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Web search engines vs. social media: How do Canada’s web users look for information online?

Published on 2023-03-21 by Tessa Anaya

Search is a daily activity for most web users in Canada, but web search engines aren’t the only platform they use. Before investing in SEO tools and marketing strategies, here’s what SMEs need to know.

web search engines vs social media

Search is one of the defining features of the modern internet. Companies built around search like Google and Yahoo were at the forefront of internet growth in the early 2000s, when adoption rates rose from 51% to 72%.

Search is also a vital tool for small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) in Canada. Insider Intelligence predicts 19% growth in search ad spending in 2023, and says that this type of marketing makes up 44.5% of all digital ad spending.

But new tech and new commercial interests are changing the web all the time. In today’s era of TikTok and web3, are consumers still searching the same way as they were ten, five, or even two years ago?

To find out, we surveyed more than 1,000 web users in Canada. In this article, we focus on general search trends, including the relative merits of using traditional search engines versus searching on social media platforms. In part 2, we ask whether consumers trust the results they get when they search and explore how SMEs can ensure they deliver trusted content to the right audiences. You can scroll down to the bottom of the article for a full methodology.

Most web users in Canada use search daily 

All participants in our survey perform online searches at least once a month, and the majority do so much more frequently. Overall, 78% said they search for information online once a day or more, and another 17% do so at least once a week. Nearly half of the web users we spoke to are searching multiple times a day, with one in five performing ten searches or more per day.

frequency of online search users

Smartphones are the most popular device to search from, being the preferred option for 38% of the people in our survey. Computers are also widely used —31% favour laptop searches, while 24% use their desktops. 7% of people said they prefer a tablet, and only one person out of 1,004 said that their favourite way to search is with a virtual assistant such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home.

Although it has become easily accessible through smartphones and virtual assistants, voice search overall was not a popular way to search. Only 4% said it was their first choice, compared with the 92% who said they like to type their query into a text box. If SMEs have not already adjusted their search marketing strategy to prioritize mobile users, they should consider doing so.

Web search engines still dominate, with Google in the top spot

Search functionality is common across digital platforms, so consumers have a huge choice as to where, when, and how they look for information. For example, when shopping for a particular item, they can search for it on a search engine or an eCommerce site. Similarly, they can use search engines to find how-to videos, but they can also search for this directly on video sites.

Overall, 59% of the respondents in our survey said they exclusively use web search engines (like Google, Bing, and Yahoo) to find information online. 38% also search using social media, which includes YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. A much smaller proportion (4%) said they only search using social media.

The majority that use web search engines favour Google to an overwhelming degree. 92% said it was their provider of choice, with Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Yahoo preferred by less than 3% each. This market dominance (and average annual growth of 20% since 2011, according to the Economist) is powered by Google’s constantly evolving search algorithm, which has attracted users and, in turn, advertisers. 

Lack of trust can put people off searching on social media

Even among those who use both social media and web search engines to find information online, search engines were still more popular. 60% of this group said they use search engines more, while 38% said they tended to use social media and search engines equally. Looking at the past two years, this group shows a slight shift in its preference towards search engines, too:

preferences of web search engines in canada

Among users who search on both types of platform (but use search engines more), relevance and trustworthiness of information were major reasons they favoured web search engines over social media. However, simple force of habit was also a major driver in all scenarios. And it was the most significant factor behind the choice of those who favour social media.

The verdict from those who do not use social media at all to find information online was strikingly similar. 34% of these respondents said they don’t trust social media results, and 22% said the information is not of good quality. But other factors, such as a perceived better user interface on web search engines, more dynamic results, and force of habit (again), contribute to search engines’ enduring popularity.

Tip for SMEs: People tend to stick with search platforms they know, but there appears to be some indication that web users find the results from search engines are more trustworthy and relevant. Make sure branded content aligns with users’ search intent by using tools like NLP technology to provide relevant and authoritative content for the queries you are looking to target.

