Website traffic is the currency of the Internet. And two of the most cost-effective solutions for small business owners to build that traffic is through search and social media.

As the Internet continues to mature beyond Web 2.0, we are experiencing a paradigm shift that’s actually combining the worlds of search and social. Let’s examine search vs. social, how these marketing strategies work together, and what that means for your company now and in the future.

Search’s popularity and value to businesses comes from its ability to help consumers find relevant companies, products, and services. While people might log onto Facebook for no particular reason, if someone visits Google, they’re looking for something specific. Econsultancy found that 61 percent of consumers use search engines to help them in product research, so it’s clear what a vital role search plays in the sales cycle.

How People Use Social Media

Social media’s primary value to consumers is its peer recommendations. For example, the report mentioned above also states that 75 percent of people 18-26 used recommendations on social sites in product research before making a purchase.

Whereas search is primarily used to create a list of purchase options, social media recommendations are used to validate the relevancy of our choices with the people in our social graph. Even simple acts of brand affinity (Likes, @ mentions) can sway a friend’s purchase decision, based on the social connections between all parties concerned.

How Search and Social Work Together

Despite how effective they are independently, the worlds of search and social are on a collision course. Platforms like Google, Bing, and Facebook, are actively trying to integrate into one another, creating more value for users. Here’s are some specific examples of how these companies are combining search and social.

Google’s Search Plus Your World: Earlier this year, Google unveiled its “Search Plus Your World” feature to its search engine. Now when you search for something, it finds content that’s been shared with you as well as matches from public search and displays the results in one set of listings (as long as you’re signed into Google). Google’s intent was to boost peer recommendations by showing users personalized search results, not just standard web results.

Bing’s Social Search: Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, is trying to catch up with Google. Shortly after Google debuted “Search Plus Your World,” Bing introduced its own social search feature. Bing’s social search brings in data from Facebook, Quora, LinkedIn, and Twitter to its sidebar and displays images of friends who have listed or liked the searched keyword.

Facebook’s Organic Social Search: During Mark Zuckerberg’s TechCrunch Disrupt interview, he candidly mentioned that Facebook — the world’s largest social media site — was processing a billion search queries a day. Zuckerberg went on to state that because search is evolving, Facebook is perfectly positioned to dominate social search in the future.

What This Means For Small Business Marketing

Search is likely to become much more valuable and contextual for everyone. It will make purchase decisions more efficient because of the added social layer. Instead of performing a traditional search engine query, finding what you’re looking for, and then going out and reviewing the validity of the search results within your social graph, social search will have this feature baked in.

Social media marketing is a popular buzzword, but often times small businesses overlook it. The main reason is that it’s time-consuming and tracking sales is difficult. Which is why we see many local businesses with a profile on social networks, but no activity whatsoever.

The most important takeaway for businesses is that you must start to take social seriously. There is no questioning it: social is going to affect search results. It’s going to drive more relevant search results and decrease the amount of time we spend finding the best answers to our questions. It’s imperative for businesses make sure they’re ready for a world in which search introduces them to potential customers and validates them through their social graphs.

[Image credits: Magnus Akselvoll, FindYourSearch, Aidan JonesValerie Everett]