The battle for social search is on, and no-one’s winning
There’s one area of social media that no-one seems to have really cracked yet, between either the search engines or the social networks themselves : social search. This is a hugely valuable area in the evolution of social media as it is the most valuable aspect that will determine how all this content we’re creating is being found. And while specialist search engines pop-up that focus purely on real-time or social search, these are often quite underwhelming and seem to serve a relatively niche audience. At the moment no-one is ‘owning’ social search, as it sits directly in between the sites that make content discoverable (the search engines) and the sites that facilitate this content creation (the social networks). It’s something that is going to have to be cracked soon if all this endless content is to be truly searchable and discoverable. As more and more content is produced, the need for social search gets bigger and the space is wide open for one of the big players to come along and own.
Google seemed to be getting this right, as they had 2 invaluable tools in their search functionality : Twitter results and latest search results. Latest search results mysteriously and quietly disappeared a matter of days ago. Realtime search was steadily becoming my default way to search on Google as it provided an easy way of filtering through the most up to date content, with results dynamically refreshing within the search engine results page. The exit of realtime search within Google occurred because the contract it held with Twitter to integrate tweets into search results, expired. And with the introduction of Google+ of course, Google’s plan is evidently to replace these Twitter results with g+ results, increasing its ownership in the content served. While Google’s realtime search, previously available at google.com/realtime is expected to return later this year this will be different altogether, as I’d estimate that at least 50% of the results returned within this latest search came via Twitter.
Google has, unfortunately, given up one of it’s most valuable search assets here and is taking a gamble on the fact that this dearth of content from Twitter can be filled by g+. The following statement from Google confirms that (at this point) realtime search will not focus solely on g+ results : “We’ve temporarily disabled google.com/realtime. We’re exploring how to incorporate our recently launched Google+ project into this functionality going forward, so stay tuned. Our vision is to have google.com/realtime include Google+ information along with other realtime data from a variety of sources.â€ No doubt these sources will not include Twitter, as it seems they have no interest in renewing what was sure to be an expensive contract.
Ever punching above its weight, it looks like Bing may have a unique opportunity here to come and steal a march on social search. Clearly this has been central to the search engine almost from the get-go. Early partnerships with Facebook saw Bing results appear directly in the search engine, and vice-versa they also integrated Facebook functionality within their own search results, with embedded social buttons and friends’ activity. Now they look set to take another step in social search, through an upcoming partnership with Twitter. Bing have some time here, as according to Liz Gannes, Twitter’s deal with Bing is due to last 6 months longer than the deal made with Google. This gives them time to ascertain the value of using Twitter’s live stream of results in SERPs and also quite how this can best work.
Make no mistake that if this deal goes ahead, it gives Bing a major, major advantage over Google in the arena of real-time search, as they will have the two biggest players onside, in Facebook and Twitter. When you consider that these are the 2 most dominant players in social networking, alongside Youtube, you can see why Bing could be on the edge of such a significant coup, bringing all this valuable content directly into their own search platform, using advanced algorithms to make this content discoverable and provide order to the current chaos of content created through social technologies. While the deal is still a long way off from reaching a conclusion and is by no means a sure thing at this stage, Bing’s history of partnering up with social players, suggests they will put everything into pulling this off.
Will Google’s risk pay off?
The question remains of course, as to whether Google’s risk here in abandoning Twitter will actually pay off. There’s no doubt that Google + is off to an impressive start and there’s a chance they could be making the right decision by transferring the investment with Twitter’s results into their own content platform. At the moment this looks unlikely, as Twitter shows no sign of slowing down, despite fresh competition from Google + and the release of impressive figures to coincide with their 5th birthday, such as 600,000 new users signing up the day before it’s birthday. And the company’s own stated aim to reach 1 billion users by the end of 2013 shows they’re standing tall amongst new competition. This, combined with Bing’s close relationship with Facebook shows that Google could be making the wrong decision here, by putting all their eggs into their own basket and ignoring the incumbents, who are incumbents for a reason.
The investment in their own products continues with the rumour that they plan to introduce real-time search for travel, through their $700 million acquisition of ITA software, one of the leading providers of airline travel software. Google is clearly focusing on real-time search across different areas and niches, with travel representing a hugely lucrative area for the search giant. The opportunities to integrate user-generated content from Google + are also clear here, showing that the race to own realtime/social search will be hotting up.
The landgrab is on
What remains to be seen, is whether realtime search will ultimately be owned by the social giants or the search giants. Twitter of course have recently made some significant changes to their own search functionality, including integrating photo and video results. In this way they are making their search tool more of a complete destination to discover new content. We’ve seen that Twitter is certainly growing up and standing firmly among the other players, including recent acquisitions such as BackTweets and increasing their ad offering for brands. The opportunity for social search has almost seemed like the most natural fit for Twitter, due to the level of content created and the nature of content/links shared. It has always been much more of a discovery platform, as opposed to Facebook which has been a more pure-play social platform.
Facebook’s own search function has always played a relatively small role in site usage, but they may spot an opportunity here to come out and do social/realtime search like no other and blow the competitors out of the water. Indeed, the importance of Facebook’s internal search engine is becoming more apparent, and important. Recent findings revealed by PageLever show that for larger Pages on Facebook, over 85% of internal traffic came via the search tool :
The outcome of this for brands is that optimising for Facebook search as opposed to external search is going to become more and more important. The evident value of Facebook search can be seen here, showing the opportunity the site has to improve the offering further, syndicating and displaying content across the social sphere, as opposed to Facebook’s own native products.
The value in social search is clear. The one that figures this out is also the one that gets to monetise it. By properly indexing and archiving social content in realtime, the opportunity also arises to offer new ad formats that allows either the search engine/social network to discover new ways of generating revenue through other people’s content. Google cracked this first with traditional search through Adwords, and now the market is ripe for a brand new advertising model that both advertisers want and users can benefit from. Advertisers are increasingly interested in new forms of social ads that allow them to target their consumers in real-time with ever more relevant content and information. When it’s cracked, social search stands to be the most lucrative area of social media, hence the race is on to be the first to really get this right.