The social web has grown exponentially in the last year, and in that time, Twitter has grown from a technological frivolity to a traffic generator for many websites.

Today at Search Engine Strategies New York, panelists at the Search Marketing: Analyze This talk brought up social media referrals in relation to Google.

Is social media driving more traffic to websites than Google? No. But that doesn’t mean that SEO strategists should ignore it.

According to Brad Hill, director of AOL’s Weblogs, Inc.:

“SEO has changed and really become a behavioral issue. People still do search in the old school ways. But increasingly it’s all about community and encountering what you want to find on the web, because you have surrounded yourself with the influence and sources that are important to you.”

Jonathan Blum,
Principal at Blumsday LLC, agreed:

“I also
think there’s a hip factor. For some reason we’re not getting cool
engaged people off the general search engine. They feel more
comfortable with the ‘face to face’ medium.”

More and more people are discovering information online through recommendations from their contacts. But are those recommendations on a scale on par with Google today? No. And Erika Brown, vice president of corporate strategy at Frost & Sullivan, doesn’t see that changing any time soon.

“Google remains the
gold standard for search. It’s where you’re going to find a purchase.”

Hill thinks the search giant is already feeling pressure from social:

“If
Google weren’t
being affected, we wouldn’t see them scrambling to provide real-time
search results.”

Brown was adamant
that social will not replace traditional search online. And while Google may lose dominance in some niche areas like travel, where
consumers are more likely to find flights on sites like Kayak and Orbitz, Brown says:

“Nothing
is going to interrupt Google unless Bing and Yahoo come up with a killer
mobile marketing application.”

(But as Henry Blodget asked: “Is there
really any chance that Bing and Yahoo are going to come up with a
killer mobile marketing application?”)

The main deterrent to social media search’s utlity right now is its
disordered nature. Users value recommendations from their friends. But the real-time web is not indexed or easily searched. Says Hill:

“If I
were to go on to Twitter tonight and search for a digital
recommendation, I’d be up half the night.”

That doesn’t have to be the case. Says Hill:

“It
doesn’t work that way now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.”

And with companies from Google to Microsoft taking an interest in real-time search, the sector may be on the brink of being even more relevant to online
searching.

Whatever company is able to figure out how to plug consumers’ social graph
into their search queries will stand to gain a lot. And with its impressive record in solving search dilemmas, the company that figures it out may just end up being Google anyhow.

Image: SES