After toppling Google in the US in early 2010, Facebook became the UK’s number one website at the end of last year – but only for a day.

New figures from Experian Hitwise, the online measurement firm, found that social networks such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter then went on to overtake entertainment websites in January, to become the UK’s top internet activity for the first time.

But in spite of its rapid growth, Facebook still lags Google in the individual site rankings.

After overtaking search last year, social media now accounts for 12.4 per cent of all time online, with total traffic to such sites up 17 per cent last year according to Experian Hitwise.

Entertainment sites include the BBC iPlayer and its longform video rivals, although YouTube is counted as both a social network and an entertainment site. More than half of all visits to social networking sites go to Facebook.

Google is still the UK’s single biggest website, accounting for 8.9 per cent of all visits from British internet users in January. Facebook is the second largest, with 7.5 per cent share. But the social network – which overtook Google in the US a year ago – topped the search engine on Christmas Day 2010, when it accounted for 10 per cent of all visits.

The shift towards social media may not be surprising, given Facebook’s continuing stranglehold on the nation’s attention. People typically spend around half an hour on the site every time they visit.

But Facebook’s growth isn’t just coming at Google’s expense. While Facebook is already the second largest source of traffic to other websites, its 8 per cent of referrals is a long way behind Google’s 28 per cent. That means more people are going to Facebook and simply staying there – or just moving onto Twitter or YouTube.

“One in every eight people leaving a social network visits another one immediately after, something that is encouraged by the connections that exist between the networks,” says Experian Hitwise’s research director, Robin Goad.

In January, social networks in general sent only 16 per cent of their traffic to “transactional” websites such as online retailers and travel sites, whereas search engines sent 33 per cent. It would seem people are still in a less commercial mindset when they’re checking messages from their friends, in spite of the huge amount of activity from brands and marketers on Facebook and Twitter.

However, Facebook is chasing a different kind of advertising budget to Google: it wants mroe “brand-building” money, rather than something that will immediately lead to a sale. In spite of the increasing war of words between Google and Facebook, ecommerce companies aren’t likely to abandon Adwords anytime soon.

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