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The Intersection of Search and Social Media

Traditionally, marketers have viewed Search and Social Media separately. But several changes in both spheres over the last two years have significantly blurred the lines between them, causing marketers to consider their interaction. Instead of thinking about Search and Social Media in silos, marketers now need to think of the two holistically and identify how these channels influence one another, as well as decide what strategies and tactics to employ for optimal interaction.

To make matters more complex, there is so much nuanced and similar-sounding terminology being used to describe it: Social Search, Social in Search, Search in Social, and so forth. What are the differences between these terms, if any? From our view, Social Search is a broader term that encompasses both Social in Search and Search in Social. We will explore these two topics in detail, as well as provide both Paid and Organic implications for each.

Understanding Social Search

It is not clear who first coined the term “Social Search” or when it officially entered the digital marketing lexicon.  The term Social Search has never been clearly defined and has largely been used as a broad umbrella term to describe any interaction or crossover between Social Media and Search. For this reason, there is understandably much confusion as to how Search affects Social Media and vice versa.

We see Social Search as having two fundamentally different areas, each with unique implications: Social in Search and Search in Social.

Social in Search

Our definition of “Social in Search” is simple:  “Any Social Media-related result that appears in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP).”  This could take on many forms, including these examples:

  1. A search for a celebrity in Google might yield a Wikipedia page or fan video about the celebrity, the celebrity’s official Facebook and Twitter pages, or a blog post written about the celebrity
  2. The incorporation of overall Facebook “Likes,” friends’ Facebook “Likes,” and overall Twitter shares in Bing. 
  3. Google Personal Results includes two main types of social interaction. First, search queries include personal recommendations pulled in from a searcher’s Google+ Circles that are relevant to their search query. Second, searchers logged into their Google+ account can socially interact with the results by clicking the +1 button that appears on each Paid and Organic Search result to recommend the page, as well as add a Google+ page to their Circles without ever leaving the search query.

Organic Search Implications

By establishing and optimizing their branded presence in Social Media, companies can control much more organic real estate on the SERP. As with the celebrity example described above, optimizing Social Media can result in having your official brand message present in the first five or more organic results. Maintaining this “above the fold” presence exclusively will give your brand more impressions, increase the likelihood of users finding your Web site, and block your competitors from “muscling in” on your brand presence.

Beyond controlling the SERP real estate, the other important implication of Social Media for organic optimization is that search engines use social signals as ranking factors, which was confirmed by Search Engine Land in December 2010. Social signals can be anything from Facebook “Likes” to Twitter “tweets” to Google “+1s.” So, it is critical to ensure you are giving visitors to your Web site the opportunity to Like (and +1) and share your content as much as possible. It is also a best practice to use relevant keywords and link back to your site in your tweets.

Google will continue to make significant changes to its algorithm, as stated in our article “Google+ for Business and Personal Search.” Make sure to keep up with these changes and look out for changes that include social factors within the next year.

Paid Search Implications

In general, the impact of Social Media is less for Paid Search than it is for Organic Search. However, now that Google has added the ability to +1 Paid Search Ads, we will see that change. Google has stated that it will begin to incorporate +1s into Ad Rank, which determines what position on the SERP a sponsored ad is displayed. Additionally, it is possible that the more an ad is +1’d, the higher its clickthrough rate (CTR) will be due to perceived relevance by the user. The example Google gives on its +1 FAQ page to illustrate this point is: “Maria +1's a page selling a neat laptop holder on a Web site. When a search ad with that same URL appears, her friend Sam might see the ad with the note "Maria and 28 other people +1'd this." We strongly recommend adopting +1 and monitoring changes in performance to evaluate its effect.

