Look out Google: Facebook and Twitter turn up the heat on search

by Justin Kistner on Jun 30, 2010

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.

Post Author

Justin Kistner is author of the 2013 Social Rich Media Benchmark Report and VP of Strategy at ShopIgniter, recently acquired by Mixpo. Justin has been a well-renowned leader in social marketing strategy for over ten years with leadership roles at...

  • First of all, Twitter traffic and Twitter searches are not the same. For example, Twitter has 105 million users, but 180 million unique visitors to their site. So, yes, 75% of Twitter’s updates are consumed through the API, but that is not the same as searches. I was at Chirp when they shared these stats and they were careful to make the distinction.

    Secondly, the guy who points out what they believe to be mistakes always makes the mistake they whine about in the very comment where the whining occurs. Don’t be “that” guy.

  • “Twitter search is a threat because it blocks Google from growing into the lucrative status message market.”

    Well – Google (and Microsoft and Yahoo and Jive and a few others) have access to the Twitter Firehose. So how does Twitter search “block Google?”

    Twitter has made it abundantly clear that they want to remain in control of the user experience for search and the web page. While as an analyst, data scientist and marketer I do spend time looking at Twitter data, Twitter is *not* publicly revealing the kind of information about Twitter searches that you can get from Google or Microsoft about how people use their searches.

    Twitter is working closely and carefully with *major* brands – Starbucks, DisneyPixar, Nike, Red Bull, Coca-Cola and others. So “optimization” of tweets for Twitter Search is something you're going to need to “buy” from Twitter, at least for now. The situation is much better for Facebook – Dan Zarrella of Hubspot has done a lot of Facebook research and published his results here:

    http://bit.ly/a0rV0a

  • Cory Huff

    I'll be curious to see how long it takes for Facebook to acclimate us to using their search function for the kinds of thing that we search Google for. How long before all my friends realize that they can get recommendations for good information from friends easier than sifting through a search result?

    I'm predicting 2 – 3 years before we start to see Facebook seriously compete with Google.

  • It depends on how you define “compete with Google”. If you mean “earn advertising dollars by delivering measurable results to the bottom line of sellers”, Facebook is on course full steam ahead, and there are some very real limits to how fast Google can grow, considering how much *time* people spend on Facebook and how many users there are.

    Google's a strong company, of course – they aren't going to go out of business just because Facebook is growing faster than they are. Now I do think *Amazon* is vulnerable – their technology is solid and their non-shopping businesses are strong, but once people can actually buy stuff like cameras and computers without leaving Facebook, Amazon's “social” features are going to start showing their age.

  • Readwhatyouwriteplease

    do you guys even read what you write? you claim Twitter serves 19 billion searches a month “excluding API searches”, and link to danny sullivan's article as your source, where he clearly says “Most of Twitter’s traffic isn’t happening at Twitter itself. Instead, it’s happening through API calls”

  • znmeb, Google doesn't have access to the Facebook updates, which are the ones expected to out number words on blogs 10:1.

  • Hmmm … then it's Google / Microsoft / Yahoo plus Twitter vs. Facebook if we're fighting over “searching real-time status updates”. Sounds like Twitter needs to build something like a Facebook “Like”. ;-)

    By the way, I've been playing with Buzz and Latitude on my Verizon Droid Incredible. They bend over backwards to warn you that you're disclosing your location (if you are) and make it easy for you to use the GPS for “911 only”. Given the iPhone 4 antenna hassles and privacy leaks, Microsoft nuking the Kin, the strong Android phone sales, Twitter's shakiness in “Twitter Places”, Facebook not having a disclosed location product and Foursquare just getting some funding, I think Google could take location over if they wanted to do so.

    It's going to be an interesting summer. ;-)

  • Very interesting and compelling thought on Google's potential to dominate location…

  • I believe that Facebook's traffic will continue to be via people clicking rather than searching– in the same way that TV is about flipping channels than data entry. Justin– insightful post! Ready for some more Facebook SEO tips?

  • coryhuff

    znmeb, you are one smart guy, I'll give you that.

    Facebook is, of course, well ahead of the curve in being able to deliver marketers the targeted advertising they want – every direct marketer that I know is drooling over the possibilities of the Open Graph.

    Do you really think that Amazon is vulnerable in the sense of going out of business? I don't see inside of Facebook transactions ever getting big enough to make Facebook a real retail player. They'll take a big enough chunk to make it profitable, but …

    The idea of Facebook being the branding, search, user review, and e-commerce platform strikes me as a possibility, but does anyone think that they'll be able to, in a sense, create a new World Wide Web inside their platform?

  • Not in the sense of going out of business, but the thing is, with their reviews, their forums, their recommender systems and all that, and the strength of their name, the resources that they can put up, Amazon *is* a social media marketing company. But they don't have half a billion friends and family members hanging out there – people go to Amazon, buy stuff, and leave. They party on Facebook.

    Speaking of Amazon, they bought Woot. I'm not exactly sure what that is – I went to the web site and it was a snarky sort of place and they were trying to unload iPod Nanos. ;-)

  • Amazon definitely does an amazing job integrating social tools, and all of them geared to make you buy, make you comfortable, make you think you need just one more thing. It is very smart stuff.

    “Woot is the originator of One Day, One Deal. Every midnight (central) we launch an event: one sale that lives until it sells out, or the next midnight.”

  • Just think of what the new Google.me will be capable of. You know they will fully integrate it into Android. So for the first time, your main social network (potentially) will integrate with your map (Latitude), not to mention your email, an open photo network, Youtube. It kind of has the potential to be better than Facebook or Myspace could have ever been. And hopefully be more open than Facebook.

    It will be interesting indeed.

  • I haven't seen enough hard facts about Google.me to know whether it will succeed or fail. “Transforming a brand” from one that 90 percent of the population thinks of as a search engine into one that people think of as a “social network” is tough. And I don't think it's even in Google's strategic interest to attempt to become a social network.

    Jack Welch of GE is legendary for saying, “If you can't be number one or number two in the market, get the hell out!” Can Google become number two in social? Who's number two now? Twitter?

  • Myspace is the current 2nd place by numbers, about 130-140mil last official
    count. Orkut (owned by Google and popular in Brazil and India) is number 3
    at 100mil.

    I am not sure that it would take much for them to become the 2nd place
    general purpose social network. The branding is a good point. But I think
    the Google brand is a much larger positive than a negative. Existing users
    of Google already have accounts, those are easier converts that likely
    already use Google for something else (Maps, Email, RSS, etc.) and then
    those that just know of Google as search, at least already know and trust
    the brand.

    I would say Google is the only company out there that could really bring an
    immediate threat to Facebook. Whether or not they use their Orkut community,
    they definitely have a massive built in audience. Add in the the fact that
    Google has their own hugely popular mobile operating system and that most
    people in the world will use mobile phones as their first internet connected
    device, and I like Google's chances.

    It should be fun to watch. Competition benefits the masses.