If tech media coverage frequency were to serve as a barometer of the relative utility of the digital channels available to marketers, one could be forgiven for concluding that search's value pales in comparison to the much-covered social media.
An analysis of "SEO" vs. "social media" coverage on the top two major tech blogs, while not the most scientific study ever done, shows that social media was covered 4x more frequently on TechCrunch and 58x more frequently on Mashable.
This matters because, as any first year poly-sci. student knows, media coverage impacts public opinion. In this case, that means impacting marketer's organizational decision-making such as budget and resource investment. And, as many a frustrated SEO practitioner knows, even if you yourself have things straight, the VP or CMO at the top of the food chain who likely controls the purse strings is often the most susceptible to the tech media's influence.
Media Saturation of Social Dominates Mindshare and Budgets
To add to the "how much" coverage factor, the "what is being said" is another variable influencing public opinion. To a certain extent, the tech media has touted social media as a magic bullet, promising it will change the very fabric of how we market online. When it comes to online retail in particular, we have been told that social will change the way people shop, presumably because recommendations from friends carry more weight than results from a search engine.
Given these dual factors putting downward pressure on public opinion, now is a good time to check in on where social should, in fact, be positioned in the marketer's toolbox.
We know that measurement of the current traffic social media drives to websites isn't a definitive indicator about its future utility. But it gives us a finger-in-the-wind check as to where social stands relative to other drivers of inbound traffic.
With that, let's look at some data.
Data: Social Drives Far Less Traffic than Search
First, from Adobe's analysis of "…billions of visits from 500 retail websites during the holiday season": only 2 percent of visits come from social, while 34 percent come from search:
And, a study from Monetate shows similar findings with social hovering at around 2 percent:
It would seem clear, therefore, that from a traffic perspective, social is driving only a small percentage of visits to retailers. A Conductor study suggested that may be in part because users overwhelmingly turn to search as a discovery platform versus social when it comes to online shopping.
People Use Search and Social Differently
Jay Taylor wrote an article on Search Engine Watch last month titled "5 Reasons SMBs Should Focus on Search, Not Social for Customer Acquisition". He made a number of good points about re-positioning social when it comes to customer acquisition.
But he must have struck one heck of a cord with one particular aspect of his observations on social because I noticed a phenomenon I had never seen before on my Twitter stream. No less than five people I follow tweeted a link to his article with the same article snippet (or close variation) preceding the link: "People use social media to, well, socialize. People use search engines when they want to find something."
Facebook and Twitter are hoping to change that, particularly when it comes to commerce (see: Facebook Graph Search and Twitter enabling instant commerce with American Express), but for now the data says that Taylor is right.
In the survey mentioned earlier, users showed that they want to use social for, well, socializing, while turning to search universally across all information retrieval scenarios:
Let's Reposition Social Where it Belongs
There's no question that social has a place in the modern marketer's toolbox, both as a brand development and customer service listening platform. But can we agree that it's time we return it, at least for now, where it rightly belongs: a place for socializing.