Social Networks: The New Search?


I can’t be the only person on Earth who, when I need information, heads to Good Ol’ Google (s goog) and is sometimes frustrated by the results I get. Of course, there are other research tools I can use, too — social networks being one of them. So this week, I set out to see just how effective social networks are for finding good information.

The Search

My search was for my work: I’m doing some content strategy work for a client at the moment and I’d been wondering about the latest developments in the field.

First up, I entered “content strategy” into Google, without the quotes, and got over 45 million results. The top results were an A List Apart article from 2008, then Wikipedia, then a bunch of articles on the sites of people who sell content strategy services. Interesting results that Google turned up that I didn’t find elsewhere was a Google Knol on content strategy, as well as a link to a content strategy interest group from the Society for Technical Communication. This last result, in particular, was interesting from an academic and current discipline-based perspective.

Meanwhile, a search on Twitter turned up an similarly endless list of results. There was a lot of replication and retweeting, sure, but the first page of results presented an article published that day about an approach to setting content strategy. The retweeting gave the effect of reputation — multiple retweets of the same resource created the impression that the article was a good one, and worth looking at.

That first page of results also produced a more specific A List Apart article from March of this year on the usability and strategic purpose of FAQs. The results also informed me of a content strategy meetup that I didn’t know existed and provided anecdotal information on the importance of content strategy in product and service adoption. Of course, as I scrolled through the results, they kept being updated with further relevant tweets, in real time.

As you’d expect, Delicious provided a range of handy article-based results. Where both Google and Twitter had thrown up some articles designed merely to promote agencies and businesses in the content strategy arena, Delicious seemed to have more educationally focused results. Again, the number of bookmarks for each article implied a sort of “credibility meter” rating that I found helpful.

Some of the articles were classics going way back into the annals of content strategy history (2007!). Others were current articles published in the last couple of weeks, blogs focused on content strategy, and highly regarded “news” web sites devoted entirely to the topic of content.

My Facebook search predictably turned up more results for businesses and services than it did any other type of content. Although I’d expected to be unimpressed, some of these results lead to professional blogs, articles, and other content that was intriguing and informative.

The good news for those selling their wares through social networking is that Facebook associates a name or personality with the content with far more power than any of the other networks I’d tried until this point: it seemed as if the individuals I’d selected from the search results “owned” the topic of content strategy somehow.

Harnessing Social Media Search

My search as pretty broad, but when we don’t know much about the topic we’re searching on, broad searches are the kinds of searches we tend to use.

My little social media search experiment suggested to me that I’ve been wasting my time being frustrated by the major search engines. I’m always a little suspicious of the results they show, and the searches I performed on various social networks here showed me why: in the often impersonal digital realm, I appreciate personal recommendations. This is one of the reasons that more people are moving on social networks for their search needs; it’s a topic that Om discusses in more depth in “Why Google Should Fear the Social Web” (GigaOM Pro link, sub. req.)

The other benefit of social media is, of course, that I could ask my followers and contacts directly for their recommendations of content related to the topic I was interested in, and, if they had a similar interest, they might oblige me with good resources. That’s something that definitely can’t be said for a search engine.

I also enjoy the social network benefits of real-time results, and the ability to tap into content that isn’t necessarily so heavily optimized for search engines that it sits on the first page of results indefinitely. If someone has come up with an exciting new take on my topic in the last, say, week or so, I’d like to access that information quickly and effectively. I think this might be where social network search really wins out.

Accounting for Search Bias

Each of the services I searched on had some kind of bias — whether it was a business-related bias (like Google presenting Google Knol in its results) or a user-based bias (such as Facebook presenting people with content strategy businesses in its results). Ultimately, it’s important for us as searchers to understand the limitations of each service, and use the tool that best suits our searching needs at any time. Overall, though, I found some great material using social network search, and I’ll happily be using it from now on.

Do you use social networks for research? How?

Photo by stock.xchng user GlennPeb.

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