If you would like to learn more about Google+ and its implications on Search, please read our recent Insights on this topic:

  • Google+ Implications on Paid Search 
  • Google+ for Business and Personal Search
  • The (Potential) Effects of Google +1

Search in Social

Our definition of “Search in Social” is:  “A keyword-based search query conducted in a Social Media platform.”  Some examples include:

  1. A user searches for a “how-to” video on YouTube. 
  2. A user searches on Twitter for the latest tweets about a current news event.
  3. A user searches for a brand’s official fan page on Facebook. 

While we traditionally think of “Search” as occurring in Google, Yahoo! and Bing, the examples above illustrate how often Search is actually occurring in the Social Media platforms as well. YouTube is the largest online video platform, and next behind Google in site activity, ranking above Yahoo! and Bing. Other social sites with Search functionality, such as Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, have massive scale and reach by virtue of falling within the top 10 most visited websites in the U.S.  These platforms provide additional opportunity for search marketers beyond the SERP.

Organic Search Implications

Like the Search engines, marketers also seek to gain  one of the  top organically ranked results in Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.  Best practices for optimizing brand presence on these platforms are well-known and readily available.  The cost of not being present for these searches is illustrated in the Bank of America (BofA) Facebook example above.  When searching for the company’s main brand name (“Bank of America”) in Facebook, the company’s official fan page does not rank in the top 10 results.  While the first two results are official BofA charity and sponsorship pages, the majority of the remaining pages in the top results are unofficial pages talking about lawsuits and other subjects detrimental to BofA’s brand.

Similarly, in the above example for “Obama Mortgage Plan,” no tweets from home loan companies appear in the top organic results. Keep in mind that Twitter’s search results are as much about recency as they are about relevancy. The best way to ensure constant organic ranking in Twitter is to tweet regularly, especially about hot topics in the news that are related to your line of business or product category.

Finally, top organic rankings in Social Media also have an effect on traditional organic Search results in the SERP. One way organic placement in Social Media can affect traditional organic Search results is by providing additional exposure that could lead to more inbound links for a page, which is critical factor in Google’s ranking algorithm. Organic placement in Social Media can also affect traditional organic Search rankings through Universal Search. Universal Search results are commonplace for both Google and Bing, and can contain photos, videos, maps, news, and more. Many times, Universal Search results will be shown above the first organic results. For example, ranking your video #1 for a particular query in YouTube may also actually gain you a #1 ranking in the Google SERP for the same term.

Paid Search Implications

Options for paid advertising in Social Media have increased dramatically over the last few years. These platforms offer marketers an alternative to search engine-based PPC campaigns. Sponsored Tweets in Twitter, Promoted Videos and Display Ads in YouTube, and Facebook Ads have become much more commonplace and accessible to the majority of advertisers. These paid advertising platforms in Social Media can function as an awareness generator to expand a brand’s footprint beyond the SERP and provide an opportunity for marketers to maintain presence on relevant keyword queries for which they are not able to optimize organically. An example of this is seen in the IKEA YouTube example shown above.  IKEA USA is not ranked in the top 10 videos organically for the term “how to fix a sink,” but they are able to make up for that by maintaining the first position on the page with a Promoted Video.  IKEA’s paid video has more than 118,000 views, compared to just 26,156 for the top-ranked organic video.

Most of these ad services are being touted primarily as branding and awareness vehicles, and not as customer acquisition venues. However, if acquisition marketers are able to deliver a consistent ROI on these campaigns in the future, advertising dollars that have traditionally been spent in Paid Search may begin to shift toward these Social Media alternatives. Consider that paid ad placement on Social Media sites can provide significant incremental brand exposure at significantly lower costs than search engines.

The other direct implication for marketers is that Search results for Web searches on Facebook are supplied by Bing.  So, while the majority of search marketers’ focus remains on Google, it is important to make sure that you are optimizing for Bing to maintain visibility on Facebook results.  Most Facebook users are not conducting Web searches while in Facebook, but Bing results will be shown for even most internal Facebook searches.  Similar to the YouTube example described above, it is important to have a presence on these searches via Bing if you are not able to optimize your page to rank in the organic results.

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