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This week website traffic analysts Experian Hitwise released a report which claimed that for the first time that social networks had attracted more traffic than search engines. The company reported that in May 2010 11.3% of the UK Internet traffic were visits to search engines, compared with 11.9% which was to social networking sites. By social networks Experian Hitwise includes Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and previous market leaders MySpace and Bebo. In some respects Experian Hitwise may actually be understating the amount of traffic that social networking sites receive as a significant minority of traffic to Twitter is not via its website but through third part applications such as Tweetdeck and Seesmic which work on both PCs and smartphones.
Experian Hitwise's research also highlighted the huge influence of Facebook which apparently accounts for 55% of all social networking traffic in the UK. Traffic to Facebook is almost three times higher than its nearest social networking rival, YouTube.
So should we surprised at the growth of social networking sites? Probably not. There are several reasons why they have massively increased their traffic over the last eighth teen months.
1. Social networking has become an important form of communication - Direct messages on Twitter and Facebook updates are now the primary source of online communication for many web users, more so than email or Instant Messaging. The constant exchange of messages keeps social networking users continually going to and fro from their accounts.
2. Gaming on social networks has massively increased - A month or so ago we ran a feature on Farmville, which explained how it has become the most played online game in the world. Up until recently Farmville had only been available via Facebook. There's little doubt that the way the game has consumed Facebook users has lead to a huge jump in their personal page impressions.
3. Significant growth of content on YouTube and Twitter - While Facebook has undoubtedly been the main engine that has driven social networking growth Twitter and YouTube have played their part too. Twitter has attracted millions of new followers in the last twelve months and is starting to mature as platform. Meanwhile many TV companies are using YouTube to host their content. This, along with the ever increasing amount of user generated content ignited by the number of video phones and cameras like the Flip, has been responsible for the site's continuing popularity.
4. Content recommendation is becoming as important as search - One more subtle change is that people appear to be accessing and searching for content in a slightly different way. Whereas in the past web users tended to search for content via sites like Google and Bing many will look at content that has been recommended to them by friends and colleagues on social networking sites.
So how should brands react?
Up until very recently most brands had focused on search and in particular systems like Google Adwords as their man method of driving traffic to their websites. Now it is becoming clear that social media is providing them with an alternative. Experian's research director Robin Goad believes that 'Many marketers and brand owners have yet to grasp the full potential of social media marketing, but spending on the channel will increase as more proven success stories emerge. There will be particular opportunities for sectors that have traditionally struggled with online and remained tied to traditional media, such as FMCG and automotive.'
For customer publishing companies this presents an interesting problem. Companies have in the past often bought search terms via Adwords to drive traffic to their client sites. This is undoubtedly still hugely important. However it may now makes sense for customer publishing companies to create Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for their clients to promote that content (if they are not doing it already). Secondly they may find that placing an ad on Facebook, especially if it links to a Facebook page, is a more effective way of targeting users than using paid for search terms.
For the foreseeable future search engines will continue to play a huge role in helping consumers find content, however it is clear that brands need to think about social networking strategy alongside their search strategy when working out ways to promote their web content.
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