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SEO is Dead. Enter Social Search.

Let’s start with the basics of SEO.   A search engine ranks for content relevance with traits like comprehensiveness, freshness and ease of use. It then serves up content based on a digital algorithm that is tested and refined by user interaction. Often, however, basic search is only a crude indicator of intent.  It’s designed by the masses, and therefore it’s often wrong.

Enter the new wave of intent modeling. The next generation of search will be informed by social—sometimes referred to as social search. In other words, search engines will increasingly be driven by personal interaction such as voting, ranking, and commenting in order to better understand the intent of the reader. This social layer will add a new, personalized dimension to search results.

Social search is amplified by the fact that social content is on the rise.  People are creating content as fast as they are consuming it.  I first noticed this phenomenon a few years back while shopping for a Halloween costume. The leading organic search result was a Pinterest page. “Wow,” I thought, “How have brands missed this opportunity?  Why didn’t Target or the Halloween Store do a better job finding the algorithm to pop into my reader?

The fact is, it’s getting harder and harder for brands to compete with the power of the personal network. According to Search Marketing Land, a significant ratio of the top 100 results for more queries is consumer-generated media such as blogs and social networks. This is why social media is so important to brands.  If you’re still focusing on outbound communications and search engine optimization without building a groundswell of social content, you’re likely losing in the war for online eyeballs.

So add social search to your kit of SEO and paid search. Building influencers, online communities, and social at scale is the new search.   Forward thinking marketers are beginning to use social search to understand the social behavior of their clients and acting on it. 

If social search is discovery, traditional search is the validation of that discovery. Brands are using social data to understand consumer intent and pushing out relevant data to consumers—before they even know they’re interested—by using sophisticated purchase intent models.

So tell me Google, what might I be interested in? No hints this time around. Or perhaps this is one for Watson?

14 Responses

  1. Hans Lak says:

    Great food for thought Tami now tell us how @IBMwtson will enter our Smartphones to start combining all out social data and find out what we might be interested in?  How can we use Watson to find the right answers without asking the right questions?  Building @smarterplanet starts with AI Cognitive computing will CHANGE THE WORLD!

    Your president of research at #IBM told me last year that in 2015 our smartphones would be using Watson to find answers but how…. Its not enough to have the technology…

    Social media are the key to behavioral change it would be great if YOU could explain how IBM will help the world finding the right answers!  IBM Watson can give better answers because IBM Watson will ask the right questions…But how do we ask Watson from our Android Smartphones or I Phones?  New Watson Apps?  New Social search projects powered by IBM?

    • Thanks Hans!  There are many exciting projects being driven from our research scientists around the promise of Watson. They range from  providing custom websites to helping doctors predict personalized medical treatements. I’m being tongue and cheek in my suggestion that Watson will overtake Google as a search engine technology but I know the scientists are working hard on many innovations supported by the power of cognitive computing. I’m staying tuned!:)

  2. Great topic, Tami!  It would be great to hear who you think is doing this really well.

    • Thanks Andrea!   A good consumer example is Starbucks.  If you type  “coffee” into a search engine, you’ll likely you’ll see Yelp, Urban Spoon, personal blogs top your search results.  This is the result of their mass use of social influence.    For a B2B example, companies like IBM are encouraging employees to become advocates and hosting 1,000s of individual blogs to increase share of voice.  Many companies are using this same strategy to drive organic search results on particular topics of interest that align to their brand promise!

  3. Great article Tami, we've been talking about the distinction between "searching the social Web" and a "social form of Web search". While including social results is often very useful, especially for the likes of finding a place to eat/stay, we feel there's a much larger opportunity for search itself to be made inherently more collaborative, so when I type a query I see the search results that people like me have found interesting, not just the pages they have seen fit to post on social media.

    To use your example below, I might see the end result of your search for a Hallowe'en costume if you post a photo to Facebook or Twitter, but when searching for my own inspiration I might also like to see where you found yours. 

    Interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  4. Ariana_S says:

    Hi Tami, thanks for the insight =)

    However I think SEO is thus for this reason more alive than ever since it evolves and contains way more factors than in the past. It is not dead; It only gets more and more complex to correcly perform it. Also Google algortihm 'the smart kid' gets trickier and somehow performs higher ability in differentiating bad SEO practices from right ones. Since we all know, to do the 'right' SEO is to establish an optimal web structure, better user experience, create relevant, unique and interesting contents and share them appropiately through different channels (like what you mentioned here: build influencers, online communities etc)…We measure all to be able to increase ROI and to optiomize Conversion rates thanks to the data extracted and analyzed.

