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Just What Is Social Networking?

A social-networking service is one that helps people communicate together and share information quickly. Consider for a moment a basic, informational website. Clients come to the site, read about the products or services being promoted by the site, perhaps take some kind of action — make a purchase, sign up for a newsletter, or whatever — and go away. The communication flow is all one-way.

Of course, you could add two-way communication to a website — a chat system that allows customers to chat online with customer-service staff, for instance. But it’s still fairly limited communication.

A social-networking service, though, provides multichannel communications. Members of the service’s “community” can communicate with any other member who wants to communicate.

Facebook, the world’s largest social-networking service, had 750 million active members by June 2011. If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s third most populous nation. Any of those 750 million members can communicate with any other member, assuming the other member is interested in communicating.

Social networking is more than just “communicating”, though. Social network sites often encourage people to set up their own minisites or profiles, on which they can post information about themselves, such as photos and messages. They can search for and connect with other members with similar interests, or members they know out in the real world.

The social-networking landscape is large and amorphous. You can certainly argue that discussion groups are part of social networking, and there are many tens of thousands of discussion groups.

Blogging is also often considered a part of social networking. One important characteristic of social-networking sites is that they make publishing easy for people with no technical skills. All of a sudden, through the power of social networking, virtually anyone can be an online publisher, rather than merely a consumer of online information.

Social networking is a relatively new term; even most of today’s Facebook members probably didn’t know the term until relatively recently. (Facebook didn’t open to the public until September 2006.) But social networking is actually an old concept, going back to the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Online services such as CompuServe might be thought of as proto-social-networking services, allowing one-to-one communication between members, group communications in forums, the sharing of digital materials (text documents, images, software), and so on.

Today, though, what are the really important social-networking sites? The four most important are definitely Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+.

By the end of 2011 Twitter had 300 million individual users tweeting (that is, for those of you who have been held hostage in a cave somewhere, sending short Twitter messages) around 300 million times a day.

(Is Twitter really a social-networking service? Yes, because it allows multichannel communication. However, the majority of Twitter users never send a message; they use it to receive information, so for most users, it’s really more of a message-delivery service than a social network.)

Then there’s Google+. This site is very important from an SEO perspective. Launched in 2011, it’s a slick new Facebook competitor that has suffered from Facebook burnout (who needs another social network when you’re already wasting too much time on the ones you have?!) and benefited from the power of brand Google.

Within six months, Google+ had grown to 90 million members. Still, Google+ is reportedly growing extremely fast, with some observers claiming it will reach 400 million members by the end of 2012. But from an SEO perspective, it’s not just numbers that count. Google+ can be an important factor in SEO regardless of the size.

Many other social-networking services exist, of course. Here are a few of the biggies in North America:

  • MySpace: Almost 33 million users, and dropping fast; it used to be the world’s #1 social-networking site. Many teenagers use MySpace until they decide they’re too embarrassed to hang out with the kids and switch to Facebook.

  • LinkedIn: A business-networking site (based on the “six degrees of separation” concept), with around 125 million users and growing.

  • Pinterest: Over 10.4 million active members and growing rapidly among female users. Pinterest lets you organize and share beautiful things (primarily images) you find on the web.

  • Flickr: A photo-sharing network with tens of millions of users.

  • Orkut: Not so popular in North America, actually, but it’s owned by Google and has perhaps 100 million members (mostly in India and Brazil). It’s really a Brazilian social-networking site now.

There are many, many social-networking sites, including “social-bookmarking” sites (such as Delicious and Stumbleupon), sites related to particular interests, sites designed to help people find old friends (Classmates.com, for instance), and so on.

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