The rise of social search within APPS: The benefits and the threats

There are a few trends I am keeping my eye on in 2017, and one of them is the rise of social search. “Social search” is when users search for discovery of content WITHIN the application they are in, usually on a mobile phone, rather then using a browser based internet Google search, outside any app. While the trend is not yet huge, it is growing in certain markets and with some demographic groups. It’s a shift that could significantly impact some businesses and the power of the traditional anchor website.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn and Twitter have a vested interest in keeping users within their feed, where they can control measurement and metrics and serve up audiences and content for their paying advertising customers. It makes good business sense for them to lesson the likelihood that consumers will hit links and search outside the platform.

The notion of social search is a phenomena popularized in China, on a platform called We Chat. Due to government restrictions which prohibit Facebook and Twitter in the market, platforms have emerged which are market specific there, and without competition from the west, have adapted innovative models. We Chat’s significant difference is allowing apps within their app – basically created a channel where users never have cause to leave as they share photos and updates, text, do their banking, purchase from stores, book travel, take courses etc, all within the We Chat ecosystem.

You’d be kidding yourself if you didn’t think Facebook had taken notice of the power that exists for We Chat in this model. Politics aside, this is likely the time to freely disclose my distaste and fear of any one company or government controlling largely the platform where people spend the majority of their online time. However, knowledge is power, and understanding trends and the shifts at play is important for business, and frankly democracy. But I said I wasn’t going to play politics! On with the trend data…

According to Global Web Index recent 2017 research, here is the percent of online search via mobile apps currently taking place:

Globally: 23%
Male: 26%
Female: 19%
16-24 years: 28%
25-34 years: 28%
35-44 years: 21%
45-54 years: 13%
55-64 years: 8%
Asia Pacific: 29%
Europe: 12%
North America: 13%
Middle East/Africa: 27%
Latin America: 19%

In addition, 98% of online consumers 16-64 years globally report having used or visited a social network in the last month. Digital consumers have on average 8 accounts, a number which has doubled since 2012. And Facebook is the top network globally with 84% of those online using it. However, Youtube leads for visitors and users at 87%.

As we can see, Asia Pacific and Middle East/Africa geographic markets are the most impacted by social search, likely due to market conditions and the use of platforms that dominate this way, as well as the overall high use of the mobile internet versus desktop or laptop. But it’s the overall emergence within the 16-34 year old age group that serves as the alert. I’ve witnessed it in my own home with teens, and with university students I teach. When they search content within an app, they get information results combined with friends opinions. It can be a very personalized result.

How does this trend offer an opportunity?

  • By using platform tools to publish content straight to social, you can boost social discovery significantly for your business. Facebook Instant Articles is one example. Snapchat and Instagram also have features encouraging this and favouring content search in their feeds. LinkedIn authorship, where you write an article and publish directly, rather then just sharing an update, is another good example of publishing direct to a platform with content. Facebook has gone one step further enabling bloggers on WordPress sites to use an app, once they have Instant Articles set up through their Facebook Page, to automatically link and publish the same content direct to the Facebook feed. The key with these features is that the platforms have made the viewing of that content optimized for mobile viewing – quick to load and with visual features making it appealing within a mobile news feed.
  • At this stage, at least in North America and Europe, you can be a relative early adopter, and have your content stand out in search as a result.
  • If you’re willing to monetize that content in the pay to play model, you can further dominate search results. Some media outlets used this to their advantage during the recent US election, but again I degress…

How does this trend become a threat?

  • Will lead to an overall decline of traditional websites, and the ability to own the customer on your own platform.
  • Will shift the strategy from always driving traffic back to the website, to putting more content on social (to aid in search and discovery) as people search within channels on mobile.
  • By directly linking your WordPress blog content via an app to Facebook Instant Articles you are achieving an easy flow of searchable content, but also limiting the attraction of readers to you blog where you can collect permission based email information as well as engage them directly in the sale of your offerings.
  • Will lead to increased dependence on searchable content within platforms, and the need to create it there, for your target audience to be able to influence them.
  • Will lead to increased dependence on pay to play targeting within platforms, as businesses become more and more dependent on the audience that can only be reached there.

My advice:

  • Evaluate how the geographic and age trends align with your target audience. This trend may be of concern, or it may be little to worry about at this stage. It really depends on your business. However, knowledge is key. Knowing it is emerging is important in planning for the future
  • For now, if your target is younger, I would suggest developing a more balanced approach of publishing both to your owned platforms (website, enewsletter, blog) but also within the publishing options of only the most relevant platforms for your audience. Basically show up in social search, but maintain a robust presence on your owned properties, and continue to enable channels to connect with customers directly, where you own the content and metrics. That is still where the majority of traffic will find you, and you have so much more control, and ability to monetize directly from your owned platforms.
  • Begin to strategize in the long term for what search might look like when all internet browsing is on the mobile internet, and 1-2 social media platforms dominate as ecosystems where more then 50% or searches are made. We’re certainly not there yet, but it’s worth thinking about how to respond to that environment before it happens.

For social search to really take off and dominate, it would mean the toppling of Google as a significant player, and the emergence of a platform such as Facebook in a dominant position for mobile. I don’t think Google is going anywhere, so I think this trend has some limits. However, I do think it warrants consideration, especially for companies with target audiences where there has been significant uptake already. I’d love to hear what you think about this. Leave a comment below and let’s start the conversation!

Mary Charleson

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