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Search engines vs social media: how are UK web users conducting online searches?

Published on 12/06/2023 by Sukanya Awasthi

The rise of social media platforms has possibly given consumers alternatives to conventional search platforms. In this article, we will dive deeper into user sentiment around using social media and regular search engines for carrying out searches online.

Users can choose from various platforms to search for information online

Imagine you have an event coming up and need a new outfit: where do you look for inspiration? Or you're planning a dinner party and need recipe ideas: where do you turn? 20 years ago, the answer may have been very different, but ask anyone today and the answer would most likely be the internet. However, while search engines have historically been the go-to platforms for searching for information, social media platforms could be giving them a run for their money.

According to a report by WeAreSocial, ‘the UK has 57 million social media users, who spend an average of 1 hour and 56 minutes each day on social platforms.’ The report also states that 22% of the surveyed users use social media to find inspiration for things to do and buy. As such, SMEs should ensure they have a strong social media presence in order to capture these potential customers.

To learn more about current consumer search behaviour, we surveyed 1,021 UK residents who are above 18 years of age and who search online more than once per month. For the purpose of this article, ‘online searching’ refers to the practice of using tools such as search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, etc.) and social media (TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) to conduct a specific search. Moreover, the term ‘search online’ refers solely and exclusively to the process of intentionally searching online for information about a topic. For the full methodology, see the bottom of this article.

Over half search for information online at least 5 times a day

For businesses looking to optimise content in order to rank on search results, it may be helpful for them to get an understanding of what and how people are searching online. In order to find out the prevalence of online searches today, we asked respondents how often they search for information or content online:

  • 20% said that they search online more than 10 times per day 
  • 32% said  5 to 10 times per day 
  • 30% said 1 to 4 times per day 
  • 12% said 1 to 6 times per week
  • 6% said a few times per month.

This data shows that, for most people, searching for content or information online is part of their day-to-day life. This highlights the importance of an SEO and content strategy for businesses so that they can compete in the search results –whether that be on search engines or social media– to attract new website visitors. 

How to create an SEO strategy?

  1. Identify the intent of the article and the keywords you want to rank for. This can include various types like long-tail, niche, low-competition etc. Targeting the right keywords can increase the chances of appearing higher in search results.
  2. Content is king. The next step is to create high-quality content that matches the search intent of readers. It is important to note that although keyword research is important, stuffing the content with keywords can attract a penalty.
  3. Work on on-page and off-page SEO strategies to ensure that the webpages are optimised. On-page SEO includes optimisation of title tags, content, internal links and URLs, and off-page SEO includes link building, social media marketing, guest posting, and other strategies to build brand awareness and domain authority. 
  4. Update and refine the content from time to time to make sure that the article is still ranking for relevant keywords and that no data or information in the article is outdated.

49% prefer smartphones to perform online searches

When we asked respondents about their preferred device to perform online searches, 49% said they preferred smartphones. 

49% of the UK respondents prefer smartphones for online searches

Businesses that currently offer their products or services via a website can work towards making their websites and content mobile optimised. This will ensure that visitors to your website have a smooth experience and are more likely to find the content they are searching for.

Search engines vs social media: where do people prefer to search online?

For the purpose of better understanding our target consumers, we segmented the respondents into three categories:

  • Those who only use search engines to search online; 
  • Those who only use social media to search online; 
  • And those who use both search engines and social media to search online. 
61% of the survey takers use search engines to search online

Upon asking them which tool they use for online searches, 61% of respondents said that they only use search engines to search online (such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo). However, a not insubstantial group of respondents also noted that they use social media to search online, suggesting that search engines do not have complete dominance in the area, as some might believe. 

With just over one-third of respondents stating that they use social media to search, businesses may need to tailor their strategy to ensure presence on social media platforms as well as search results. While SEO mostly drives the results on search engines, finding a way to crack the social media code requires a different approach, as we will explore later in the article.

87% of search engine users prefer Google to perform searches online

As previously reported, 61% of respondents use search engines to search online, whilst 5% use both search engines and social media. Of this combined group of search engine users, what is their preferred platform?  87% said that they prefer Google, followed by 4% stating Bing, another 4% selecting DuckDuckGo, and 2% responding with Yahoo, among other answers.

What are users searching for the most on search engines?

When we asked those respondents who only use search engines to search online about what kind of content they search for the most, 72% said that they search for generic information, followed by 65% using them for online shopping. 40% said they use search engines for clothes shopping (e.g. searching for a store to see their offerings).

From the results above, we can deduce that online shopping and eCommerce are common topics for online searches, with large segments saying they use search engines for shopping online and looking for clothing stores. For SMEs in the retail industry who haven't yet branched into the world of eCommerce, this shows just how important it is to have an online presence. Even for those who do already have an online store, it's important to ensure it is optimised in order to rank well on search engines and to provide a smooth user experience. 

Why do some users prefer search engines over social media?

