Will Social Networking Kill Search?

A provocative headline and somewhat less provocative article in Popular Mechanics argues that social networking will kill search “as we know it.”

Here’s the relevant kernel of the article:

In fact, as we each carve out our individual niche on the Web, the logic of search may well flip inside out. Since we are essentially meta-tagging ourselves through our social networking memberships, shopping habits and surfing addictions, it’s conceivable that the information could attempt to find us—the old concept of push media, but in a far more refined way. As new content enters the Web, it could tumble through the various filters that you set up around your identity and then show up on your home-page news feed, or in your in box, or pop up on a ticker that follows you around as you browse from page to page.

I made a version of this argument myself in early 2007. My question was: Would we use search as extensively if other tools (e.g., feeds, personal start pages) help us discover information more efficiently?

Comparing Google and Facebook today, one could argue that Facebook (other than its “communication” tools for some) hasn’t really become indispensable. If you’re younger than 27 you might have a different view. But it’s still mostly about some form of entertainment, broadly defined. Google and search more generally, by contrast, is about getting things done as well as entertainment. Search is used billions of times every month for a range of purposes.

Now Facebook could add web search (as most other networks have) and Microsoft, its partner, would probably like that very much. And Facebook could grow and evolve into something more indispensable. If I were Sheryl Sandberg, the former Google VP who’s now COO and effectively running Facebook, I would look at making it into a version of My Yahoo or iGoogle (which goes back to my Feb., 2007 article). Accordingly, there are ways to make Facebook quite a bit more “useful” than it is today, in my opinion.

And while it’s very true that word-of-mouth has moved online and people care very much about what their friends and other contacts think about things, those “recommendations” are not a substitute for search. Indeed, I recently spoke the other day to one of the founders of Socialight, an internet and mobile-social network. One of the interesting things the company has discovered through experience is that people don’t just care about their networks’ recommendations. It turns out — and this is common sense — that expert and top-down editorial content matter equally and in some cases more than what their friends may think.

Then there’s the question of monetization. While social networks offer a range of interesting advertising opportunities for brands and others, they turn out, so far, to be relatively inefficient monetization engines — unlike search. There’s also a question of their efficacy as advertising vehicles at all. People love social networks but they may not be paying very much attention to the ads on them.

Without question, search will need to grow and change, and it is. Social media is having a big influence on the internet in general but also search. Google has aggressively embraced community and social media across a range of properties (e.g., Maps, Reader, iGoogle, YouTube, Calendar, OpenSocial) and itself in the process of transforming into a giant network of sorts.

Clearly we can say that search and social media are influencing one another as both evolve from where they are today. But will social networking “kill” search? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Facebook | Search Engines: Social Search Engines

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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