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Social media search: Is it changing how Australians search online?

Published on 28/03/2023 by Andrew Blair

Search engines provide users with a wealth of information at their fingertips and have typically been the go-to search platforms for many years. However, the widespread uptake of social media is influencing new search habits and preferences. As such, what impacts is social media having on the use of search engines across generations? 

 Professionals analysing social media search users

Baby boomers witnessed the birth of the internet, the dot-com boom, and the development of the first web search engines, but the arrival of social media at the start of the 21st century provided an alternative way to search for content. With Gen Z growing up in the social media age, does where and how we search on the internet vary between generations? 

To investigate how and where people search online and the generational differences in consumer search behaviour, GetApp surveyed 1,075 Australians that search online more than once per month. For the purposes of this study, an ‘online search’ refers to the practice of using tools such as search engines and social media to conduct a specific search for something in particular (for the full methodology, scroll to the end of this article).

Almost half of Aussies search online more than 5 times per day

Access to the internet was made even easier with the introduction of smartphones. Latest figures show 74% of Australians access the internet via their mobile phone, with numbers increasing steadily year on year. Half of our survey respondents (51%) said smartphones are their preferred device for online searches.

Optimise websites for mobile devices

With more consumers engaging with brands through their mobile devices than ever before, it is essential for businesses to ensure their websites are fully mobile-optimised. A website builder can help companies make their web pages mobile-friendly. Some software includes optimisation features that allow users to switch between a desktop and mobile view of their website so they can adapt a web page layout to make it easier for visitors to view and navigate on mobile devices.

Although it’s possible to search online using image recognition tools or via voice commands, the overwhelming majority (92%) of respondents said that typing in a search box is their preferred online search method. 

Businesses that optimise their web pages with search engine optimisation (SEO) tools and techniques can increase the chances of users discovering their content when they type a search query into search engines such as Google and Bing. Optimising websites includes aspects such as incorporating relevant keywords into text, adding descriptive meta tags to images and video content, and improving page loading speeds. Most (72%) respondents said their favourite type of search result is text, while some preferred to find links to other websites (11%), images (9%), or videos (8%). 

72% of Gen Z search online more than 5 times per day

Almost half (48%) of respondents search online more than five times per day. However, when we break these results down by generation, we see this number is significantly higher among Gen Z users, of which 72% said they search more than five times per day. Online search frequencies follow a trend that increases among younger generations.

Stacked bar chart showing online search frequency per generation

After looking into the online search frequency of different generations, we wanted to investigate where Aussies are carrying out their search queries and for what purpose to see if these results also varied according to age. 

To find out, we asked which tool respondents use for online search and analysed each group accordingly. The three groups consisted of respondents that only use search engines to search online, respondents that use both social media and search engines to search online, and respondents that only use social media to search online —as indicated in the graph below.

Donut chart showing which tool respondents use to search online

The following section will evaluate the results of respondents that said they only use search engines for online searches.

57% search only through search engines

More than half of respondents (57%) said they only use search engines to search online. We wanted to know how consumers use them and if there is a difference between generations.

General search is lower among younger generations

The majority (70%) of those respondents said they use search engines mostly for general searches, such as searching for generic information, followed by online shopping (52%) and searching for recipes and food information (47%).  

Bar chart showing the top five most selected types of searches on search engines

The top three results were similar for all generations except Gen Z. Of those that indicated general search, baby boomers (73%) cited this type of search on search engines the highest, followed by Gen X (72%), millennials (68%), and finally, Gen Z (50%) —indicating that younger generations are less likely to use a search engine for this type of query. 56% of Gen Z users cited searches for tutorials on how to do things as the most popular type of search query on search engines.

Older generations distrust social media results 

When we asked the respondents who only use search engines why they don’t use social media platforms to search online, respondents most commonly said they don’t trust the results (37%). However, the following graph indicates that older generations are more likely to cite distrust of social media results as a reason than younger generations. Interestingly, the top reason Gen Z gave for not searching on these platforms was that, in their opinion, there’s no relevant information on social media (37%), contrary to other generations (baby boomers: 17%, Gen X: 18%, and millennials: 16%).

MultiBar chart showing why search engine users (per generation) don’t use social media to search online.

Next, we analysed respondents that use both search engines and social media to evaluate which search queries are used for each search platform and by which generation.

38% search on both social media platforms and search engines

Around 4 out of 10 survey-takers said they use both search engines and social media to search online. However, which medium is preferred for different types of search query and do preferences vary between generations?

Search engines are generally preferred over social media platforms for online search 

When we asked those who use both platforms for online search which they used the most for this purpose, a little over half (56%) said, in general, they use search engines the most, while 40% generally use both platforms and only 4% tend to use social media more.

