Do the socializers need an information diviner?

October 9, 2009

There’s an interesting post over on the Nielsen Wire blog from Jon Gibs (their VP Media Analytics) about the methods people are now using to discover content. Their findings show that a lot of surfers now make social media their starting point when trying to find information online. 18% of the people Nielsen quizzed said they start a search for new information using Wikipedia, blogs or social networks (such as Facebook or Twitter). That’s a pretty big percentage, especially when you consider that only 37% said they started their hunt on a search engine (which you’d traditionally think might be the starting point).

It’s not really a surprise to see web users learning to trust information that is recommended by their peers, or info that comes from within their sphere of influence on social networks. Recommendation is a powerful thing online and crowd sourced recommendations are a great way to answer certain queries. However, as networks are inherently distributed are they as likely to get an accurate answer to their more complex info needs as they would on a search engine?

In the same report 26% of respondents who identified themselves as socializers (the ones likely to start on a socnet) said that they feel ‘there is too much information online’. Perhaps this is what draws them to social networks for their information searching needs? Maybe the trust factor that someone has recommended some information to them gives them the confidence that they will drill through the dross and find the nugget they are looking for. However, if they feel overloaded now that is only going to get worse as networks grow.

Social network contacts are never going to be able to answer all the questions that intelligent use of a search engine would (unless your network includes some of the finest minds). If we, as web users, rely too much on social networks for finding information are we going to lose the ability to really search when we need to? Search can be a bit of an art form; some people struggle to get how to think laterally when searching for a niche topic, others can get there in one or two searches by using word combinations and booleans cleverly. Could reliance on social networks for the answers to questions destroy the art of searching or data mining that the web has historically been so good at encouraging? Social networks are great for recommendation and serendipitous discovery of content but how do they cater for people who just want their questions answered? Do they need to branch out more deeply into indexing and search or perhaps encourage search to begin on their networks by providing tools to do so?

I’m not offering any answers as this is a shift in habits which has been underway for a long time, but as more users become socializers (inevitable), and information becomes more and more realtime, someone needs to provide a way they can divine the realtime stream for the information they seek. Either that or search engines need to provide new, more social ways to search their indexes. What do you think?

PS. Just in case you think I mean divine in the Biblical sense, have a look at this.
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