Look out Google: Facebook and Twitter turn up the heat on search
In 2004 I attended PubCon, a search engine optimization (SEO) conference put on by Webmaster World. At one of the first general sessions of the show, a guy held up a small blue pill and shared how he made millions selling them by cloaking a perfectly optimized page. Cloaking is an SEO technique that is banned today by search engines and is easily detected. But, back in the day, it was like printing money.
The search engine marketing industry was worth $4.1 billion in 2004. Today, it’s worth $16.6 billion. Whether it’s organic SEO or PPC advertising, the majority of search engine marketing is focused on Google. And for good reason. Google has been the dominant player in search for about a decade.
Facebook powered search
The biggest threat to Google’s empire is Facebook. Not just because people spend more time on Facebook than all of the properties owned by Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft combined; but also because they are entering the search game. Yes you have always been able to search on Facebook, but now Facebook is serving up the web pages with Like buttons on them.
While Facebook does send twice as much traffic to news sites as Google News, that’s mostly through links in the news feed. But, Facebook search is not even in the top 5. But, people also haven’t expected to get web results from them either. In their latest redesign, Facebook moved the search box closer to the logo and de-emphasized the main navigation icons, all in an effort to put more focus on search.
Search guru Danny Sullivan is quick to point out the work in front of Facebook to deliver more relevant results by leveraging the user’s social graph. While that’s work they still have to do for web results, we know Facebook is already using that for people searches where the results are sorted based on mutual friends. It’s easy to see them applying the same logic to web results.
Likes are the new links
Google’s famed search algorithm is built off of PageRank. Early SEOers devised their search techniques from reverse engineering PageRank based on the original paper Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page wrote about while Google was still their Stanford graduate project. The whole thing boiled down to links. If you got the most links to your page, your page went to the top of the search results (serious oversimplification).
The currency for Facebook’s search appears to be Likes. While SEO tactics are largely built around link building strategies, Facebook SEO appears to be built around Like building strategies. Dennis Yu recently posted the first Facebook SEO tips I’ve seen: How To Rank #1 In Facebook Search In 60 Seconds For Any Term. His post explains the person with the most Likes for a given search result goes to the top of the results. Sound familiar? What’s crazy is just how similar the vernacular for Likes and links are because the words are nearly identical. For example, Nick O’Neill recently identified The Rise of the Like Farm, which is an evolved methodology from SEO known as link farms. In fact, the whole practice of Facebook SEO feels like a logical evolution as Google views links as inferred votes, whereas Likes are explicitly votes!
But, Facebook isn’t Google’s only problem.
Twitter: The #2 search engine in the world
While Facebook has become the most visited website in the world, Twitter search has a serious head start. Twitter is currently the second largest search engine in the world serving 19 billion searches per month (excluding API searches and syndicated results to other search engines!). Compare that with the #3 player Yahoo! who comes in at less than half with 9.4 billion. Google still has a generous lead at 88 billion, but that’s across all of their properties. Twitter search is only 2 years old.
Turns out status updates are of huge interest to people. People who aren’t even Twitter users want to know what’s going on in the Twitterverse. The Twitter threat is a bit different though. People don’t search Twitter for the same information they look for on Google. Twitter search is a threat because it blocks Google from growing into the lucrative status message market.
Status messages are really significant. David Kirkpatrick said Facebook engineers calculated that there are 10 times more words expressed via status messages than all blog posts combined. That estimate didn’t include tweets.
Prime time SEM via Facebook and Twitter
While it may take a couple of years for Facebook and Twitter search to mature to the Google level, they are both already viable traffic sources and worthy of your marketing attention. Both search algorithms are early stage, which means SEO tactics are currently easy. It won’t stay that way for long, so my recommendation is to get into the game now.