Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

Who do Consumers Trust More: Search or Social?

We’ve long argued that search placement is losing ground to 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 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.


  • Cchott

    Surprised to see Influential Bloggers next to last on the list.  Hmmmm 🙂

  • Me too; good thing I’m not too influential! :>:>:>:>

  • How often do people post and ask their ‘friends’ for advice on if can refinance if their home is underwater, or how to rebuild their crappy credit in order to qualify, or what kind of home buyer assistance programs are available for the income they make?

    PPC is different than organic search, right?  Don’t people know the difference between a paid add placement and someone who blogs in order to show authority and gain trust?

    Some may even ask this info on Facebook…..but do they trust their SOI is an authority in that subject?

    I do agree, people tend to ask their Facebook SOI first about pizza, travel destinations, books, smart phones, and computer purchases.

    I think people search online for info, and that can lead them to finding a real expert to work with.  Do they really trust cousins 3rd uncle who has a friend who ‘does’ loans or real estate?

    But I do think we need to build our online social sphere to help impact our page rankings.

  • Brad:
    Great questions! I agree that most people wouldn’t trust their friends to “answer” the questions about their finances, medical issue or legal need – or even some products to buy – but they would TRUST their referral to a financial planner, doctor, lawyer or realtor MORE than just the page-one results of a search engine. So, I’m not saying people should trust their friends’ answer to “how much is my home worth?” if their friends give them a number; but if they say, “We’re thinking of selling; anyone know a good agent in Andover?” and a friend says “Work with Susan! She sold our house and the service was great!” then there’s just no way a Google search can compete with that social “searched” outcome.
    Thanks for your comments!

  • Anonymous

    Should be interesting as brands / marketers chase the more “granular” social influencers. None of the big players really get how to target hyper-local yet. They’ll probably try & pull in more local voices & over time, that may lose its “authenticity” as consumers get smart to the strategy.

  • That’s a good point; but personally, I think this strategy surely beats the “spread listings all over the web!” strategy… just my opinion, but I think consumers really want to connect with people, not houses :>:>

  • Well outlined article, Matthew.  

    I’m confident that referrals from family and friends will probably always top the list of trusted resources.  It’s just difficult to build a company business model or marketing strategy on the “family referral” system if you’re talking about generating business online.  

    Here are a few things I’d like to point out about that graph from the perspective of a real estate or mortgage professional: 

    1.  Unknown Peers  – 

    I like the fact that this group is at the bottom of the list, because it relieves any pressure that full-time real estate professionals may feel about friending, fanning, following and “engaging with” thousands of random people online.  

    2.  Influential Bloggers – 

    An industry blogger who wrote highly targeted content that addressed the specific needs of a particular audience will rank towards the top of this list due to the fact that family and friends would reference this blogger’s site as a great online resource.  

    However, a blogger who’s content was all over the place, and wrote mainly for the benefit of other bloggers in order to keep up their “top blogger” status… may not appear to have the real world expertise that a buyer, seller or borrower needs to see and trust.  

    3.  Discussion Forums – 

    I’m surprised this scored so low, but it probably has to do with the high level of contradicting answers consumers find when they stumble into an industry forum.  If someone wanted to spend a little time learning about the different contributors to that forum, it might make sense.  But, who wants to spend any time researching random forum members. 

    4.  Search Engines – 

    Buyers, borrowers and sellers use search engines differently, but they always do something on Google if they are in the process of a real estate transaction.  

    Maybe they’re searching for homes, neighborhoods, mortgage program qualifying guidelines, photos or a particular address.  They also search for information on the people they’re getting ready to do business with, or for a simple address and map to their office.  

    Either way, you’re online presentation can be enough to earn that trust, even without a potential customer knowing or liking you.  

    Over 90% of our real estate company’s business comes from search engines.  Organic, not PPC.  We also have 20 full-time agents that benefit from our marketing strategy. 

    5.  Online Product Reviews – 

    This is where we focus our attention by providing an overwhelming amount of information about a particular niche to establish our company as the authority on the topic.  

    When we say we’re a (fill in the blank) expert, we go out of our way to prove it online. 

    We understand that complex problems require an expert, and this is where real estate professionals can shine.  

    One site that is dedicated to a specific niche will rank high in the search engines, earn the recommendations from the bloggers / forum users / tweeters and give family or friends another resource to include in their referral.  

    ex:  “Our agent Susan did a great job selling our house, and this web site _____ is also an excellent place to learn a little more about the short sale process. ”  

    Obviously, the “online product reviews” as it pertains to the graph, is probably referring to Yelp and similar sites.  But, you can just as easily establish a niche site as the authority review site.  

    According to this graph, the product review model is in third place.  

    So, from a business / marketing strategy model, this approach is scalable, measurable and achievable without having to worry about getting caught up in a “relationship building” game.   


    The fact that search engines have become overrun with spam and noise is an opportunity for internet marketers, especially when someone is looking for important information that will help them make a confident decision about a product or service.  
    In order to make a “Confident” decision, Buyers, Sellers and Borrowers need to trust that the information they’ve been given by friends or found online is the most accurate.  The problem consumers face with real estate related decisions is that there are too many complex factors to consider, which generally means that they’ll just have to end up trusting the advice of the real estate professional.  Very few people know many trustworthy, educated and experienced real estate professionals that they can or would want to refer to their family and friends.  End result – search is still a player.