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Is social media a threat to paid search?For a while now people have been speculating whether ‘social media’ sites, in particular Twitter, pose a threat to Google search as people increasingly choose to ask their network for help rather than search.

I can see this happening in a small way but it is certainly nothing like a Google killer.

However, based in part on our own experience, I have been wondering increasingly how social media could impact negatively on paid search spend, which might be some cause for concern at the search engines?

Charles Arthur at the Guardian yesterday posted his US media sites' traffic shows that Facebook is the new threat to Google piece. Worth a look if nothing else to see the 'Update' - an interesting way to deal with the "how can you/should you ‘change history’ online by editing something you've already published?” challenge.

It says that “Facebook was the #4 source of visits to News and Media sites last week, after Google, Yahoo! and MSN and that the proportion it sends to US media sites has grown dramatically from about 1.2% to 3.52% over the past year, while that sent by Google News has remained roughly static, at around 1.4%."

A bit of a non-story I think as it’s comparing Facebook to Google News. Try those traffic percentage numbers again but against the main Google search referrals, which no doubt top 60%. These numbers pale into relative insignificance when you consider the global search market grew 46% in 2009 or that YouTube is the second largest search engine, or that more than 30% of Google searches in Japan come via mobile devices.

I think there is very little prospect of Google being threatened by 'social media' from an SEO point of view in the foreseeable future but I do wonder about the impact on paid search which is, after all, where Google and other search engines actually make their money.

Taking Econsultancy as a small, and admittedly very niche, case study, we've now completely stopped doing PPC because a) it no longer delivers ROI b) it barely delivered any volume anyway and c) 'Social Media' (mostly Twitter in our case) delivers much more volume and ROI than PPC. Furthermore, social media for us is now much bigger in terms of traffic generation and ROI than Yahoo! or Bing. However, natural search via Google, still dwarves them all, and then some.

But I wonder how many other sites out there are starting to realise that the ROI from SEO, in terms of volume and value, is so much better than PPC that it’s worth focusing budgets and resources entirely on SEO? And that social media can deliver better ROI than PPC while - at the same time - doing great things for brand, customer service, and, yes, SEO through link building and so on?

And, if the above is true, this might be just the slightest bit concerning for the search engines?

One of the arguments for PPC vs. SEO has always been that PPC is ‘faster’ and has ‘guaranteed results’. You can use it tactically, and reactively, in a way that it is very hard to do with SEO. However, I wonder, now that Twitter et al are being integrated into the main search results, and with Social Search, whether, in fact, you can use ‘social media’ in order to do things very quickly and get them into the search engines via ‘social’? And, if so, whether the search engines once again are doing themselves out of paid search revenues in the long term?

It has already happened to us but I wonder whether others will think the same way: that ‘social media’ not only delivers on the SEO front, lessening the need for PPC, but actually is also the Trojan horse into the search results that allows you to communicate very quickly and effectively, further minimising the need for PPC?

With personalised search, social search and 'real-time web' integration it’s all about your network and your ability to communicate with it. That might be a brand network, a professional network, a social network. Google search will become a 'lens' or window for information discovery which has your social graph or brand network filter applied to it; a platform for you to communicate with your customers, and for them to communicate with each other.

I’m sure the idea is that these advancements will allow Google to target paid search ads even better. But I do wonder, if you’re good at this networking and communication, if you’re good at engagement and customer service, if you’re customers actually like you a little bit, then what will be the need for PPC?

Arguably individuals, via the likes of Facebook and personal connections and networks, have already ‘disaggregated’ Google. Maybe brands can do something similar using social media as the Trojan horse into Google’s main search results? Take all of the gain with none of the PPC cost? Invest in the brand, in customer service, in content, in social media and not at all in PPC?

Might this be why Google is looking at using Gmail to challenge Facebook? When push comes to shove, perhaps the Big G doesn’t want stuff in its SERPs that it doesn’t control or own in terms of social media?

What do you think?

[Image by Alaskan Dude via Flickr, various rights reserved]

Ashley Friedlein

Published 9 February, 2010 by Ashley Friedlein @ Econsultancy

Ashley Friedlein is Founder of Econsultancy and President of Centaur Marketing. Follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Wessel van Rensburg

We have found much the same, that social media brings us more traffic than PPC, but organic search dwarfs both.

