In the last few days an American study for Google has shown that search, rather than social media, is the biggest driver of word of mouth.
The timing of this announcement was interesting, as it coincided with the launch of the Google+ social network. Forget all the excitable "Is it a Facebook killer" chatter; it is a logical progression for a search engine to move towards more human-generated content - based on both your own preferences and those of your contacts.
I haven't played with Google+ yet (OK, OK, what I mean is I haven't had an invite...DAYS behind the times, darling) but my hope would be that rather than merely offering an alternative to established social networks, that it would integrate heavily with other Google products, and I imagine that Google themselves are thinking the same way. Much is being made of the "circles" concept, but I would think that there is more at stake with heavy integration with YouTube, Blogger and, yes, search. The "+1" concept, alongside the recent trend for including acquaintances' tweeted link in search results already means that Google are actively "socialising" their search offering. In an excellent blog post, Simon Mainwaring says that "search...is becoming increasingly inward facing, with the individual as filter."
As a colleague of mine pointed out, this may limit our own personal web somewhat, if we are restricting ourselves to search results based on the preferences of others. He has a point; the fact that we are naturally social creatures, I hope, won't be an excuse to diminish the breadth of our web universe. However, this provides an immediate reference point - if time is short, then a link that your friend has recommended is likely to be your first port of call over anything else. I hope this can be extended into Google+ to make it a content-driven social network; Facebook has no handy way of storing your favourite content in one place ("Likes" are a mess), while social bookmarking sites are sprawling and geek-heavy. If Google get this right, Google+ could be a Digg killer.
But it seems that search itself is a social phenomenon, which leads us back to the Keller Fay study. They don't go into methodological details but claim that "conversations referencing search are thought by consumers to be more credible and more likely to purchase, compared to those that reference social media." They emphasise that offline word of mouth dominates online; but that both TV and internet content drive those conversations (online and offline). And of the internet content that drives conversations, it's the stuff found in search engines that is the most influential.
This goes slightly against the fashionable line of thinking that all conversations just happen organically, that we're purely influenced by those around us, and that there are no tangible drivers; I think it also makes sense. We ARE all capable of thinking for ourselves, of looking for things we like, then finding them (and I'd say this study vindicates Google's search algorithm somewhat if we're liking the things we find via search!) and sharing our favourite content. After all, isn't it natural to TRY and influence people?
This research is a clear warning that "buzz" agencies need to do more than just creating some snappy content, shoving it on Twitter and Facebook and waiting for the rest to happen organically. Ultimately, if brands are measuring their word-of-mouth success purely by numbers of retweets and Facebook Likes then they will fail; the interactions between our online conversations, offline conversations and, critically, the actions we take as a result, that are most important. It transpires that the internet and TV have equal importance in influencing consumer conversations, but that the internet is used as an information checking tool (as one might expect) and that search, in particular, has more bite: "conversations referencing search are thought by consumers to be more credible (+25%) and more likely to lead to purchase (+ 17%), compared to those that reference social media."
By subtly integrating their various products yet keeping them disparate, boosting their core search product, and offering a simplified interface to social networking, Google are taking the fight back to Facebook - and it seems they have a new lease of life.
Update: this article in the International Business Times is worth a read.