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Google and Microsoft Bing will be hot topics in Seattle this week, as people from around the search industry huddle here for one of their biggest annual conferences. But Facebook and Twitter will be near the top of the agenda, as well.

Those social networks (and many others) are bringing major changes to Internet search. Examples include Google’s integration of Google+ data into its search results earlier this year, and Bing’s recent launch of a new social sidebar — attempting to use social data from our friends to serve up helpful information related to our searches.

The search engines still have plenty of work to do. Google initially faced a backlash to its “Search Plus Your World” launch. And my Bing search for a restaurant in Ballard this weekend brought up a friend’s post about a tailor in Bellevue.

But many people in the industry believe social data is destined to play a bigger and bigger role in Internet search — which means that social technologies and trends will become even more important to companies and sites jockeying for position in search results.

“It is reshaping the search space almost on a monthly basis, because the players keep changing up how they’re going to use these social signals,” said Danny Sullivan, the closely followed editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land and co-chair of the sold-out SMX Advanced search conference, taking place Tuesday and Wednesday on the Seattle waterfront.

In advance of the event, I spoke with Sullivan about broad trends in the search industry, starting with the influx of social data. He predicted that these “social signals” will eventually overtake traditional links as the leading factor used by search engines to deliver results.

Danny Sullivan

In many ways, he said, those social signals are a more inclusive way for search engines to figure out what’s important and relevant — more democratic than tracking site-to-site links, because the barrier to “voting” with social tools is much lower.

“That’s where social is a huge change,” he said. “It enfranchises so many more people to say, I really like this. I didn’t have to write a blog post to tell you I like something. I can just link to it, I can just like it. I can do these various things, and in doing that I can tell you that something is important.”

One down side is that social signals don’t always contain as much context as traditional web links, and therefore aren’t as easy for the search engines to interpret. It’s not necessarily clear to an algorithm why someone is clicking ‘like’ on a page, for example.

But Sullivan noted that social data could prove more resistant, in some ways, to efforts to game the system. “It’s unusual for a site that’s of low quality to suddenly show up with a thousand ‘likes’ out of nowhere.”

Microsoft has used its partnership with Facebook to give Bing an edge in the integration of social data. Indirectly, Microsoft also controls a larger percentage of the search market these days through its Yahoo partnership, with Bing delivering the underlying search results for the Yahoo search experience.

Bing itself has become the No. 2 player in the U.S. over the past year, with more than 15 percent market share, according to the comScore Networks research firm.

However, Google has actually widened its lead over the same period, by a slight margin, because Bing’s gains have come mostly at the expense of Yahoo. The combined market share of Bing and Yahoo has slipped slightly in recent months, to less than 30 percent.

“It is more than fair to say that the partnership that Yahoo pitched by going in with Microsoft has not played out anywhere near as promised,” Sullivan said. “(Former Yahoo CEO Carol) Bartz in particular was saying, ‘hey, it’s just like having a chip inside your computer, and it doesn’t matter what the chip is, and we’re going to win.’ As it turns out, it does seem to matter. We’ve never had a search engine that gave up its own processing chip succeed. It’s just never happened, and Yahoo has not turned out to be the exception to that rule.”

More recently, Yahoo has shown new signs of life through the launch of its Axis mobile “search browser” and desktop browser plugin. But it remains to be seen whether that initiative will have a measurable effect on Yahoo’s search traffic over the long term.

These are some of the topics to be discussed at SMX Advanced, which draws key players from around the industry. Although the full conference is sold out, partial access is available with a “network” pass. Speakers will include Matt Cutts of Google and Derrick Connell of Bing.

We’ll have coverage from SMX Advanced starting Tuesday on GeekWire.

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