As for ROI though, social media (blog posts, twitter) take up some time. Have you calculated the cost of this?

over 6 years ago

Tatiana Likhacheva

Tatiana Likhacheva, SEO Account Manager at Greenlight

Great post, the most importantly is that as we are just realising that yes there is an alternative to PPC, Google is already getting into that market as you pointed out with Gmail. And as Google Chrome is being pushed with mainstream advertising and add-on just came out for this browser to have Gmail info on top. There is no surprise Google wants to cover all aspects of our online life. Natural growth of any company is to go sideways if vertically and geographically they already have everything.

over 6 years ago

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Ellen Naylor

I come at this from another angle, which I believe is complementary to what you're saying. I am a researcher and I like using social networks.

However, my clients are always in a big hurry. Using a paid service at the outset of a project saves a LOT of time! For example, in a recent project using social networks would have been a huge waste of time. Whereas in another project, my "paid for service" led me right to some great resources on LinkedIn, which probably saved me 10 - 20 hours on a putting a company profile together. 

As a previously stated, it does take time to build up a social networking presence, and also to keep it up! You definitely need to factor that into the equation. The social networks keep evolving so you also need to decide which ones to keep up, to drop, and which ones are worth joining. All this takes a lot more time than I had originally estimated.

Best,

Ellen Naylor

over 6 years ago

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Mark Clayson

Having read your post, I have concluded that all the efforts we make they cannot be in vain.

over 6 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

An interesting article and I think most people will agree that search is becoming more complex. Perhaps it is difficult to consider the pro's and con's of different content discovery methods without also considering the context and the nature of the users requirement?

I would suggest that different technologies (PPC / Organic / Social) offer different value depending upon the type of content that is being sought, the time criticality of the search and also the subjectiveness around the definition of quality in the discovered data. But all of this MUST be evaluated from the end users perspective (the poor person trying to do the search) rather than the organisation that is desperate to be found. 

With the increasing popularity of App Stores, emergence of TV widget stores and Internet / Cloud based data being stored independently of an HTML wrapper, I would suggest that search is set to become significantly more complex in the near future. I also wonder if there will be an opportunity for a new more impartial search brand to emerge?

over 6 years ago

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farouk

another thing to think about, what if facebook created its own search engine???

over 6 years ago

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Greg Pipe

Social sites such as Twitter are great tools for SEM. The amount of traffic gained using Twitter is immense and can easily be tracked using analytics - so when used right and to the best potential, sure it can replace PPC as a cheaper option.

over 6 years ago

Tatiana Likhacheva

Tatiana Likhacheva, SEO Account Manager at Greenlight

In reply to the farouk, I think the new facebook layout is going towards it with the prominant central location of the search section, and I did read somewhere (please point out if someone knows the source) that facebook is going towards the search engine feature on the page.

over 6 years ago

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Stephen Iacullo

Why not social media PPC? Yep. Social media PPC. Some companies just don't have the bandwidth for social media, and that is why it doesn't work. How many Facebook pages, Twitter streams and blogs go dead or fail for businesses--even MAJOR corporations have their streams go dead. At WebPartner (webpartner.com) we have created a process where we help create a Twitter community that corresponds to a company’s desired demographics using a set of data points and qualifiers (no auto-following etc.). We then engage that audience with relevant content on behalf of the company. The content has trackable URLs (think bitly for example). We use a PPC model and charge based on how many link clicks we get for our customers. It works brilliantly and customers really love it as we can build (or add to) their Twitter presence and they only pay based on clicks (or our performance). Thanks Stephen Iacullo VP Sales and Marketing WebPartner

over 6 years ago

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richard cook

What has happened to your traffic?

http://trends.google.com/websites?q=econsultancy.com&geo=all&date=ytd&sort=0

over 6 years ago

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Sri Sharma

Interesting post. In terms of actions for online businesses, it's foremost all about adding value for their user , just as google is trying to do. as part of that online businesses remembering to spread your eggs across many baskets from PPC, SEO, Social...

