned about your brand, you have to be concerned about social news sites. You’re being discussed on them, and even those who aren’t social news “regulars” may be driven to these discussions via search engines.

Social Bookmarking Sites & Search

Social bookmarking sites are very similar to social news sites with one key distinction. Content doesn’t necessarily have to be new. Plenty of stuff on Delicious or StumbleUpon isn’t new in general — it’s just new to someone who recently discovers it and shares with others. How do social bookmarketing sites plot against search?

Social Bookmarking Sites & Search

In general, the sites can send tons of traffic. Delicious isn’t known for crashing servers like Digg, but it still can generate a noticeable traffic spike. StumbleUpon can produce for a one-time spike and be the gift that keeps on giving, sending lots of people to a site over time. Given this, I feel a big circle for traffic makes sense.

As for search demand, I see that as low. People aren’t even interested in a particular topic — news — but rather what’s being shared in general and may have no particular burning desire for that. There are exceptions. Places like StumbleUpon and Delicoius both have categories that allow people to narrow their browsing into interest area. But overall, I wouldn’t say these sites are heavily “search-like.”

As for branding, I’ve not typically seen these types of sites showing up in results to the degree content from social news sites has (and even they feel like they’ve had declining visibility over the past year). Potentially, data from social bookmarking sites might be used to enhance listings similar to a test that Yahoo ran last year:

Yahoo Delicious Integration

Social Networking Sites & Search

Social networking sites are where people are connecting with other people. Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn all have a variety of features, but at their core, they allow you to network with friends, family, coworkers and people who want to be your friends, family and coworkers. How search-like are they?

Social Networking Sites & Search

As you can see, I’ve rated their traffic as very low. It’s not that you can’t find lots of people at these sites. Heck, our own Facebook group for Search Engine Land has nearly 3,000 members. Over at our LinkedIn group, we have over 4,000 members. Social networking sites are hives of activity. But that activity seems to stay within the network, rather than flowing outward to external web sites. No one talks about “The Facebook Effect” having crashed their web server. For a search marketer, this may mean adjusting to the fact that you have to maintain a presence within these networks to fully tap into them.

In terms of search demand, I think the social networking sites have very low levels here. There is some sense of discovery that goes on. People share interesting news items or discussions in these places. You can have high search intent when they are used to find someone or learn more about a particular person. But when that water pipe breaks, and you need a plumber? You’re probably not hitting Facebook immediately looking for help.

Let me add that I visited Facebook last month and had a good discussion about how their ads can flow into search intent. As said, people might not immediately turn to a social networking site to find a product or solution. But one story they told me resonated, about how a moving company targeted college freshmen, sophomores and juniors with ads. Down the line, when these people inevitably needed a moving company, the ads apparently had created a strong awareness, and the company had a good success.

It’s something to consider. But for that immediate search demand that a search marketer is after, I don’t think you’ll find it on social networking sites. Instead, adjust your expectations and tactics, so that you can tap into the less immediate desire.

As for branding, again, there can be strong branding opportunities within these networking sites. But externally, I’ve yet to see them register much of an impact in search results. I don’t see Facebook or LinkedIn discussions about products coming up regularly in the searches that I do, nor do I tend to see pages within these sites coming back on searches for brand names. This might change over time, as the networks open more and more of their internal pages up to search engines.

Social Knowledge Sites & Search

Social knowledge sites are places where people are sharing answers. Wikipedia is the classic example, and Yahoo Answers is another good one. Where do they sit compared to search?

Social Knowledge & Search

In terms of traffic, I give them a medium circle. This comes from having seen and heard marketers over time say that these places drive noticeable amounts of traffic. They don’t crash your servers, but they do show up on the radar screen of traffic drivers.

As for search intent, these places all register high to me. People go to them seeking answers to questions they have. That’s the core of what search provides. If you’re one of the lucky answers, that puts you in front of an audience prequalified to convert.

They also have high branding value. I always get a laugh when talking search to audiences, showing a Wikipedia page in the top results at Google and joking that by law, Google’s required to show Wikipedia in the top ten. I’m far from the only one to make that joke. Do a search, you’ll bang your knees against a Wikipedia entry. Yahoo Answer results often come up, as well, especially for searches that are phrased as questions. In both cases, this means your brand might be discussed at these sites — with searchers flowing over to them — so it’s something to be monitored.

Social Sharing Sites & Search

Social sharing sites, to me, are places where people are — well — sharing stuff! You share video at YouTube, pictures at Flickr and whatever’s on your mind (for better or worse) at Twitter. How do they stack up against search?

Social Sharing & Search

Like social knowledge site, I give them a medium circle on the traffic front. They send noticeable amounts of traffic but aren’t crashing servers. Note that this can vary within the services themselves. A YouTube video might get thousands or millions of views from those watching a clip at YouTube itself, rather than embedded on a site.

Search intent is high. People are often actively seeking a photo, a video or something at these places. Even at Twitter, search provides a way to seek out news and buzz.

Branding? These sites do very well in the search engines. Consider a search for jetblue, where currently the company’s official site is listed, along with its Twitter account and its YouTube channel. That gives the company control of 30% of the search results page — more ways for people to find them and potentially pushing out negative comments (though not always — there’s still a news article about a man who is suing over accusations he had to sit in the toilet for 90 minutes on a flight).

Consider also a search for diet coke on Google:

Diet Coke On Google

The screenshot above shows how video content shows in the top results. Neither is from Coke itself. Instead, both are about mixing Diet Coke and Mentos, video content from non-Coke sources.

Now, I seem to recall that Coke wasn’t that found of the Diet Coke-Mentos mixing craze. I couldn’t find a reference about that, so I might be wrong. But if so, I’d say get over it. Produce the biggest Diet Coke-Mentos experiment ever, one that is so amazing that the video of it will gain links and jump over into the top listings at Google.

That would give Coke more control over its brand — a pretty good thing when you consider the current search results features for negative articles about Diet Coke and health impacts (makes me glad I took my diet from Diet Coke!). Social sharing sites provide an opportunity for brand owners to tap into search — you’ve got to consider them.


The charts aren’t perfect. Traffic levels, search intent, brand value can all be debated and may differ from service to service. But I hope the charts provide a starting point for the search marketer trying to understand the varied world of social media. If you’re looking to reach out using your core search marketing skills to find new searchers, social sharing and social knowledge sites are probably the best places to start. The social news sites are a big tempting target, though over time, they branding value there might slip. Social networking sites are at the low end when it comes to driving traffic to your external site — but that doesn’t mean they should be on the low-end as part of an overall marketing campaign.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Features: Analysis | How To: SEM | Social Media Marketing | StumbleUpon | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


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  • chiropractic

    As you mentioned using Twitter to seek out news and buzz I find that being my first source for “split second” info. When we had an earthquake in LA Friday Twitter search was the first place I went. Results were great as personal reports came in as well as links to geological sites with data posted regarding the event.

  • Webmaster T

    Danny, in the news numbers are you including distribution via the Search Api/Mashup Tools Yahoo! and Google have been providing for webmasters? I’ve seen a few sites that were built by clipping news out of Google News Alerts. That could provide long term visibility/traffic if the article/press release is linked to from a forum or other tahgging/news sites.

  • itod

    Danny, I performed an experiment inspired by your statement about search queries asked in the form of a question often returning Y! Answers organic results. I purposely entered a question-style query into the 4 top search engines hoping to get Y! Answers in the serps. The result was surprising:

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