Facebook's battle for internet supremacy with Google has intensified after social networks received more internet hits than search engines for the first time in the UK.
Social networks received more web visits than search sites during May, Experian Hitwise revealed yesterday.
"We have been expecting this, but it is a pretty big milestone," said Robin Goad, a research director at Hitwise.
Search engines accounted for 11.33 per cent of internet visits last month, while social networks accounted for 11.88 per cent. Mr Goad said: "Although social networks and search engines perform different functions, they both act as gateways to the wider internet. This data perfectly illustrates the key role that social media now plays in so much online behaviour."
This comes just months after Facebook surpassed Google to become the most popular site in the US for the first time. While the data was only recorded over a week, Experian found that for the seven days to 13 March, Facebook received 7.07 per cent of website hits in the country, overtaking Google which had a 7.03 per cent share.
Facebook dominates the social networking sector, accounting for 55 per cent of all social networking traffic in the UK – almost three times as much as its closest rival – while Google remains the most popular website overall. But Facebook, Hitwise said, does not dominate UK social networking to the extent Google dominates search – it accounts for nine in every 10 UK searches.
Google accounted for 9.2 per cent of total hits in the UK in May, with Facebook accounting for 7 per cent. "Facebook is closing the gap in the UK, but there is a way to go," Mr Goad said.
He continued: "It is partly about Facebook versus Google, but really it is broader than that. Things that pose Google a lot of threat include those with real time search such as Twitter." Google has moved to incorporate Twitter feeds into search results in response.
Hitwise measured the number of visits rather than time spent on the site, because people already spend proportionately more time on social networking sites. As Mr Goad pointed out: "The function of search is to find other websites." Facebook and Google both declined to comment on Hitwise's data.
Google still dominates the online advertising market, which made up the majority of its $23.6bn (£16.3bn) revenues last year. "The advertising spending doesn't reflect the growth of social networking yet, it is still mostly going to search especially from traditional clients such as financial services, retailers and travel companies," Mr Goad said.
"Social networks will open up a gap in terms of visits over search engines, and the gap." The online advertising market is still growing so "they are not necessarily cannibalising each other's revenues," Mr Goad said. Sources close to the company said the differences between the two companies' advertising models meant they were not going for the same advertisers. "It's comparing apples and oranges," one said.
Many companies had failed to advertise effectively on social networks, Mr Goad said, "but spending on the channel will increase as more proven success stories emerge". He added that sectors that have traditionally struggled with online, including cars and "fast moving consumer goods" such as personal healthcare products, had a big opportunity with social networks.