For a transactioning 'shopping' website over a subscription site such as Econsultancy, whilst Social Media will be very important (and is), the direct response benefits of PPC cannot be forgotten particularly when the searcher has purchasing on his mind.

Lets also remember that PPC results are above the natural (results of SEO/social/personalised...) ones.  Also note the extra features like sitelinks to pull more eyes and clicks to PPC traffic. 

Google Buzz and even their promo video for me hints that they feel like they are in catchup mode and that they wish they could have had the opportunity to buy Twitter.

over 6 years ago

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Andy Betts

Great post.  I think it is a threat to paid search. However, a threat not necessarily to budgets, a threat to agencies and advertisers who do not have an integrated approach to online marketing. One of many reasons why social media has grown is due to developments in technology for its distribution. SEO is one of those tools, and as Econusltancy reports, has taken budget away from PPC in many sectors. PPC will 'naturally' come under scrutiny.

I would expect PPC budgets to put under the microscope a little. The challenge to agencies and advertisers is to ensure they fully understand its role in the purchase cycle and the true value of each PPC click. With advancements in analytical and cross channel attribution platforms this assessment is more readily available. The savvy client will want to know how to measure and attribute spend across all its online channels – Display, Affiliate, Email, PPC, SEO, and Social Media. PPC still has a large part to play. However, cross channel attribution and measurement will allow advertisers to have complete control and confidence that their whole ad-spend budget is being attributed, measured and tracked to optimal ROI.

over 6 years ago

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Ian Hendry

Great post and a fascinating discussion.

In the days before Google if we wanted to know who we should be using to print our brochures or erect our TV aerial we'd look in Yellow Pages or, better still, ask someone for a recommendation.  Then Google came along to replace Yellow Pages and we kind of stopped ask people for recommendations quite as much.

The Social Web makes it easy for us to do that again but to the power of hundreds.  I believe the average Twitter user has 300 followers; that's a network of 300 people who will happily tell you who to go to for exhibition stands or green electricity or whatever else.  OK, it odesn't produce the 1.2 million responses of Google but you only need one strong recommendation of one company to consider placing the business that way.

And here is the potential for companies: scanning the 38 million tweets each day to see who is requesting help around what their company does.  It could be a "I need a..." or a request for a recommendation, but it's someone with a need who is requesting contact.  It's a sales persons dream!

Read my Econsultancy Q&A for more on how to find those leads at http://econsultancy.com/blog/5408-q-a-ian-hendry-of-wecando-biz-on-social-media-and-lead-generation.

Ian Hendry
CEO, WeCanDo.BIZ
http://www.wecando.biz

over 6 years ago

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Alex Avery - SEO, PPC, Analytics Consultant

Let's consider segmenting the tasks required to address social marketing and paid search - they are completely different. Loosely:

PPC provides:

Requires a specific set of expertise, provides immediate and flexible message/offer delivery, targeted to consumers who have a product/service/brand/problem front of mind, can be budgeted/ROI etc.

Social Media provides:

Requires a broad and (often) segmented set of skills: PR, customer service, blogging etc, provides dynamic/conversational, viral and (often) uncontrolled message/offer delivery, customer targeting varies greatly from "praching to the converted" to "tilting at windmills", is virtually impossible to budget/ROI, as success of a campaign can make it unmanageable and automated Social Media can result in negative feedback.

Let's be clear - both come at a cost. However, they are mutually exclusive practises that can be independently or mutually used to excellent effect.

Social Media will only impact PPC in the dreams of a few misguided "strategists" and PR types who don't get Search and feel more comfortable flogging Facebook Connect set ups and Twitter "campaigns".

Fortunately, experienced online marketing managers with a diverse set of experience and requirements would never do anything so silly. PPC is a proven model

over 6 years ago

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Robert Faulkner - SEO Consultant

Surely it depends on what type of traffic is delivering an effective ROI and this will depend on the sort of site you have?  E-consultancy lends itself to social media as it's discursive and you might happen upon it via any sort of channel that is on topic, and this may or may not lead into someone taking out a paid membership but mostly I guess it's just people reading the info.  But if you run an e-commerce site you need to be more certain that that traffic converts into a sale and PPC and natural search, whilst expensive, is probably more effective at delivering conversions. 

over 6 years ago

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