Of the respondents who use both social media and search engines to search online, which platform do they use more out of the two? 54% of this group said they use search engines more, while 39% said they use social media more. The rest use them equally.

Interestingly, the majority (67%) said they have not changed these preferences over the last two years. However, 22% said they have switched more to using social media than search engines, showing that perhaps trends are slowly changing.

Of those who use search engines more, the most popular reasons given were the following:

  • It provides more relevant results (63%)
  • The results are more trustworthy (48%)
  • It has simply become a habit (43%)

For those that are aiming to capture new leads or clients through search engines, it's important to ensure that content is relevant and matches the search intent of those searching. Ensure that content is SEO optimised, but also be sure that titles and meta descriptions are accurately representing the content and aligning with potential search intent.

Of those who use social media to search online, which social media platforms are they using? In our survey, YouTube was the most popular response, with 75% of this group saying they use the site to perform online searches. 

75% of social media and both social media and search engine users use YouTube to search online

It's critical for companies to research the social media channels that their target audience uses and then modify their social media campaigns appropriately. SMEs should make sure to have a significant presence on social media if their potential customers are using such channels to look for information online. Our data shows that respondents overall prefer text search results (74%) rather than video content (9%). Businesses can use this insight to tailor their content strategy accordingly. 

Benefits of video platforms for search: easier and more engaging

Despite not being the most popular type of search result amongst our respondents, video is nonetheless an important content type to consider. The consumption of video content is on the rise in the UK, especially among younger generations. We asked those respondents who said that they use a video-based social media platform (YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, or Kwai) to search online about the main advantage of using these platforms for their searches: 50% said that they find video content to be more engaging. 

How can businesses create an effective video content strategy?

Video content can be an effective way for businesses to promote and popularise their brand while still keeping the creative element intact. With so many people engaging with video content daily, businesses can use this opportunity to create compelling videos for their users. Below are some of the ways in which it can be done:

  1. Understanding your audience: Businesses can make use of customer data platforms to assess the demographics that their current customer base is made up of and target them accordingly. 
  2. Using videos to convey the brand’s message: Videos don’t just increase the visibility of a brand but also help them to convey a message. SMEs can use the right kind of video format in accordance with their brand values and desired messaging.
  3. Promoting videos via social networks and the brand website: Once the video is created, it can be shared with a larger audience by posting it, not only on social media, but also on the company website. Businesses can use web analytics tools to get a deeper understanding of which part of their website can get them maximum traction.

Does consuming video content affect how users retain information?

42% of those who use social media video platforms for search said that consuming video content greatly improves their understanding and/or retention of information. 40% said that it slightly improves their understanding and/or retention of information. In comparison, only 9% said that it doesn't change their understanding and retention of the information, and another 9% said that they are not sure and that it depends on the context and the type of information. 

According to this data, it could be an attractive option for businesses to adopt a video strategy in order to engage customers and potential clients whilst also helping them to retain the information. Brands, especially those who might have a need for product tutorials or educational content, might consider how video can help make their message more memorable and digestible for their audience

What do we know so far?

Our survey results indicate moderate to high usage of search engines among UK consumers. It is worth noting that while the majority (61%) only use search engines to search online, 34% of respondents use both social media and search engines for the same purpose. When it comes to social media usage, YouTube stood out as the preferred choice for search, followed by Facebook and then Instagram.

SMEs can use this information to have a better understanding of their consumers. Doing so can help them to produce content based on user preferences and post it on platforms compatible with their business to increase engagement. Businesses can then conduct market research and chalk out a strategy that works best for them in order to expand the reach of their products or services, whether that be via search engines, social media, or both. 

In the second part of this two-part series, we will examine consumer concerns around online searching and how their trust, or lack thereof, affects their decision-making. We will also get insights into personalised searches and consumer sentiments around location-based results. 

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The 2023 Decentralisation of Search Engines survey was launched between 9th February 2023 and 16th February 2023. It was undertaken by 1,021 participants from different parts of the UK. For the purpose of this article by ‘online searching’, we refer to the practice of using tools such as search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, DuckduckGo...) and social media (Tiktok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube...) to conduct a specific search for something in particular. This search can be any kind of online information on any topic. 

When we mention the term ‘search online’, we refer solely and exclusively to the process of intentionally searching online for information about a topic. Within this concept, we exclude activities such as ‘surfing’ the internet, or using social media platforms, for example, just to look at the feed.

The criteria for selecting the participants is as follows:

  • Resident of the United Kingdom
  • Above 18 years of age
  • Search online more than once per month

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

About the author

Sukanya is a Content Analyst for the UK and India market. Committed to offering insights on technology, emerging trends and software suggestions to SMEs. Café hopper and a dog mom.

Sukanya is a Content Analyst for the UK and India market. Committed to offering insights on technology, emerging trends and software suggestions to SMEs. Café hopper and a dog mom.