Lee Odden

Social Search – The Potential Impact on the Search Marketing Industry

Editor’s note: Social search isn’t the new kid on the block anymore but it still has it’s mystery as far as search marketing implications. The next in our series of guest posts comes from a very well respected guy who I’ve long appreciated as having more than an advanced understanding of where the search marketing industry is going. Ron Belanger is Vice President, Agency Development at Yahoo! and has been a strong voice on topics ranging from search as a powerful branding tool to social search and the future of the search engine industry.

Photo credit Mike Grehan

Social media is a white hot topic, getting a tremendous amount of play in the advertising world. Investors and speculators are tripping over themselves to invest in the next Facebook or MySpace.

What are today’s search marketers to do with this phenomenon? Do we power through and focus on SEO and paid placement, or do we take a fresh pause to re-think what social search marketing services could be mean to their clients.

Social search can be defined as a third and distinct area of search marketing. Rather than an algorithm or an auction-based ad system providing results, social search is the community of web users who are the authors of such answers. For example, Yahoo! Answers, just one of the social search engines out there, boasts 90 million users and 250 million answers worldwide. This provides consumers with the ability to get answers and pose queries for questions that aren’t readily given by an existing web site or paid placement listing.

If we think about the true potential of social search, it can be staggering to comprehend. In the current world of search, SERPs are comprised exclusively of content found on a published web site or ad copy placed by search advertising specialists. While this represents billions and billions of possible pages, it only reflects a fraction of all known human knowledge. Think about yourself for a moment, how much of your total knowledge have you committed to a website or book? My guess is less than 1%, even if you’re a prolific author and web publisher.

With social search, we have the ability to tap all human knowledge. Sounds lofty and a bit portentous, but it may have the same democratizing effect on search marketers as blogging had on newspaper publishers. Power is spread to the masses, and rather than fear this, we have an opportunity as an industry to capitalize on this in order to offer more comprehensive insights to our clients.

Perhaps the easiest way to incorporate the data learned from the masses is simply use it as means of measurement. There is no better way to do this than to simply step back, check out the major social search sites to hear what consumers are saying, and listen. Sharing with clients such basic metrics as the quantity of social search activity in the major sites is a very valuable gauge. Additionally, many search marketers can use tools such as Yahoo Buzz and Google Trends to measure the signal-to-noise ratio of a brand’s relative “hotness,” and the same concept can apply to social search.

The next stage of a social search strategy is to give the social chatter a score that indicates quality. Is the chatter overall positive in nature? If so, what themes are emerging that you could summarize for your clients? Perhaps there are a handful of active consumers that are frequent contributors to online dialogues about your client’s brand. Most clients today respect the role of the empowered consumer and would be interested to see this summarization of learning as part of an overall search marketing report.

Now that you know the volume and relative quality of dialogue of social chatter, it becomes time to actively engage with your client and their consumers. Why not start simply and tell consumers that your brand is ready to listen to them and address their concerns? Whether it’s creating an official brand profile on the social search sites to answer consumer questions proactively, reacting to previously posed questions, or changing the tone of your campaigns to address consumer feedback, they will appreciate the attention and outreach. Remember, it’s important to fully disclose that you are in fact an employee of the brand (or an agency of record for the brand), as consumers tend to smell a wolf in sheep’s clothing a mile away.

Above all, the most important thing to keep in mind with social search is that the landscape is still evolving. Many of the search marketers I speak with express an interest to expand their engagements with clients. Social search represents a great expansion opportunity for your search practice, and one that has great potential to dynamically enhance our great industry.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Avatar Ross Bradley says

    Great article! (Wish I was “blessed”, to be able to write like that!)

    Check my comment (in full), here ….No offense intended.


  2. Hey Ross, thanks for the comment. I changed the link to use anchor text so it doesn’t mess with the blog layout. 🙂

  3. Avatar Daniel Riveong says


    Interesting Post and it outlines a very ambitious roadmap for social search, especially with attempting to quantify “social chatter”. BuzzMetrics and Cymphony have been trying to tackle that issue.

    From hearing from Tim Mayer numerous times, I’ve heard that Yahoo’s first steps were doing simple quasi-“social graph” data: if I did a search for “cool lamps”, Yahoo could cross check to see if any of my friends flickr/del.icio.us tagged any website with the words “lamps” and “cool” and incorporate those into the SERP.

    I’m very interested in seeing how Yahoo (or anyone else) will be to incorporate such a new approach in practice.

  4. Avatar Rob Rustad says

    Ron/Lee, great post. I couldn’t agree more. Social search is just starting to be better understood and appreciated. You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned “simply use it as means of measurement”. Just as links created the metric that ushered in the Google ecosystem, finding ways to harness the collective intelligence of web users, anonymously, will enable the democratized vision you painted. The trick is how to collect information without over burdening the users and how to apply it in a way that creates a virtuous cycle of relevance improvment.


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