PALO ALTO: Facebook, the social networking service, is playing an increasingly prominent role in shaping consumers' media habits and purchase preferences, new figures have revealed.

According to Hitwise, the world's biggest social network – which has some 400 million members across the globe – overtook Google to become the most-visited website in the US last week.

Facebook was responsible for 7.07% of online traffic in the country in this period, compared with the total of 7.03% accounted for by the search giant's homepage.

Its visitor numbers rose by 185% in February year-on-year, compared with the uptick of 9% posted by Google, and its share of overall activity has rapidly climbed from slightly more than 2% in March 2009.

While Facebook had previously taken the top spot on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 2009, and New Year's Day 2010, its recent performance marked the first time it had retained this position for an entire week.

Heather Dougherty, research director at Hitwise, wrote on a company blog that Facebook had thus now "reached an important milestone" in its development.

Google had occupied first place in the rankings ever since September 2007, when it leapfrogged MySpace, which has since seen its user base decline in near-simultaneity with the rise of Facebook.

The search pioneer launched its own social network, called Buzz, in February as part of its broader efforts to heighten its presence in this area.

Data from Nielsen has also demonstrated that the 119 million US netizens who logged on to Facebook in February spent over six hours on its pages, compared with just over an hour for Google's 153 million visitors.

Furthermore, it stated that 13% of the audience who watched the Oscars on television earlier this month were simultaneously active on to the web at some point during the broadcast of the Academy Awards.

Within this, 39.5% were using Facebook, typically spending more than 15 minutes on its pages while watching the Awards, totals that read 35.1%, and three minutes, for Google.

Separately, Comscore has reported that the number of search enquiries made on Facebook climbed from 395 million in January this year to 436 million entries a month later.

While this does not threaten Google's dominance, as the search firm recorded 13.4 billion such entries in the second month of 2010, it has been argued that Facebook is becoming a major driver of traffic to other portals.

"The challenge Facebook presents to Google is less related to consumers' search activities and more related to discovery and traffic generation," said Augie Ray, an analyst at Forrester.

"Based on this trend, it's certainly possible that brand sites ... may shift budgets and decrease emphasis on paying for traffic via search engines rather than earning traffic through social media marketing means."

As many consumers "live" much of their online life on Facebook, be it in the form of sending messages, viewing content or playing games like FarmVille, the opportunities for advertisers are also growing.

"The true value of Facebook and social networks is just becoming clear to marketers," said Ray.

In further evidence of this, a poll of 1,500 Americans by Chadwick Martin Bailey and iModerate Research Technologies found 51% were more likely to buy a product which they followed on Facebook.

A further 60% would recommend a brand after becoming its "fan" on the social media site, although Twitter scored an even more impressive 67% and 79% on these terms respectively.

Data sourced from Financial Times, eWeek, Econsultancy; additional content by Warc staff