In today’s digital age, the way users seek and consume information is undergoing a significant transformation. There’s a growing debate about whether social networks are taking over traditional search engines like Google when it comes to finding information.
Everyone loves an either/or debate – as though it’s a straight choice between traditional search engines and social search. But is the reality of how users look for what they want a bit more complex?
Opinion is divided, with some sounding the death knell for Google, while others adopt a more moderate approach. We Are Social’s 2023 Digital Report states that ‘for the TikTok generation, search is getting social. Many Gen Z’ers are turning to video and image apps, TikTok and Instagram to find out more about their favourite brands.’
However, a study from Insider Intelligence provides evidence of caution, stating that while more people are now beginning their searches on social media – and social search clearly presents an opportunity for marketers – the issue with social was that it ‘lacked many of the features advertisers expect from traditional search.’
So, in this article we will explore the shifting dynamics of how users access and engage with information, delving into whether there’s a substantial shift from search to social, and what this transformation entails.
The power of social media and social search
The ability to provide real-time updates is what draws many users to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn. These platforms also excel in delivering personalised content tailored to users’ interests and preferences. Algorithms analyse user behaviour, likes, and shares to curate content likely to engage and resonate with individuals.
Recognising the significance of social media, search engines are increasingly integrating social signals into their algorithms. Social signals, such as the number of likes, shares, and comments a piece of content receives on social media, can impact its ranking in search results. This integration acknowledges the interplay between search and social in the modern information ecosystem.
Who is using social search engines?
Google reports that 40% of individuals aged 18 to 24 use social media platforms as their primary search tool. Meanwhile, Hootsuite notes that 47% of people aged 25 to 34 use social networks to research brands. When we look at those in the 35 to 44 bracket, the use of social search still remains high at 43%. It’s only when we examine those aged 45 to 54 that the percentage drops down to 36%.
While we’re using the general term ‘social networks’, it seems that TikTok is the key player in social search, with more than 50% of businesses stating that this dominant platform is the one most likely to grow over the coming years. The likes of Instagram barely show up in one report about social search.
Where does this leave traditional search?
While social media searching is on the rise, traditional search engines like Google continue to be essential tools for information discovery. However, these portals are also evolving to adapt to changing user behaviour and preferences.
Search engines are incorporating a broader range of content formats beyond traditional text-based results. Users can now directly access videos, images, podcasts, and more from search engine results pages. This shift aligns with the multimedia-rich nature of social media content.
Keeping an eye on the future
All platforms are closely observing the behaviours of Gen Z and swiftly adjusting to meet the preferences and requirements of younger users. Google is constantly innovating new search features, and the introduction of generative AI will likely re-draw the map of search and how we currently experience it.
Not an either/or situation
Even before the advent of AI, the distinction between search and social was not always clear-cut. Users often employ a combination of both when seeking information. For instance, a user might see a news headline on social media and then turn to a search engine to find more in-depth coverage of the topic.
If there is a shift, it lies in how users navigate this evolving landscape. They no longer rely solely on search engines or exclusively on social media but instead, move seamlessly between the two to satisfy their information needs. As content marketers, understanding this dynamic and adapting strategies to cater to both search and social audiences will be crucial in the ever-changing world of digital marketing.
If there is a ‘winner’ in this fight over search, it’s likely to be whoever releases the best features, listens to their user base, and understands and adapts to changing behaviours. But it seems a fair bet that given the way we all interact with the internet, users are likely to employ a variety of platforms as they search for what they want.