The Internet was built on links. Just a few years ago, most people's Internet browsing time was spent clicking from link to link, either looking for a particular piece of information or just seeing what they stumbled upon.
Links were also the basic way that search engines separated the wheat from the chaff. Websites optimized for linking and sought to raise their rank in search engine results by increasing the number of links to their pages. In fact, the 'Page Rank' algorithm that addressed this web of links was the fundamental innovation that allowed Google to flourish.
Today, links are no longer the currency of the Internet, and people are finding more and more of their information via their friends' "likes" in social media networks. The latest ComScore report showed that the average person spends six to seven hours clicking around on Facebook each month. And a July 2011 McKinsey study reported that users are now three times more likely to use a social network to ﬁnd information than they were in 2008. That means that time previously spent moving from link to link is now used clicking from "like" to "like."
Even outside of social networks, websites have an ever-growing number of buttons that allow users to share content with others through Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Twitter, Reddit, Stumbleupon, and many more. For example, according to compete.com, Comedy Central's popular website receives more than 25 percent of its traffic from Facebook.
In addition, when you read a story on the Washington Post or the New York Times, greater social integration now allows you to see other stories your social network contacts recommend or have recently read.
This change in the way users consume information is providing a more personalized experience online as users get data culled not just from websites, but also from those they know and trust. People are increasingly finding what they're looking for via social networks, whether it's the answer to a specific question or a new funny cat video.
And thankfully, search engines are taking notice. Rather than continuing to present a simple list of links based on the site ranking models that once predominated, they have sought to stay relevant by innovating and adapting to the changing environment. Last year Microsoft's Bing search engine began to integrate Facebook's social data into its search results. When users search Bing for a movie or theater showtimes, they might now see Facebook "likes" for the movie in question or relevant film reviews -- essentially bringing your friends' recommendations into search results.
Similarly, Google followed Bing's lead earlier this year and began to integrate results from its social network Google+ into traditional search results. Dubbed "Search Plus Your World," Google's evolution works much like Bing's use of Facebook data -- if users search for a restaurant, for example, they might now see restaurant-related posts or photos from people in their circles.
As search engines evolve, website operators must keep up or be left behind. Today's webmasters need to do more than just optimize their websites to rank well in search results; they need to facilitate connections with a user's social network. While many sites provide the opportunity to post directly to social networks and others are integrating your friends' opinions with their own content, some companies like the music listening and sharing venue Spotify are building entire business models based on social media interaction. As Spotify grew, the company realized that users who had integrated their Spotify accounts with Facebook were three times more likely to buy a paid subscription, so Spotify started requiring Facebook integration for all new users. While not every company could, or should, go this far, it's becoming more clear every day that simple search engine optimization isn't enough to build a successful online presence anymore.
All of these adaptations by companies with websites and search engines alike are attempts to remain relevant in a changing world and give users what they're looking for -- increasingly more personalized answers to their questions. Any company that doesn't react to this dynamic and grow its business to accommodate users' shifting online behavior risks being left behind entirely.
By developing innovative new tools to help them compete, many companies are clearly demonstrating that they know that a pure list of links isn't enough in today's battle for people's attention online. The convergence of social and search is the latest way to help consumers find better, more pertinent information as quickly as possible. As more people benefit from this integrated online approach, this trend will only continue. Links may be the foundation on which the Internet was built, but they are not its future. "Likes" have become the new links that drive our connections online.
In this dynamic and innovative environment government regulators who spend their time assessing Internet competition as it used to be risk missing a clear view of the internet as it is today -- and even more importantly, as it is likely to be tomorrow.
Follow Edward J. Black on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ccianet