Around two-thirds (65%) of the respondents who said they use search engines the most preferred them for online searches because they think the results are more relevant to them. The second most common answer was that results are more trustworthy (43%), echoing the top reason given earlier by Aussies who said they solely used search engines for online searches as they didn’t trust the results given on social media platforms.

Social media platforms are preferred among younger generations to search for tutorials on how to do things

Most of those who use both platforms to search online still favour search engines for general search (68%), and the same sentiment exists across all generations. 41% say they use both mediums to search for general lifestyle information. However, when it comes to finding tutorials on how to do things, 40% prefer to search for these on social media platforms, in contrast to 33% who use both platforms and 23% who prefer search engines for this purpose. The younger the generation, the more likely they were to prefer using social media to search for this type of content, with Gen Z recording the highest numbers (47%), followed by millennials (43%), Gen X (33%), and baby boomers (28%).

Typically, tutorials on how to do things come in video format, which can be a more engaging way for users to learn new skills. Although video was cited as the least favoured type of search result (8%) by the overall group of survey-takers, whatever their preferred search method, it was the second most preferred search result (12%) among Gen Z. Younger generations have grown up with social media trends, such as short-format videos which, generally speaking, are usually under a minute in length.

Leverage video content 

Companies can leverage video content not just on social media but also on their website to stand out in search results on search engines. Videos uploaded on social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook can be embedded on websites. When the video is viewed on a web page, it is usually counted as a view on the corresponding social media channel, though the metrics may vary across platforms. Self-hosting videos can slow down your website and take up valuable server space, whereas embedding videos from another platform or host can help a web page load faster and enables viewers to share your videos. This lets you track engagement metrics such as likes, comments, and shares.

79% of social media searchers use YouTube

YouTube was the most cited social media platform used for search purposes by around 8 out of 10 respondents that either use both search engines and social media to search online or only social media search. We wanted to find out more about the preferences of the respondents from these two groups who use social media platforms with video for search.

60% of the respondents who use social media platforms with video use these platforms to search for online content more than once a day. Most of these respondents (62%) also cited YouTube as their favourite social network for watching videos. According to our survey, users of these video platforms most commonly search for how-to-do content (65%), followed closely by funny or entertaining content (64%). 

When we broke down the results by generation, the same types of content were featured in the top two search preferences for all age groups. However, the third most cited type of content searched for on social media video platforms varies across generations as follows:

  • Baby boomers: product demonstrations (41%)
  • Gen X: educational videos and reviews (41%)
  • Millennials: reviews (54%) 
  • Gen Z: brand content (46%)

Over half (53%) of these respondents said the main advantage of searching on social media video platforms is that video content is more engaging. Most of this group of respondents (46%) also agreed that video content greatly improves their understanding and retention of information.

Bar chart showing the advantages of using social media video platforms.

Although the preferred type of video content varies between generations, social media optimisation (SMO) can help attract an audience on social media video platforms. For example, video viewers can be directed to a product page via links. Companies can then use web analytics to track and analyse website audience data, such as visitor demographics, how visitors found the site, and what actions they took once there. 

Understanding your audience’s habits and preferences

Our survey results indicate that Aussies still widely prefer to find information using search engines, rather than searching on social media. However, the use of both platforms is evolving and, as seen from our data, search behaviour varies across generations. Younger generations tend to use search engines as an educational tool and have more of an even spread of search queries across search types. In contrast, most searches performed by older generations focus on a smaller range of content types.

Tracking and analysing your audience can give you more insights into the platform and type of content that appeals to existing and potential customers. These measures can help organisations gauge the effectiveness of their marketing and advertising efforts, as well as how effectively their website works as a sales tool.  

In the second part of this two-part series, we find out what concerns consumers when searching for information and how their privacy and trust affect their search behaviour on search engines and social media. 

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Data for GetApp’s Decentralisation of Search Engines Survey 2023 was collected in February 2023 and comprises answers from 1,075 respondents. We selected our survey sample based on the following criteria:

  • Australian resident
  • Over the age of 18
  • Searches for information or content online more than once per month

Respondents were provided with the following definition:

'By “online searching”, we refer to the practice of using 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 information on any topic.

Some examples can be searching for tutorials on how to do something, searching for information about a restaurant you want to go to, searching for hotels in a certain city, etc.

When we mention "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.'

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About the author

Andrew is a Content Analyst for GetApp, giving SMEs insights into tech, software and business trends. Interest in entrepreneurship, furthering projects and startups.

Andrew is a Content Analyst for GetApp, giving SMEs insights into tech, software and business trends. Interest in entrepreneurship, furthering projects and startups.