LONDON: Social media services are now attracting greater numbers of visitors than search engines in the UK, a new report has shown.

According to statistics released by Experian Hitwise, the research firm, platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn were responsible for an 11.9% share of all online activity in May.

This compared with the score of 11.3% posted by properties like Google and Bing, marking the first time this category has fallen behind networking, video-sharing and other such sites on this measure.

In May 2007, search portals were the destination of 13% of web visits while social networks were on just 7%, and this gap still stood at around 1.5% in January 2010.

At present, Facebook accounts for 55% of social media traffic, ahead of YouTube on 16.5% and Twitter on 2.1%, with Bebo and MySpace both some way further back on 1.2%.

Elsewhere, the combined figure of Google's homepages in the UK and US delivered 90% of all search enquiries in Britain in May, with generating the vast majority of this total.

Google also retained its position as the most popular site in the UK with a 9.3% share of visits in the fifth month of this year, followed by Facebook on 7%, Windows Live Mail on 2.4% and YouTube on 2.1%.

While Experian Hitwise's estimates are indicative of the surge in uptake recorded by offerings like Facebook rather than a decline in search, the division between these areas is becoming blurred.

"Social networks are a key part of the online landscape in the UK, and their popularity continues to grow," said Robin Goad, the company's research director.

"Although social networks and search engines perform different functions, they both act as gateways to the wider internet."

Goad also suggested that paid-for search would continue to take the largest portion of internet ad budgets for the foreseeable future, particularly for the retail, finance and travel industries.

"Many marketers and brand owners have yet to grasp the full potential of social media marketing, but spending on the channel will increase as more proven success stories emerge," he said.

"There will be particular opportunities for sectors that have traditionally struggled with online and remained tied to traditional media, such as FMCG and automotive."

A recent survey by Marks & Clerk, the law firm, found there was considerable anxiety among many companies about the possible damage to the integrity of their brands should Facebook and Twitter adopt an advertising model like that used by Google.

Data sourced from Experian Hitwise; additional content by Warc staff