Will social media render search engines obsolete?

When I speak about how social media is changing expectations, I often focus on the change in information gathering and seeking. With over 1.6 million new posts a day, and 6 million twitter accounts, there is an overabundance of information available. The challenge to effective information gathering online is no longer search, it’s filter.

filtering informationWe used to solicit advice and guidance from our trusted friends, and then many of us started to turn to search engines for more information from a wider pool of resources. Now with the wealth of information indexed by the search engines, social media has seen many folks return to asking trusted associates for guidance and referrals. Couple that with all the recent declarations that twitter is starting to scoop traditional media, we have to ask: are search engines still relevant?

Now, I’m not so presumptuous to say that they are no longer useful. But are they being used differently? I had a theory: that social media was being used in very specific instances, as a complement to social media. Interested to know if this was plausible, I floated my idea by Ari Newman, Founder and President of Filtrbox.

My thought had been that people turned to social media outlets to seek out opinion, gossip, and breaking news. The focus is on immediacy or opinion rather than fact. The intent of the information seeker is reflected in the channels they use to discover the information, which has immediate implications on the information they actually find. With the glut of information out there, we are sure to find something that supports our beliefs!

It occurred to me that there may be some sort of cycle: we first hear of a topic through the rapid messaging of social media; then we seek out more information from credible sources, and lastly we return to social media to share our own thoughts and opinions. Social media channels makes it easy to discover new areas of interest, as we are bombarded with rapid messaging via RSS or twitter. The information is naturally shallow, but it may encourage someone to seek out more information if they are interested. It is more about discovery and raising awareness than really educating.

I think you can now even separate Twitter vs “social media” when monitoring buzz and trending topics. Something is going to flash up on Twitter a day before it hits TechMeme, or hours before even Huffington Post picks it up. …there is a trend where topics break or “flash” on Twitter, then gain more blog coverage, then hit online Mainstream press
-Ari Newman, Filtrbox

Ari also pointed out another subtle nuance between social media and search engine searches, related to the idea of setting up alerts or monitoring. Social media monitoring (and responding to what is discovered) is becoming increasingly recognized as a way to understand brand perception in the marketplace and deal with customer queries or complaints. Persistent queries can be configured to send out notifications when particular terms are mentioned on social media sites or services: Filtrbox, Techrigy and Radian6 are some examples of monitoring services. Generally, these sorts of alerts are restricted in relation to time: they will only return references within a given time frame. Therefore, such searches not only bring back the specific references, but also offer additional information on the current interest in the subject. Such alerts may therefore offer information on how sentiment and number of references change over time (again, with timeliness of the information being significant). This is in contrast to a more traditional search, which places more emphasis on the “authority” of the content than how recently it was published.

So while social media outlets offer us rapid access to information, and additional context around the immediate interest in a given term, it does not resolve concerns about source credibility, and the view on the information is naturally of limited duration. Just as we seek out the advice of friends or the recommendations of Google’s PageRank algorithm to help guide us in our information seeking, so too must we make the informed decision as to which information channel we use to search based on our ultimate intent.

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