Different content prompts different search methods

Putting aside people’s general preference for search engines or social media, we also asked those who search on both platforms to choose their favourite for various types of content. Here, there are significant differences in how people search depending on what they are searching for.

When content is broken down by category, users tended to prefer search engines to a lesser degree than when asked about them in a general sense, but Google, Yahoo, and the like were still the preferred method for 9 out of the 16 categories. In the remaining instances, users said they use both search and social media to find information on the subjects. And social media proved a more popular way to find information than search engines for tutorials/how-tos and celebrity gossip.

most common web search engine topics for users

Search engines are very popular, but consumers do not view them as the only way to find information. To understand some of the disadvantages, we asked those who only search using social media why they don’t use web search engines. These people see value in information from people in their own network, noting that search engines don’t typically offer this. They also said that the results they get through social media are more dynamic and relevant to their needs. However, they also noted that their choice was somewhat down to habit and a preference for the user interface of social media.

disadvantages of web search engines for social media search users
Tip for SMEs: When developing your digital or search marketing strategy, bear in mind that web search engines and social media cater for different user experiences and expectations. You may find that your marketing works better on one than the other depending on the content you’re providing and where in your purchasing journey a user is when they view that content. Customer journey mapping tools can help visualize this and work out content for various touchpoints along the way.

YouTube leads the pack for social media searches

The social media landscape is highly fragmented, with a range of different platforms appealing to different demographics in different regions and featuring different types of content.

The most popular social platform when it comes to search is YouTube. 83% of those who conduct searches on social media said they did so on this platform, ahead of Facebook (67%), and Instagram (45%). Search may be so popular on YouTube because its user experience focuses less on new and trending content and more on content of any age that may be of use to the user. It also surfaces ‘evergreen content’, including enduringly popular entertainment or tutorial videos that users like to watch again and again. Other social platforms that prioritize a news feed (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) heavily focus on what’s new, not what’s proven popular over many years.

Video overall appears to be a valuable medium to web searchers. 37% of all respondents in the survey said they search using a video platform (either Instagram

TikTok, YouTube, or Kwai— which is mainly popular in China). Among these users, more than two-thirds (68%) search for video at least once a day. YouTube is the most popular platform among this group for consuming video content. 76% say it’s their favourite, ahead of Instagram (15%), and TikTok (9%).

How-to content and funny or entertaining videos prove to be the most sought-after content for this audience, but they do seek out a wide range of videos. Product demos, reviews, educational content, and news are all popular as well.

 top searched-for social media video platform content types

Most (52%) of video searchers say that the main advantage of these platforms is that video content is more engaging than other types of search results. And 80% said that the videos improve their understanding and/or retention of information. This explains, at least in part, why video search is so popular for educational and how-to content.

In summary: Traditional search still rules, but social and video serve strong niches

In most cases, web users in Canada still prefer to use search engines to find information online. However, many also search using social media, especially when they are looking for trending content or content tailored around their own social networks. They also see value in video search for educational and how-to content especially, possibly because they see video as the best format for this and look to dedicated sites to find what they’re looking for.

SMEs need to recognise how users prefer to find content depending on what they’re looking for and tailor their search strategy accordingly.

In part 2 of this series, we ask web users in Canada about the trustworthiness of search results and ask what they think of personalized and location-based search results.

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GetApp’s data for this study was gathered through an online survey conducted in February 2023 in which we surveyed 1004 people residing in Canada from all regions in the country. The sample of participants is representative of the population of Canada regarding aspects of age and gender, and the criteria for selecting participants are as follows:

  • Over 18 years of age
  • Must search online at least a few times a month

Note: The applications mentioned in this article are examples to show a feature or tool in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.

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

Tessa is a Content Analyst for GetApp, delivering software-related insights to local SMEs. She was featured in the Globe and Mail, La Presse, the Financial Post, and Yahoo.

Tessa is a Content Analyst for GetApp, delivering software-related insights to local SMEs. She was featured in the Globe and Mail, La Presse, the Financial Post, and Yahoo.