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Social is the new search

Nic Newman

is lead author, Reuters Institute Digital News Report

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As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg suggests, this is the year when social stops being an experiment and starts becoming core to everything we do online.

For consumers, this means we'll be bringing our friends with us into our websites and mobile applications, to our browsers and desktops (as social browsers like RockMelt are starting to demonstrate), and we'll be sharing our experiences in more places than ever before. What others recommend, the reviews we read, what our friends do will increasingly drive our behaviour. 

For publishers, it means abandoning the standalone 'social media unit' - the New York Times has re-integrated its own with the main newsroom - and ensuring that all staff members understand the importance of these trends. For news organisations, we'll see a shift from searchable news to social and shareable news, as social media referrals close the gap on search traffic for many.

These trends will also finally provide a business model for social websites like Facebook, which is collecting a huge amount of data for 500 million people and is increasingly able to slice and dice that for commercial advantage (helping a possible IPO). The data got infinitely richer last year with the implementation of its 'like' feature across thousands of websites, where users click a button to express interest in a piece of content.

Facebook will understand both our social connections (Social Graph) and our interests (Interest Graph), providing the holy grail of targeted advertising.

This could become the basis for a powerful social search engine - ranking web pages by likes rather than links. The data could also be used to drive a new social ad network, more targeted and valuable than Google's keyword-based advertising.

Twitter has been developing commercial models along similar lines. With more users signing up with real names (82%) and locations, the company has been able to leverage this data with an analytics beta for commercial customers and brands and has been selling sponsored hashtags for up to $100,000 a pop. Advertisers will be able to target messages by interest and topic, but not (yet) by individual user.

We'll see the continuation of the trend where companies pay highly connected celebrities a fee to endorse their products. Meanwhile LinkedIn is focusing efforts on premium services for sharing business information and on developing company pages to promote services to other professionals.

Google has been much criticised for failing to understand or embrace social, but, after last year's embarrassments with Buzz and Google Wave, it is set to try again with Google Me (or similar name) soon. Instead of tackling Facebook head-on, Google spent much of last year acquiring social gaming companies like Zynga and Slide, the virtual currency site Jambool and some social search products too.

Google is likely to overlay these features over its existing products rather than create something separate. YouTube is one service that is set for a facelift, with social features opening up new recommendation options such as notifying users when a video is being watched by friends in their network.

The Google/Facebook - or search/social - power struggle for approach, influence and advertising dollars looks set to be one of the defining battles of the next few years.

There'll be no out-and-out winner this year but the race is getting tighter (as illustrated by the chart from Alexa below). Facebook remains on the up.

Nic Newman is a journalist and digital strategist who was a founding member of the BBC News website, led international coverage as World Editor and was Future Media controller for Journalism. He is a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and works with media and technology companies on mobile strategies, social media and convergence. 

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