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Social Media – the New Search Engine?

Published on By Ben Thornton Harwood

For over twenty years, Google has been the dominant search engine in every single country that has access to it. But is all that about to change?

Before Google, there was Yahoo. And before that, there was Lycos, along with a bunch of other competing “metasearch” engines, all vying to be top dog.

And before that? Well, you’d have to go back to 1993’s JumpStation – which although by today’s standards is a strange system, is considered to have been the first modern search engine. This is where it all began, over 30 years ago. Jump to 2024, and Google is still the dominant force in web search – a position it has comfortably held for the majority of its existence, because it has historically been very, very good at its job.

However, Google is currently experimenting with AI-driven search results, with scope to completely change organic content rankings in the future. This test has now entered the user phase for US audiences, and signals to us digital marketers that if this update is well received, Google may soon become pay-to-play.

As Google tries out new ways to find information, it's a reminder not to get too comfortable relying only on it. No empire lasts forever. Is this the end of search engines as we know them – or the beginning of a new way of searching across platforms?

A Passing Trend or Here to Stay?

Recent research from Hubspot reveals that one in three of us turns to social media to find answers, with 15% showing a preference for social platforms over search engines. Leading the charge are Gen Zs and millennials, making up a substantial 59% of those favouring social apps over internet browsers.

But we’re not igniting a generational war - it's all ages who are shifting to social search. A competing study showed that 82% of all ages surveyed preferred to get information from social platforms, rather than Google or another search engine. This shift is largely due to social search being finely tuned for trends and user-generated content. Moreover, with social platforms regularly rolling out new features and updates, they're adept at keeping their audiences engaged and eager for more. When quizzed, users ranked the most “important” features of a search engine as speed, content quality and user experience. Social media platforms clearly offer a refreshing alternative to the text-heavy, ad-driven results of traditional search engines. And as Google leans into this way of delivering results, users are arguably leaning out. Social Media platforms are not just about staying connected anymore; they're about tapping into those connections to discover answers and solutions.

Big implications for the travel industry

We're well aware that social media has become the ultimate hub for travel inspiration – that shift has undoubtedly occurred. However, we as an industry have been stuck in a passive mode of interaction with our audiences for far too long. We expect our audiences to come “find” us online - to come to our front door, and knock.

This approach relies on great brand recognition, combined with great digital marketing. You need to know a brand exists to want to follow them. We all know the adage that Instagram is your shop window (it’s been around since at least 2018), but how many of us are greeting our customers on the street?

This recent shift indicates that this passive approach is no longer enough. Social media users are no longer just following brands; they expect these brands to seamlessly integrate into their search results within the app. They want to see travel brands effortlessly woven into their feed alongside user-generated content, blending in naturally with their browsing experience.

The upside of this consumer shift lies in its reliance on user-generated content. Social proof, especially within the travel industry, holds remarkable power in converting potential customers into enthusiastic travellers.

Building trust through social proof

The key to authenticity is trust, transparency and relatability. And you can rarely build this without a human fronting the show. For every faceless account that absolutely slays social – Wendy’s, Burger King – there are another thousand faceless brand accounts with zero engagement.

Do you remember the Fyre Festival, set to take place in 2019? If so, you probably remember the endorsement of the extravagant party in the Exumas that would never take place by a group of influencers who failed to disclose that they had been paid to drive bookings. Ethics aside, this is a great case study on the power of social proof for travel. The festival did not exist in the “real world”, but was marketed so convincingly by trusted influencers, that 500 people paid $499 each and arrived on the island to find no beds, music or even food.

When employed ethically and effectively, social proof holds immense value for both travel marketers and consumers alike.

And this is why so many brands turn to travel influencer marketing – serving users recommendations from trusted individuals, who hold greater weight with their target audience.

Influencers have already tapped into the authentic, relatable content that people want to see. And, many of them are willing to be paid to endorse brands on their profiles. But most won’t sway too far outside their wheelhouse in terms of what their followers expect from them, only choosing brand partnerships and collaboration with those that align with their own personal brand.

