Social Search Engines and the Future of Search Optimization

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There has been much talk about “social search” of late, and much controversy about what lies ahead for social search networks and how they may impact mainstream search. First, what exactly is a “social search engine”? The word “social” in the term implies that the engine enables users to add their personal knowledge, opinions and experiences to the search results.

In other words, a site must enable its users to tag, comment on, vote for, manually submit information, and/or further define or share individual search results in order to be called a “social search engine”. Currently, there is little reliable data regarding the magnitude of use of social search. For example, Yahoo! Answers claims it has had 40 million questions submitted since December of 2005, but this pales next to mainstream search usage, which PEW estimated at an average of 60 million searches per day in 2005.

Though the casual, mainstream searcher has clearly not yet abandoned general search engines, the trend is an important one for marketers to watch,  both for potential marketing opportunities and to further their understanding of the implications of having SERPs that users control. As well, Yahoo!’s continued efforts to harness its users’ “collective wisdom” and Google’s increasing involvement strongly indicate that user control of SERPs will only increase in the future.

Social Search Opportunity Identifiers

To judge if your business can benefit from social search opportunities, and therefore should begin social search optimization efforts, a few key parameters should already be in place.

1) You already contribute to your market community through blogging, article writing, forum participation, email newsletters, publishing research, white paper creation, video, free tools or some other form of communication.

2) You have the time to explore social search as a distribution platform for your existing marketing efforts. Keep in mind that optimizing for social search is more about showing your audience why they should be using certain social search engines in the hopes that they will mention you there than more familiar search optimization techniques.

3) A social search engine that focuses on your industry exists and/or you’re getting referrals from a social search engine. Either way, you should be looking for ways to get others to mention you more often in these places. Chances are it will involve doing MORE of whatever got you mentioned in the first place.

4) You sell unique, highly fashionable, or ridiculously low-priced items or services that create their own buzz. For example, if you’re a travel agent with a reputation for offering great deals and hilarious written stories about adventures like a trip on the Trans-Mongolia Express, there’s good reason to suggest your clients use JetEye to plan trips (and suggest they link to you while they’re at it). JetEye’s Jetpaks allow a user to quickly put together and share links, images, comments, and research sources that will save others time sifting through SERPs.

A Quick Guide to Social Search Optimization

Social search optimization, outside of some minor technical tweaks (a subject worthy of its own separate article), lies  solely in the spirit and quality of the market contributions your company makes and the nature of the “conversations” you’re creating.

I believe – and have seen it proven time and again – that market contributions like articles, free tools, viral videos and useful blogs encourage sustained commercial growth. That said, market conversation campaigns are not as conducive to forecasting as your good old paid-search lead generation campaigns. Be forewarned – they are neither quick, nor are they guaranteed. The strongest advice I can give to you is to contribute content that your market will find valuable or useful.

The Three Types of Social Search Engines

I organize social search engines into three types: social shopping engines, collaborative resource creation search engines, and “pure” social search engines.

Let’s look at each in turn, along with prime examples of each.

1.  Social Shopping Search Engines

Social shopping sites enable users to direct other users to good deals, critical reviews and strong or exciting products within the “search” framework.

To some extent, Amazon and eBay are social shopping sites. Amazon is a particularly strong example, with its powerful recommendation algorithm that closely follows what users look at and buy, bundled together with reader/purchaser reviews, which influence nearly every purchase I make there.

The new crop of social shopping search is dominated by the “great finds” category, where users group best-in-class products; vote on the quality, usefulness, and other product values; write product reviews, and pass product recommendations along to their friends.

“Great find” social shopping search engines include sites like StyleHive.com, MyPickList.com and Yahoo’s Shoposphere.

Social shopping engines that emphasize great prices include Mpire.com, dealbundle.com, and coupon engine Zixxo.com.

2.  Collaborative Resource Generation (Search)

Collaborative resource generation sites, such as Squidoo, Wikipedia, and del.icio.us (and to a lesser degree Digg), enable users to create resources for themselves that they can then share with others. These types of sites rely upon their users to write and/or upload information and use text search as the primary method of retrieving data.

Some, such as JetEye and Yahoo’s trip planner, are used as collaborative scheduling, research, and travel coordinators.

If your industry is blessed with a large contingency of bloggers or a lot of press coverage, the chances are good that you’ll find entries in Wikipedia that contain your company’s name. If you’re a strong contributor already, you’ll likely find that you’re in del.icio.us, even if you don’t have “add to del.icio.us” buttons on every one of your blog posts.

Google Notebook is Google’s entry into the collaborative resource generation field. Yahoo! Answers falls into this category as well, though it emphasizes straight questions and answers. The acquisition of del.icio.us by Yahoo!, its largely hands-off approach to the acquisition’s direction, and the subsequent growth of del.icio.us by 600,000 users in the last nine months is a blueprint for successful integration of the power of the user base of large search engines with collaborative resource sites,

3.  “Pure” Social Search

What I will call “pure” social search engines focus on mainstream search results. Startups in this category, however, at times seem to be quixotically seeking to unseat Google rather than identifying under-served and profitable verticals.

Social search engine Eurekster has enabled others to create niche social search engines with its “Swikis” service. Webmasters and bloggers who add Eurekster-powered search engines to their websites can control the sites that appear in their index, while their users can add comments and vote for listings they think are especially relevant to their search terms.

In a different approach, the social search engine PreFound sought to make it easy for researchers and experts to add their findings to its index. However, precisely because  they rely largely on humans to build their index, it will be extremely difficult for them to reach “scale.” PreFound is still worth watching closely though, especially since Google launched something quite similar – Google Co-op in May of 2006.

SEO in the Age of User-Controlled SERPs

As the relative size of the segment of searchers who choose social search engines increases, relevance will shift from a purely algorithmic, link and text-based computation. As major search engines open up to more user influence, you will see new pockets of relevance emerge surrounding terms that may be vital to your business. In this new paradigm, there will be relatively little that backlinks and keywords will do for you.

Increasingly, we will find that companies that strive to contribute to the intellectual or entertainment life of their industries will have the best success in search engines, as more and more people come to recommend them, write about them, and vote for their products.

That said, we’re not likely to see a time where Google and others cede the power of relevance solely to the votes and opinions of its users – that would make for one hell of a mess. Rest assured, though, that the major search engines, and a whole army of small startups, are already looking for ways to harness the collective brain power of their users.

Strategically adding your company’s voice into the mix of social search will help ensure you don’t miss out on either short-term growth opportunities or longer-term business sustainability.

About the Author

Garrett French educates SEO and PR teams on content and engagement-based link building strategies that drive targeted referral traffic and deliver SERP domination. Learn more about him and his services at CitationLabs.com.

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