Marketers keep your eye on buzz about social search

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Google recently announced the creation of a universal search model that will ultimately search across all its content sources and deliver a single, integrated set of search results. Among those sources are video, images, news and books, in addition to the more traditional Web sites.

Google and other sites are relying on forms of content that are user-generated and on user-rating systems, which fall into the category of social search - a search phenomenon with significant potential for marketers who take the time to understand and leverage it effectively.

One early form of social search included sharing bookmarks - users telling others what they found useful and which sites met their needs. Going a step further, users can now rate a Web site's content and assign keywords to it.

Assigning keywords is called tagging and, together with content rating by others, it brings the concept of relevance to an entirely new dimension.

Why? Because on social search sites, marketers don't drive results - users do - and their experiences in the online and offline channels will determine how they treat products, brands and companies in the social search arena. For example, a resort Web site could be tagged for "great family vacation," based on a customer's offline experience. Or an e-commerce site could be tagged for "best deal on cameras," based on a purchaser's online experience.

When we consider social media, we think about sites such as Digg.com, Wikipedia.com, Del.icio.us, SecondLife.com and many others that allow users to define their own experience. Tools and elements employed there such as blogs, RSS, tagging, mobile, video, file sharing, chat, voice chat, e-mail and many more help facilitate the new ways to use the Web and experience a brand. Social community networks are built using the same elements, allowing the Web to become the conduit for online (and offline) brand and relationship building. As marketers, we must discover how to take advantage of Web 2.0, without alienating our customers, and prepare ourselves for this future of engagement. As we consider how to optimize customer relationships, both online and offline, we need to become educated in these new trends online.

The best way to learn the new trends in social media is to try it for yourself. Join a social community on a personal topic, network with co-workers on Linkedin.com, or create your own bookmarks on del.icio.us. Learning about the social media space first hand will help understand the best way to approach these same venues when marketing for your company.

Sites such as Del.icio.us and Digg.com provide users with social search results, and these sites are gaining popularity. Yahoo My Web allows visitors to save and tag content, too, and an older Google initiative, Google Co-Op, is already influencing search results in several categories based on subscriptions from "experts." It's evident that no one can ignore the social search trend.

User ratings and user-generated content have been popping up in various industries and probably will continue doing so. For example, TripAdvisor.com advertises more than 5 million traveler reviews of destinations.

Beyond travel, InsiderPages.com allows users to post reviews of local businesses, and Wikipedia.com provides user-generated, member-monitored content on nearly every topic imaginable.

The impact of these sites on search resides in the volume of relevant content being generated, which the search engines index. For example, Wikipedia listings are often high in the search results for given keywords and phrases, because of the volume, relevancy and freshness of its content, and the site's link structure.

So what does this all mean for marketers? The first step may be to engage in social search as a user. Go on Del.icio.us, Digg.com and Yahoo My Web.

Tag some sites with keywords, and create and share bookmarks. This is the best way to understand the social experience.

Then consider the experience and look at how consumers are rating and tagging your sites; work from the outside in to create a user experience that will be of value to customers, and that keeps ratings positive. Encourage tagging for keywords that may not be possible through natural search.

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