Social networking site Bebo could be set to take over from eBay as the UK’s most searched for site, according to a study by

Hitwise

.

The analyst group says the number of UK web searches for ‘Bebo’ has tripled in the past six months and risen by 17.6% in the past quarter alone.

This closed the gap between it and eBay to 5% in the four weeks to the end of September, from 25% three months ago and 80% three months before that.

[This] highlights just how quickly a brand can rise through viral channels and reach mass awareness,” wrote Hitwise UK’s VP of research Heather Hopkins in her blog.

The report added that sites offering free content, such as Wikipedia and Google Earth, had also showed strong gains, while the number of retailers in the top 20 had dropped from 12 to 8 in the year to September 2006.

Hopkins added: “Of course, many traditional brand names, such as the BBC, Amazon and Tesco, are already known to consumers and would be bookmarked, so they are less likely to be the subject of searches than new brands.

Whilst last year the top 20 online brands were dominated by retailers, there is now an almost even balance between retailers and advertising supported content sites. This rise of the advertising supported business model has been fuelled by continued growth in online advertising.