And so, even when content is labelled as an ad, the audience will trust that the influencer will only recommend a product that aligns with their values, and by extension, the audience’s own values. Tricky to navigate, with a world so full of AI content and misinformation.

“But hang on”, you may be thinking, “isn’t this just… general social media marketing? Where does the search bit come in?” – and yes, you’re right. But you need these fundamentals in place first, so that your search results are relied upon by your audience. It all comes down to trust. Literally nothing in society would work without it.

There are few things you can do – starting with your current social content. The mantra should be; mesmerise, categorise and personalise.

  • Always use the most arresting and visually awesome imagery you can. Stop social scrollers in their tracks, and you win their attention – if only even for a moment!
  • Optimise what you’ve got already, with categorisation. Add relevant keywords and hashtags to make posts searchable and relevant
  • Seek out peer approval and shared experiences to add to existing content, through reshares that focus on opinion and engagement
  • Engage with your followers more, and respond to comments. This can help your content appear higher in search results

But to take this further, you’ll need to expand into influencer marketing. Recommendations from trusted creators helps shape purchasing decisions, but it also increases relevance and visibility in social search – and it can enhance discoverability, too. Don’t forget about trust, though. Engage in genuine communication and influencer partnerships – the kind that feel like a good fit.

Don’t just offer the biggest rising star as much money as you can afford, if it’s not going to align with either their brand or yours.

Just as with Google search and SEO, social search is all about relevance.

But how do I know what my audience is searching for?

Social platforms heavily rely on AI tools, particularly in their algorithms, to comprehend user behaviour and preferences, and matching content accordingly. This reliance is particularly evident on TikTok, where the algorithm utilises user data to curate the 'For You' feed. After all, if TikTok bombarded users with irrelevant content, they'd likely lose interest and abandon the platform.

Enter social SEO. In 2024, SEO strategies are taking centre stage for social media marketers.

That's why understanding what your audience is searching for is critical. Is your audience interested in golfing breaks in the Scottish Highlands? Or is your audience more likely to be found by the pool on a spa break? As I'm sure you can imagine, these two types of people will be searching for very different content on social media.

Your job as a travel brand is to know what your guests interests are, what do they want to see online? And then to create content to fill that gap.

The best and easiest way to achieve this is by doing a content audit (you can read our in depth blog on how to achieve this here). And by doing customer insights, where you go beyond personas, to understand what is driving someone to travel with you (you can see our blog on how to find your audience type here).

Plus, there are loads of great resources to help you suss out what people are searching for.

Frontier does great research into top search queries, and most of the major social media platforms do their own research annually into trends, such as Pinterest Predicts, or the TikTok Trend Report.

But, the magic will only happen when you combine volume - the amount of results - and niche interests. When we organised an influencer trip for The SCHLOSS Roxburghe in the Borders, we partnered with influencers who each brought their own ‘niche’ - e.g. outdoors, dog-lovers, fashion. They were known by their audience as an authority within these circles of influence. By showcasing the hotel, in a way that was relevant to them and their audience, we were able to maximise impressions across a huge range of audience-types. Meaning an audience aligned with what the SCHLOSS Roxburgh offers was introduced to the brand in an organic way as it hit their feeds and For You pages.

It's all about relevancy.

Social media's growing role in information discovery represents a significant shift in how we all search for and engage with information online.

Brands and marketers obviously need to adapt to this change, aligning strategies with the evolving search landscape, and building trust through social media content and output.

But the fundamental principles will probably always be the same as they always have been.

Humans love stories.

It’s how we have kept our cultures alive since we first learnt to speak. All that’s changed is the technology. Instead of cave paintings, we have TikTok.

We’ll always search for stories that give us meaning.

Just remember that the human element is what counts when you’re building out a social search strategy – or any other marketing strategy. Build trust through authenticity and keeping it real.

Tell the stories people want to engage with – and most importantly, keep it true to what you do.

Looking for a partner in social and search marketing?

Lemongrass is a specialist travel marketing agency, driven by digital. Let’s talk about your travel brand and your goals. Send a message to – or call 01865 237990.