The Big Shift from Search to Social

I have yet another explanation for the phenomenon that Julio Vazquez describes in a post with a bit of an accusatory title “Technical communicators need to share more.” Nothing like a title that accuses you to grab attention, a good example of how to write effective titles for blog posts.

I especially focused on his difficulty finding information about wikis for technical documentation, where he says “Using Google brought me far more results than I cared to walk through. ” I’d summarize his experience as “I need information on a specific topic, and I did a Google search, which usually gives me a good list thanks to their PageRank algorithm, but it failed me this time.”

One of the reasons it failed is that one of the keywords he was searching for is “wiki,” which is metadata for a type of web content engine, so way too many of the sites containing info about wikis contain the word wiki. Make sense? I ran into that plenty of times while researching my book. I don’t have a good workaround to offer there.

wiki neon sign

Another explanation for the failure is that content farms and black hat SEO so-called-experts are clogging your results thanks to attempts at gaming Google’s system. Huge public story on a recent failure – the Dirty Little Secrets of Search as reported by the New York Times. Yowsa. My jaw dropped a couple of times while reading that article. SEO gaming is not necessarily what’s going on with wikis and tech comm, but I think that the web is getting fuller and making it harder to find what you seek.

Lastly, counts on click-throughs on Google searches may soon be surpassed by counts on click-throughs on social sites. Think about this for a moment. This means Julio and others are realizing what he wrote about in his post – you are more likely to get useful links by asking your friends and colleagues about certain topics than you are going to get them by searching on Google. This finding is a serious disruption for the web, if it turns out to be true. I haven’t seen studies yet that have numbers to support this claim, but I’ve seen it in slide decks about social support communities, community management, and the like. The starting point to measure the shift is in the numbers of visitors to certain sites. Forbes wrote an article titled “Google Finds No Friend In Facebook As Social Surpasses Search” just last month. This shift is A Big Deal. Watch for freakouts everywhere, and lots of opportunities for people who understand how to run a social, collaborative, community-building business.

One such example of opportunity found and met well is the Stack Exchange sites, especially Stack Overflow for programmers. They grew from 7 million visitors to 16 million in 2010. They garnered 3 million visitors in just 4 months at the beginning. Joel Spolsky completely understands how a strong, reputation-based community gives you a boost in the business world and with your friends and colleagues. He “gets” how reputation systems and FAQs are a great marriage for technical topics. People are even talking about the use of Stack Overflow points for your resume. This is the type of site I’m keeping my eye on for the tech comm world, especially if as a technical communicator you offer support, something that I’m deeply embedded on with OpenStack and as a Rackspace fanatical employee. I’m delighted to see technical publishing get the attention its getting through the Stack Exchange sites that offer “free, community-powered Q&A.” Community power, indeed.


  • February 25, 2011 - 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Anne, for me the phrase that leaps out of this blog post is “a serious disruption for the web,” when you describe the (unsubstantiated) finding that more people are clicking through social-media links than through traditional search engines. Your choice of phraseology makes it sound like such a bad thing, although I strongly suspect that’s not what you intended.

    I for one like a world in which the curators of content are friends and neighbors rather than a few monolithic enterprises with proprietary search algorithms. Power to the people, and all that.

    As usual, you’re spot on in recognizing the opportunities that are opening up for publishers and for web users. Great job!

  • February 25, 2011 - 8:03 pm | Permalink

    I like disruption! 🙂

  • February 28, 2011 - 2:52 am | Permalink

    A big and very welcome shift! I’m trying to move things in this direction in my current project, although there’s a considerable inertia. Sometimes I get the feeling that “community” is perceived as something good-natured but dangerous, to care for and be wary of at the same time.

    A bit like a kid in a china shop. “Feel free to look around, but please, please don’t touch anything!” 🙂

  • February 28, 2011 - 7:52 am | Permalink

    First, let me thank you for the complement on the title. As most folks know, I like to stir the pot every so often. In fact, I was surprised at how much conversation stemmed from my little observation that finding information is getting more difficult and that we, as a community, have to do a better job of helping each other find what we need because the content volume makes research tremendously difficult.

    I love the fact that you’ve noticed that the social network is the rising star in making information more findable. We can add all the metadata we want to content but, with all the metadata and “shouting” on various topics, the quality stuff still passes from person to person. Think about it: you’ll go to a movie based on a personal recommendation far faster than you will based on a review (though you get both agreeing and you’re there tomorrow). I think that’s what Mark Zuckerberg wound up realizing as he built his monster. It wasn’t that anybody really wanted an online dating service or an online yearbook; it was that everyone wanted to share things that they felt would help their friends and community. That’s what made Facebook and other social media explode. The ability to help each other instead of the isolation the web began to engender.

    Great post.

  • February 28, 2011 - 7:53 am | Permalink

    Forgot one thing in my reply. I’m humbled that you would even read my ramblings. Thanks.

  • February 28, 2011 - 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Interesting take on the influence of social networks and findability of tecchomm deliverables. I wonder if we can see any of this person-person referral in web analytics (website referral links)… Anyone seeing this yet?

  • February 28, 2011 - 4:28 pm | Permalink

    okay I went and did a quick check of our internal referral metrics for one particular new feature and I can see 4% of hits coming from social networking sites. That may not seem a lot, but we’re not the kind of product/feature that gets a lot of social networking exposure besides from a very select handful of forums/blogs etc.

  • March 3, 2011 - 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Interesting! I would say 4% is a lot for a tech comm site, depending on the product. I’d love for more of us to be able to share our data and observations to help us see what’s meaningful and what the standards are.

  • Melissa Burpo
    March 3, 2011 - 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Google is definitely paying attention to the problems you described. I just saw a Lifehacker article the other day about recent work Google did to cut back on the number of content farm hits in their search results. It seems like the effort to filter spam content will be a growing and constant battle though. Social web to the rescue? It’s starting to look like it.!5770137/google-changes-nearly-12-percent-of-search-results-to-filter-more-content-farms

  • August 5, 2011 - 6:34 am | Permalink

    Social networks have boosted the market. I’ve seen telecom companies who created new services integrated with social networks due to the lastest trend of using social networks.

    I love what Julio replied above:

    “I love the fact that you’ve noticed that the social network is the rising star in making information more findable. We can add all the metadata we want to content but, with all the metadata and “shouting” on various topics, the quality stuff still passes from person to person. Think about it: you’ll go to a movie based on a personal recommendation far faster than you will based on a review (though you get both agreeing and you’re there tomorrow).”

    Excellent post!!

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  • September 24, 2013 - 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Anne, Thanks for the thought-provoking (as always) piece. I’ll have to ask my friends if they’ve read it yet. 😉

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