That intentionally “inflammatory” headline is inspired by an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, “Facebook directs more online users than Google.” The article cites Compete data and says, “Facebook has passed search-engine giant Google to become the top source for traffic to major portals like Yahoo and MSN, and is among the leaders for other types of sites.”
Partly intoxicated by that SF Chronicle article, All Facebook wrote “Facebook Posts Phenomenal Growth In Search,” citing an Information Week article that itself cites January comScore search share data:
Let’s take a breath and a step back.
Earlier this month Microsoft announced that the web search experience on Facebook would be “enhanced” and improved. And while it’s not entirely clear to me, the numbers in the chart above are likely internal searches on Facebook for content or friends, rather than web search. This is not the same thing as people conducting searches on Google, Yahoo or Bing more generally. And 13 percent growth is certainly strong, but not “phenomenal.”
However this is a question that I invite Hitwise, Compete, comScore and/or Nielsen to explore further: What is the nature of “search” on Facebook; are people using it for general web search or more for internal Facebook content?
The Compete data cited in the SF Chronicle article arguing that Facebook is now the “the top source for traffic to major portals” raises another empirical question: how exactly is the traffic being referred from Facebook to third party sites?
I heard a similar statement made by a major US yellow pages publisher, Yellowbook, at a conference last week. But in response to that discussion on my blog Screenwerk someone argued to me:
Compete, comScore, etc. only identify the sequence of sites visited – they don’t actually identify if Site A referred a user to Site B via a link. Since user activity on Facebook is so high, it’s not clear that Facebook is actually driving people to Yahoo, AOL or MSN, or it’s just people going from Facebook to check their Yahoo Mail/Hotmail accounts.
Facebook is clearly a major marketing platform and seems to be growing its “search” volume. Google also just formally listed Facebook as a competitor for the first time in its annual 10K filing:
Our business is characterized by rapid change and converging, as well as new and disruptive, technologies. We face formidable competition in every aspect of our business, particularly from companies that seek to connect people with information on the web and provide them with relevant advertising. We face competition from:
- Traditional search engines, such as Yahoo! Inc. and Microsoft Corporation’s Bing.
- Vertical search engines and e-commerce sites, such as WebMD (for health queries), Kayak (travel queries), Monster.com (job queries), and Amazon.com and eBay (commerce). We compete with these sites because they, like us, are trying to attract users to their web sites to search for product or service information, and some users will navigate directly to those sites rather than go through Google.
- Social networks, such as Facebook, Yelp, or Twitter. Some users are relying more on social networks for product or service referrals, rather than seeking information through traditional search engines.
The importance of search and search marketing isn’t going away or likely going to be eroded by Facebook. Like search and display social media and search are complementary platforms. But before we can assess the meaning of the data above, we need to know a good deal more about consumer usage of Facebook and whether the Compete data are validated by others. It’s still premature to pronounce Facebook the top or most important traffic source on the internet.