The Merger of Social Networking and Search

Eric Schmidt is sometimes half-jokingly referred to as Google’s official grown-up. I’m not sure that he likes that title, but it definitely fits. While it’s abundantly clear that Google has a long-range vision (something along the lines of being the pivot point between you and every bit of information available), its short-term vision tends to be a bit murky. I suppose it doesn’t matter, considering the fact that they have a money-printing machine in the backroom.

But, when it’s time to talk about what the company may want to do with itself in the next few years, it’s good to have Dr. Schmidt around. He may not necessarily inspire us with visions of ubiquitous computing or next-generation operating systems, but he offers some insight into what Google has on its priority list (and, therefore, what we should have on ours).

Recently, Schmidt was asked about what he expects to see from the Web in the next five years, and his comments bounced around the Internet for a few days. He made some interesting predictions (including that most of the content online will be in Chinese), but the thing that struck me was his statement that the “challenge of the age” was figuring out how to rank (and, assumedly, serve up) the real-time social content that is beginning to appear nearly everywhere online.

I don’t know if I can speak to the technical challenge of doing this ranking and serving, but the world has been dying to have an immediate sense of the current thinking of the world about a particular topic. Every single one of us in marketing has always felt this. We want to know right now, if people like our ad, are interested in buying a minivan, think they want to try a new pasta sauce…everything.

Clearly, the rise of social media is tapping into our desire to announce our thoughts to the world. The trouble, of course, is that all of that information is disorganized and ephemeral. That is, even if your best friend tweets their opinion about the movie you’re thinking about seeing tonight, if you’re not online at the moment of the Tweet, you probably won’t see it.

This disorganization of information is precisely the problem that Web search was invented to take on. And, now that there is a significant amount of content here, it seems like we are finally going to see the merging of social networking and search. This is really big news for those of you who have built at least part of your business on the traffic generated by search engine results.

The Shortest Route to Page One Goes Through my Friends

The big thing that Google did recently with search and social was to launch Social Search (clever name, huh?). You can find out more about it here, but the basic idea is that, if someone in your social circle has ever commented about the topic you are searching on, that content will appear on the first page of results.

This is remarkable because there is, of course, a humongous industry built around trying to work both content and networks in such a way as to push your page to the top of search engine results. To say that the ability to get there via someone’s friend is disruptive is to say the least. It means that optimizing for search absolutely means engaging in social marketing. Social Search is in beta now, but not for long. When it rolls out, you will need to include a social marketing plan in your search plans.

Consider what you currently do, as a search engine marketer. You build a page that ensures that a crawler — a piece of code — comes to the conclusion that your page is absolutely, definitely about what you want it to be about. Then, you build relationships with other sites (and the people that run them) to make sure that, when they want to talk about what your page is about, they link to you. Of course, SEO is way more complex than that in practice. But that’s the core idea.

Social search is something different. It’s not about linking to pages, but rather about having people tell a particular kind of story. So, if you’re marketing a movie, you want to make sure that as many people as possible, at some point, post that they like this movie. You may even be more specific and want to have people say it’s a good date movie, or the first time they believed that Keanu Reeves was actually a human being.

That’s a different task, because you’re no longer dealing with content nearly as much as you’re dealing with people. You need to pull together a plan that will give consumers experiences and then drive toward a very new and unique conversion: from someone who believes something to someone who talks about what they believe.

The New Conversion Metric: Knower to Advocate

We will see a new generation of online marketing focused on getting people to post something to their networks. We have this already, but it is in its absolute infancy. We have seen buttons that allow people to share content become ubiquitous as a part of page layout. But this is information architecture, not marketing. Sharing content seemed like a good way to increase page views and drive traffic. But now, it’s more important. You need to get people to say positive things about your brand because that content will soon be the most valuable element returned from a search.

And search continues to be the major driver of online advertising. Now, though, search is social and social is search. And strategies need to be adjusted.

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