Should search engines be nervous about social networks?

This might be a rather controversial question to be asked by someone who works for an agency that offers search engine optimisation, but I think it’s one that needs thinking about.

"My name’s Rebecca Wheeler and I’m a Twitterholic”

I’ve never been able to resist the lure of social networks. I’ve always used one social networking site or another (rarely one exclusively) and I’ve been thinking about how I use them – and whether this has changed as significantly as I think it has.

Weighing up the benefits

Where I’d once used social networks to share interesting titbits, keep in touch with long distance friends and stay connected with old colleagues, I’ve been using them more and more to find answers to my questions.

Perhaps it’s the influence of my new iPhone, but getting a response from a social network is now incredibly fast. You no longer have to wait until your friends are in front of a Mac or PC to receive @ replies, direct messages and wall posts. We’re all truly mobile now – and better connected than ever.

So, rather than get Google to find something for me, I often find it easier, more fun and much quicker to ask my friends and followers. Because they know me better than Google does (sorry, Big G), they understand exactly what I’m asking for, even if I haven’t expressed my request particularly clearly.

Valuable advice

I’m not suggesting that social networks could give me all of the answers that the search engines can – after all, I’m addressing a distinct set of people and resources. But I do think search engines could learn a thing or two from the way people interact and share information across the various social platforms.

My friends and followers deliver the added bonuses of advice, opinion and recommendation, for instance – whether I’ve asked for them or not. This isn’t a completely alien concept to search engines. We are now offered integrated user ratings and reviews when searching for products, and they’ve sometimes had enough of impact to determine whether or not I bought them.

But do I really listen to the advice of strangers as seriously as I take on board the opinions of my friends?

To Google or not to Google?

So, while I’ll continue to use Google to find information and gain knowledge that my friends might not be able to impart, I’m relying on Twitter and Facebook for responses to my sometimes muddled questions – and to tell me which new apps I should try out this weekend.