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Social network traffic trumps search engines: are social networks gateways to the web?

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 8th June 2010

Fascinating to read statistics from Hitwise today revealing that, for the first time, visits to social networks by UK web users surpassed visits to search engines.

Hitwise reports that, during May, social networks accounted for 11.88% of UK web visits and search engines accounted for 11.33%. This represents the first ever month that social networks have been more ‘popular’ than search engines in the UK.

A gateway to the web?

Robin Goad, Research Director for Hitwise, suggests that social networks are quickly become gateways to the web: “although social networks and search engines perform different functions, they both act as gateways to the wider Internet. This data perfectly illustrates the key role that social media now plays in so much online behavior.”

There is a strong consensus that as we move towards a more ‘semantic’ view of the web, we will start to use our expanded ‘social graph’ and social connections to act as our guide to the internet, rather than relying on search engines. We trust our friends, so why not increasingly use them for finding information and content online.

But can social networks drive ROI for brands?

Of course, the Hitwise research doesn’t tell us about ‘what’ users were using social networks for, only that usage is increasing.

Covering the stats on Techcrunch, Steve O’Hear proclaims: “But can social media marketing really overcome the issue of intent? Too often, ads on YouTube and Facebook work like traditional advertising, forcing themselves onto people and interrupting the conversation or getting in the way of the content. Not only is it an issue of obtrusiveness but that advertising is out of kilter with the user’s self interest.”

His focus is on advertising, which is perhaps a shortsighted view of the potential of social media marketing. Of course if brands ‘force’ themselves on visitors as they do in traditional advertising, PPC or other forms of ‘push’ marketing, they will find little success on social networks. But ‘push’ marketing isn’t the only answer.

Despite this ‘intent’ argument, it’s still hard to ignore the potential of social media. Goad again: “the majority of online marketing spend is currently diverted towards search, and this is likely to remain the case in the short to medium term. Many marketers and brand owners have yet to grasp the full potential of social media marketing, but spending on the channel will increase as more proven success stories emerge.”

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