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We’ve long argued that search placement is losing ground to social networking for brand marketers. Still, it’s only fitting we point out this cool graph from Nielsen about who consumers trust more: Trust us – it’s worth the read.

How we use the internet has changed over the last decade. When nobody knew where to go, we needed search engines. Today, we have bookmarks in our heads for the places we use most. Whatever we need – news, entertainment, books, travel, real estate, cars, friends – we don’t Google for it.

We just go directly to to Drudge, YouTube, Amazon, Kayak, Realtor or Vehix, etc.

What do we search for? Minutia. The name of a person, a date, a technical problem, a part number, specific health issues. Things answered by Wikis or YouTube or eventually one of the sites bookmarked in our heads. We aren’t sitting in front of their screens pondering, Where, oh, where can find information on…. whatever. We’re not lost online. We know where to go.

Which begs the question: Where are we going?

Social media sites, for at least 1 out of every 6 minutes of the day.

That’s why we’ve argued, since 2008 when Facebook beat Google for hits and time spent on site,  that search is in the cross-hairs of future relevancy. Google seems to agree with us, launching their fourth attempt at social networking this year.

Let’s get specific. The key reason we think search is already losing ground to social networks is how ordinary people act. When we seek advice, we seek it from people first, the library later. Which movie to see, which restaurant to try, which computer to buy, which vacation spot, which book? We ask people before computers.

We ask our friends, now reachable any time via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, FourSquare, Skype or even plain old text.

We ask their friends, too. We trust third-party review sites, comments on Amazon, rankings on TripAdvisor, more than who’s on page one of the search engine. In fact, according to a recent study by Nielsen  customers trust friends, family, online review sites, product websites and news sources significantly more than they trust search engines.

Amazingly, they trust search engines only slightly more than TV. According to the study:

So much influence (and insight) is now in the hands (and tweets, posts, votes and updates) of the consumer…. Consumers aren’t always paying attention to your marketing message, warned Taqqu [Principal at McKinsey & Co. who participated in the study], but they are paying attention to each other. Brand loyalty is in no way a lock for today’s consumer who is constantly reevaluating brands.

Ordinary people trust their sphere of influence. Mom, an aunt’s or an old pal’s advice is seconds away on social, not Google. They are connected to new communities, with people they know and some they are coming to know. Trust is becoming a new type of marketing currency: Matt Nowak’s recent blog “Trust 2.0” calls trust sacrosanct. That’s a pretty high bar for marketing to reach, no matter what medium is used.

Social seems more likely to target trust than a search algorithm.

Do people really trust computers? You’d have to trust yourself to type the right question, the right syntax, into the plain-page box. Search engines spent a decade keeping their inner workings secret. So it’s harder to trust the computer when it’s so easy to ask our trusted friends.

Do companies realize this? Maybe. Most likely need to rebalance their marketing budgets away from pay-per-click and more towards trust engagement. Purchases with high risk require more trust than data. That’s why referrals drive more deals than websites in real estate, finance and legal industries. Even low-risk purchases, like smart phones, have become trust-driven: We’re influenced by what our friends say about their phones when we decide to buy a new one.

Focusing on  sphere of influence, not search engine optimization, can be a game changer. Consider the real estate industry: Most listing clients from from referrals (39%) followed by past client (22%) and referrals from a relocation company (5%). Internet websites drove only 3% of all seller client business. (Sorry print marketing: You still don’t count.)

Sphere of influence never really went away. Marketers just became myopic about what search engine marketing could do, rather than how people act. They became cyclops marketers, focused only on hits, not trust. It’s time to put away the telescope and take out the binoculars.

Generating new business in an era where customers are asking each other, not algorithms, for advice, means influencing how your sphere of influence responds when asked by someone else, who would you use?

Marketers must stop trying to target page one and start trying to target comment one, tweet-reply one and text-one.

Will search engine marketing ever go away completely? Of course not. But consumers are already challenging its position as the “go-to” place for finding help on complex issues. Be sure you’re working on a “generate trust, then advocacy” strategy that enable loyal customers to be your “page one” responders in the new places customers are searching for help.