The clash of search and social networking titans

Sites like Facebook are attracting lots of attention, making search engine optimization more difficult

Social media sites like Facebook are changing the game in the Internet search space, attracting large audiences and search activities and encroaching on search engine turf, panelists stressed during a technical conference Tuesday. But SEO (search engine optimization) remains very much alive, they added.

The clash between social media and search engines was a highlight of a panel session entitled "Search: Where to Next?" covering the future of search at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose, Calif. Responding to the question of whether social media has caused SEO to be dead on arrival, panelist Eli Goodman, search evangelist at market intelligence provider comScore, noted the popularity of social sites like Facebook and Twitter but stressed that he did not believe SEO was dead.

[ Last month, Microsoft and Yahoo made major waves by signing a search deal. ]

"I believe that what's happening here is that maybe it's the way that we define it," and determining what is relevant, Goodman said.

In addition to the major core search engines, there are more than 3 billion searches per month on YouTube in the United States and more than a billion searches monthly on Facebook, Goodman added. "[What] you have to remember is that the places where people are comfortable in getting relevant results is spreading out," he said. Searchers are setting the tone for relevant searches, said Goodman.

SEO is not dead, and companies need to make sure content is optimizing to show relevant results, said Heather Dougherty, research director at Web analysis firm HitWise. "These social networks make it a little more difficult, maybe," she said. "They optimize very quickly in terms of results. That doesn't mean [the results] are relevant."

A music label, for example, would be interested in searches on YouTube, she said. MySpace, meanwhile, focuses on searches for people, while LinkedIn is about business searches, Dougherty added. "The actual content that's happening on each of the social networks is very, very different in terms of the searches that are happening," she said.

Panelists also emphasized other trends in search, including LUI (language user interface), which features voice recognition and an animated personality maintaining a dialog with searchers. "Imagine going from a GUI to a LUI environment, where it's much more efficient to have a conversation with a simulated personality" that anticipates user desires, said panelist Stephan Spencer, founder and president of Netconcepts, which provides search consulting.

"You don't need to be plugging away on a keyboard," he said.

Microsoft's Pavan Li, a research manager, emphasized searching from mobile devices. "Actually, mobile for search is a very important part of mobile search strategy," she said.

"Our focus is to help advertisers help you understand the value of mobile search," she said.

Semantic capabilities for search are on the radar screen, said Carla Borsoi, vice president of research and analytics at Ask.com. Semantics will help marketers understand user intent, she said.

Panelists also pondered personalization as part of the search equation. Personalization enables tailoring of results and may be good for consumers but perhaps not for marketers because it could prevent a paid ad from showing up, Dougherty said.

Search will continue to grow as a branding vehicle, according to Goodman. The Kraft Foods Web site, for example, is almost exclusively for branding because users do not buy Kraft macaroni and cheese off of the Web site, he said.

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