    Just some thoughts of mine 🙂

  5. ^Definitely have to agree with Ariana on some key points. I wouldn't necessarily say SEO is dead, it's just in the midst of its biggest transformation. Where relevance was once very much tied to technical components and keyword usage, it is now about context and the digital equivalent to "word of mouth," i.e. social media. 

    The fact that this shift is happening so rapidly lends a lot to rewarding the brands that have real value to offer and punishing those that shove as many keywords into a paragraph as possible. It's a nice change, and I'm really excited to see where it takes us. For marketers, I think it's high-time to put the rubber to the road and create something that's actually worth a user's time (not just constant attempts to "beat" the algorithm).

    Great post, Tami. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Very interesting and relevant. I was just having a conversation in my own family den with friends last night during commercials. My husband, who as a marketer pays attention to ads, while I totally turn off and while it looks like I watch it, I actually do not absorb any of it. My husband was so curious how I pay zero attention to ads – and what an awful marketing target I am – and we got into conversation how this mass, not personalized advertising is so impersonal to me (even though it is targeted by audience based on the show) – and I don't trust the brands at all. I do however trust influencers and peers, and certain thought leaders in specific areas – mostly in the social world – so very very personalized and "word of mouth". If it is not informed by social, it lost relevance to me – thanks for sharing !

  7. Dr Sepe Sehati says:

    Great as it is   – the Google Search algorithm pales into insignificance when compared with the kind of analysis Watson is capable of carrying out.

    Great as it is – IBM can at times be that amazingly powerful thinking machine and technology that finds it difficult to find the “right home” amongst the masses.

    Were they to be countries, it would be tempting to compare Google and IBM to the USA & UK respectively. One, amongst other things tremendously good at packaging, marketing and monetizing (sometimes the most basic of stuff – think a piece of meat and bread – McDonald’s) and the other tremendously good at detailed fundamental research and giving her inventions away to the world – sometimes for free (think the Internet)  – without necessarily maximising her own gain, growth and sustainability.

    The world needs and benefits from both these approaches. But I believe were IBM to adopt creative strategies such as using at least one of her divisions to act more as an independent start up, in every sense of the word, we would in no time begin to see more IBM technologies and gadgets in the homes and hands of the masses around the globe.  

    Now, that is one sure way to a “Smarter Planet” and not too demanding for a company who’s 1914 motto was THINK. This was interestingly coined by another Watson – this time the chairman and CEO of IBM, Thomas J. Watson.

    Sepe Sehati

    • While in general your argument is sound, comparing McDonalds to the internet is a bit of a stretch. And just as Watson might be the "better" search engine, we all know that better doesn't always win in the hearts and minds of those that matter most; the users (formerly known as consumers). We can learn from the past…just look at what videotape battle between Betamax and VHS. Betamax was by far the technically superior product but it went the way of the dinosaurs.

      That said, I think IBM needs to think more like a B2C company and less like a B2B company because, as Tami stated, today the power lies in the hands of the people. The business that creates a culture of recognizing and nurturing every individuals contribution will be the one that leads. Right now that's Google.

  8. Troy Herrera says:


    So true! I shared this post with three others who I thougth that they have to read this! Social search will become much more powerful than SEO as the technologies improve. So will "social scoreing" for marketing automation as well as propensity modeling based upon social profiles. Brands that can adjust and adopt this will certainly have a marketing advantage.

  9. Great article and I agree 100%; search is changing and you need to adapt quickly as a company.  Have you ever asked Siri "what are people saying about digital signage" what are people saying about womens heart issues", etc. Siri immediately searches twitter for relevant conversations taking place right now.  I use this feature everyday as a company driving conversation reach to our customers everyday. Social content is definitely on the rise!

  10. As the head of search marketing for IBM, I think search's death has been greatly exagerrated. We use search data to discover the most important topics for our target audiences. Given our limited resources, we can't afford to create net new content for all 179,000 people who visit our site every day. Search data helps us prioritize our content creation efforts to maximize our return on those investments, especially at the top of the funnel, for prospects who don't yet know enough about what we do or what we are about to trust us. If we give them the content that meets their needs, solves their problems and answers their questions, we can begin building trust with them.

    Once they trust us, we can begin marketing to them more directly. This is where social signals come in, to help us narrow the content we dilver to individuals. In this way, search and social work together: Search fills the funnel, social helps us nurture the prospects we attract through search. They are complementary tactics.

    This is the topic of my talk At Social Media Strategies in New York in two weeks:

  11. […] This post originally appeared on Digital Age of Marketing. […]

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