Social Media Platforms: The New Age Search Engines

Orsi Anna Toth
Head of Strategy
Social Media Platforms: The New Age Search Engines

Search behaviour, and therefore search engine optimisation (SEO), have been inching towards the brink of some major changes for some time now.

Search behaviour, and therefore search engine optimisation (SEO), have been inching towards the brink of some major changes for some time now. More impactful than any algorithm update with a cute animal name, evolving customer habits, voice-activated assistants and advances in generative AI chatbots are changing the landscape. In today’s blog, we are going to take a closer look at the role social media plays in these shifts and how you might be able to harness it to your advantage.

We cannot claim that social media will replace current search engines, but we do know that from 2024 and beyond they are likely to rise further as a place of research, inspiration and drive of shopping decisions. In 2023, an estimated 4.9 billion people used social media across the world. More than a source of entertainment, it also facilitates purchase behaviour 44% of internet users aged 16 to 64 use social media as a primary source of information when they’re researching brands. Gen Z, the generation most comfortable with technology and online life, leads this trend: according to Google’s Senior VP, Prabhakar Raghavan, almost 40% of them use TikTok and Instagram for search

While one would be safe to assume a lot of these searches involve popstars, recipes and interior design inspiration, one would also be wrong. GWI found that social media content and effects influence a surprising 71% of B2B decision-makers, with YouTube leading the way. (5 in every 10 use it when they’re considering new products and services.) YouTube, the original social video-sharing site, also paved the way in serving searchers: it has long been considered the second largest search engine, way ahead of Bing, Yahoo & co. (Incidentally, in 2022 and 2023 the world’s most googled term was ‘YouTube’, with close to 400 million searches.)

Shifting Search Patterns
In short, over the years social networks have become multifunctional hubs that offer a complete search experience, ranging from searching for specific content to exploring popular topics and discovering new content, creators or products. The social element taps into our deep need for trusted advisors. Friends and family traditionally strongly influence buying decisions: users can now share entire “how to” and “why is it great” content pieces with ease, while the algorithms subtly alter advertising and feed customisation based on human interactions. Influencers can take on this role with ease if sufficient authenticity and trust is built up. Consumers easily can and frequently do turn to them and thought leaders for suggestions when looking for goods, services, and trends in their particular domain.

Hashtags and keywords are of course widely used, but there is a strengthening element of surprise to search journeys, due to hot topics, recommended for you feeds and even ad targeting. 

Multisensory and hyperpersonalised, social search offers an almost tactile route to consumer information, easily chipping away at Google’s traditional territory. 

Multimedia & Visual Search

Visual search has been on the rise and more sophisticated AI tools and visual recognition drive increasingly satisfying visual search options too. Instagram and Pinterest are two platforms that stand out for emphasising visual discovery over standard text-based searches, but this is an area where Google is poised to gain ground back: people use Google Lens for 12 billion searches every month.

The integration of e-commerce capabilities makes search more rewarding and shopping journeys ever smoother. The distinction between socialising and shopping is blurred further by allowing users to browse, compare, and buy products immediately on the network. 

To better serve their customers' requirements, social media companies are constantly investing in improving their search features. Consolidating search relevance is one side of the equation. Artificial intelligence and machine learning improvements will serve to enhance the relevance of search results. This entails figuring out what the user intended to say, evaluating the context, and assigning a rating to the results according to engagement and authority.

Improving search functionality approached improvements from the user experience side. Advanced filters, geographical search, and autocomplete are just a few of the new capabilities that social media platforms are introducing. Users will find it easier to locate the precise information they're seeking for as a result.

Building Social Search Into Your Strategy

Changing media landscapes and user habits of course often present opportunities. The days of easy reach on social media might be over, but planning content alongside your audiences’ questions and interests plus optimising for findability will support being in front of the most relevant prospects. 

Consider the younger generation of decision-makers. As Gen Y and Z step into roles of responsibility and resourcing in the workplace, planning communication along the customer journey must take their research habits into account. Design and produce helpful and visually appealing content that supports the squiggly journey of the consideration phase.

Ensure your social content is optimised for search. Your website is not the only asset that needs to be ready for keywords and questions. Optimising titles, descriptions and where possible, hashtags and categories will help people find you, in turn, also enhancing your Google ranking and SERP. 

Find ways to integrate social into the shopping experience. While e-commerce integrations will only apply to a section of B2B enterprises, it is worth considering how social might shorten sales cycles for more complicated products too. Offering on-demand advice, turning FAQs into compelling videos and placing contact or trial requests within easy reach of your social content will make learning about your product exceedingly convenient. A potential partner that goes out of their way to make things convenient from an early stage, is often a winning one.

Does all this mean that new generations turn to social media whatever they are looking for? Is it the end of Google, Bing et al? While there are notable shifts and  interesting changes in behaviour that we can take advantage of, let’s not jump to too dramatic conclusions. In an industry always ready for the next buzzword and sensational “truth” let’s remember that “almost 40” can be anything from 30 to 39%. “Almost 40” or the even more sensational “almost half” is not an entire generation. We should be mindful of the fact that customer habits are constantly changing and yes, always be open to adapt our tactics in an agile way. But strategies are informed by longer term, deeper directions and where we find our specific target audience should always be informed by research. The way social media platforms have developed towards catering to search is a reflection of how the nature of online information consumption is evolving. There could be more challenges in store for the traditional search engine environment as social media, AI and the search engines themselves keep evolving.

What is the key take-away then? Being prepared for constant subtle changes in the digital landscape can only yield results.

Thanks for the inspiration and original draft to Malena Berchot!

Search behaviour, and therefore search engine optimisation (SEO), have been inching towards the brink of some major changes for some time now.

Orsi Anna Toth

Head of Strategy

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