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]