As the major search engines continue to attract greater numbers of queries and unique users, social networking services are outpacing them in terms of audience growth, and rapidly catching them in terms of audience size.
According to data from comScore, search products attracted 6 percent more U.S. users in 2009 than in 2008, and those users conducted 16 percent more searches, year-over-year. The Ask Network led that growth with a 19 percent increase in users, year over-year, followed by Microsoft and Google sites, with 15 percent and 9 percent growth, respectively.
In terms of growth, however, social networking sites continue to outpace the search space, with popular services Facebook and Twitter enjoying a period of rapid growth during 2009.
According to Nielsen data, the past year has seen consistent increases in both the number of U.S. users visiting the Facebook site, and the amount of time those users spend interacting with it. Nielsen estimates Facebook attracted around 75.5 million unique users in May 2009, who spent an average of three hours and 12 minutes on the site. Seven months later, that figure jumped considerably to 110 million uniques in December, with the average person spending twice as long engaging - over six hours and 24 minutes per user.
Although that figure remains well shy of the traffic accrued by companies with search products - such as Google and Microsoft - the gap continues to narrow. Google properties attracted 156 million unique users in October, but that number actually dipped slightly during November and December. What's more, users spent an average of 13 minutes less with Google sites and products during December than they did in October.
Microsoft's sites experienced similar changes to Google's in that period; its audience shrank by around 3 million unique users, who spent an average of three minutes less on the sites. By contrast, the average time spent on Facebook grew by around 15 minutes, and its audience increased by over 2 million unique users in the same three-month period.
As time spent with search company products plateau or dip, Facebook continues to demand more and more user attention.
As for Twitter, it attracts a fraction of the audience accrued by Facebook on a monthly basis; yet, comScore estimates it grew unique visits to its Web site by 900 percent between December 2008 and December 2009, reaching 20 million users. Taking into account third-party applications through which many users now access Twitter, its actual user base is likely considerably higher.
Why compare engagement on social sites with that of search properties? Of course, search products aren't typically vying for extended periods of user engagement, and fewer minutes spent with engines could imply greater efficiency of the engine itself. However, as search companies continue to diversify their products and emphasize socialization and collaboration, metrics such as user engagement could become increasingly important for search providers, going beyond simple scale and reach metrics.
This column originally appeared in the March 2010 edition of SES Magazine.
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Jack Marshall was a staff writer and stats editor for ClickZ News from 2007 until August 2011.