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Social media is challenging us to answer an important business question: What matters more – advertising or sales?

For some time we’ve argued that search is over. But that hasn’t stopped millions of dollars from pouring into the never-ending quest for the mythical Page One position on Google. We suppose there remains someone, somewhere who can’t recall the name of a single real estate company without the aid of a search engine. Last we heard, the two people who hadn’t yet switched from AOL had heard of REALTOR.COM and Zillow. So let’s be honest: does anyone really start by typing for “homes in our town” on the web?

Even if Vulcans landed tomorrow, they’d have a tricorder with an geo-enabled app to find the nearest open house.

Millions of people go days without ever using a search engine, yet remain fully connected to the internet. Smartphone and tablet users perform a full day’s work without ever Binging or Googling anybody (for which human resource departments are endlessly thankful). You can find a hotel, flight or coffee shop using a task-specific app like TripAdvisor. Sure, we might Google for the name of an author or an article or a research statistic. But to shop? I can honestly say that I pretty much know the sites I’m going to look at before I begin, whether it’s cars, clothes, travel or what my neighbor’s asking for his home.

And if it’s really complicated – like medical, legal or professional, I would hardly trust a computer to direct me. Not when I can simply ask my friends.

A quick story to illustrate: After a particularly rainy spring in New England, we found ourselves in need of a replacement window in our bathroom. Had this beenPreSocialEra (PSE) times, I’d have Googled for “replacement windows,” then opened six tabs in my browser. But this is 2011, so I solved the problem without a computer or a search engine. From my smartphone, I posted this on Facebook:













Problem solved. Thanks to my SOI, not your SEO.

The moral of the story: Search can never compare with trust. People trust people more than they trust computers, even supersmart ones. This isn’t news, exactly. We used to do it by group-emailing our friends. Social media just makes it easier, and perhaps broadens our reach. All without ever encountering a Page One ranked website.

Consumer Reports. The Kelley Blue Book. The Farmers Almanac. We’ve always trusted recommendations from friends when it comes to big decisions. TripAdvisor. Yelp. Angie’s List. We’ve even learned to trust people we don’t know. That’s why infomercials and testimonials still work.

Once the people involved are actually known to us, as they are in social media sites, new search habits are quickly formed. No SEO algorithm can ever compare to a simple cry for help. That’s the secret sauce to socially-influenced search results, and search engines know it: Witness how desperate they are to integrate social content into their search results.

Unfortunately, too many marketing departments remain Deeply Devout Search Engine Optimizers. Sure, social is getting some play, but SEO and pay-per-click campaigns still dominate most marketing budgets. Even Apple knows its success depends more upon good word of mouth than big banner ads.

One good Tweet is worth a thousand Page One rankings.

Working your SOI is easy. A blog, tweet or helpful comment on Facebook. No massive marketing expense or constantly adjusted optimization campaign. Email, text, even (gasp) picking up the phone. Selling to your sphere of influence costs little; but it pays a lot.

Research consistently proves it: Most real estate sellers find their agent from a personal referral (41%). Past clients comprise the second largest source of business (21%). Less than 4% of sellers found their agent through a website search. Disbelieve it at your own peril.

So focus on SOI, not SEO. Reaching past clients and friends of your friends is what it means to sell real estate, not advertise it. Master your sphere of influence and your success will last longer than the typical time it takes to fall from First Page grace. Better still, you won’t have to start over again every day trying to reach the top, either.