Apr 1, 2024

Is TikTok Becoming a Search Engine?

The popular and controversial network TikTok has evolved from being a highly engaging video-based social media platform—to being the first port of call when especially younger generations want to search online.

A recent study by Adobe suggests that TikTok is currently deemed the fourth most-popular search engine among digital natives, falling just behind YouTube, Bing, and Google. Also, with almost one in 10 Gen Zers being more likely to use TikTok than Google as a search engine, it’s fair to say that this ever-evolving social media app is well and truly on the map.

There has been a lot of talk about TikTok being on a path to become the new Google. But do these claims have any substance? And should you consider the platform in your latest SEO strategy? We’ll look at:

  1. How did TikTok become a search engine?
  2. What are TikTok’s key search features?
  3. What is TikTok’s future as a search engine?
  4. How are marketers responding to TikTok and search?
  5. Search engine marketing: Looking beyond Google and TikTok
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How did TikTok become a search engine?

One of the driving factors of TikTok’s ongoing success is its universal appeal. 

While Gen Z makes up the lion’s share (around 40%) of users, people from various age brackets engage with, and create content for, the platform regularly. In fact, studies show that around one in five TikTok users are between 40 and 49 years of age.

Another clear driver of TikTok’s impressive growth is its ability to evolve with the ever-shifting digital landscape.

To showcase its commitment to providing a seamless user search experience, the brand launched an interesting marketing campaign in the UK to make the most of its new search-centric tendencies.

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Featuring powerful influencers, including Hardest Geezer (who’s running the entire length of Africa) and MadeWithMud (a creative pottery enthusiast) the video-based campaign clearly showcases TikTok’s information-serving and community-harnessing value beyond novelty dance challenges. 

This campaign is also notable for its melting pot of marketing outlets: the channels include traditional television advertising, BVOD, social media, radio, podcast, in-app, and savvy out-of-home (OOH) placement.

This punchy and aspirational initiative has earned lots of positive engagement across channels and helped put TikTok on the map as a viable search and content discovery tool.

Read more: Learn how to create TikTok content

What are TikTok’s key search features?

Let’s take a look at the platform’s most recent search features.

Discover page

The Discover page on TikTok showcases personalized recommendations based on users' interests, interactions, and browsing history. It includes a mix of trending videos, personalized recommendations, and curated content categories to facilitate content discovery.

Hashtag search

Users can search for specific hashtags to discover content related to their personal interests or curiosities. TikTok's search algorithm ranks content based on relevance and popularity, making it easier for all users to find trending or niche content: #tiktokers and #aesthetic are interesting examples of popular niche hashtags.

Keyword search

In addition to hashtags, users can search for content using keywords related to their interests. TikTok's search algorithm analyzes video captions, user profiles, and other key pieces of information to provide the most relevant search results. According to Statista, the terms ‘how to’ and ‘what is…’ were the most well-trodden keywords in 2023.

Sound search

Users can even search for videos using specific sounds or music tracks. TikTok's extensive and ever-growing library of audio clips allows users to discover content based on their favorite songs or sound effects by searching the platform’s ever-expanding ‘Sounds’ library.

User search

Users can search for specific users or content creators on TikTok. This intuitive feature enables people to explore content from their favorite creators or discover new accounts based on their personal interests.

Trending searches

TikTok highlights trending hashtags, sounds, and challenges in the search results, allowing users to explore popular content and join in the latest viral trends.

In-app search bar

TikTok features an in-app search bar at the top of its mobile app interface. This enables users to quickly search from any screen for the trends, topics, and content of their choice.

Advanced filters

TikTok offers advanced search filters to refine search results. These filters are based on criteria such as video type, duration, and upload date. Users can use these filters to narrow down their search and find specific types of content.

What is TikTok’s future as a search engine?

TikTok’s flurry of new or improved search-based content discovery features certainly makes it an intuitive tool for seeking answers to questions and connecting with valuable information.

Did you know that video-based search results tend to enjoy a clickthrough rate that’s 41% higher than their text-based counterparts? So, it’s fair to say that visual search (a function that allows users to discover content, information or products based on visual assets like images or videos) is a firm part of any solid SEO strategy. Also, it’s easy to see why many digital natives regard TikTok as an essential search engine.

The source of the TikTok search hype

While there’s no denying that TikTok delivers the goods as a visual search engine, can it really catch up with Google in the coming months or years?

The original source of the hype surrounding the fact that an apparent 40% of Gen Zers use TikTok as a search engine is said to come from a statement by Google’s Senior VP, Prabhakar Raghavan, that indicated that almost 40% of Gen Zers were using TikTok as a replacement for Google. And, when you get down to the details, both TikTok and Instagram, were included within that ‘40%’ statistic.

How are marketers responding to TikTok and search?

Like any new digital marketing trend or concept, the response to ‘TikTok as a search engine’ has been somewhat mixed. But, the general opinion is that TikTok is a valuable tool when it comes to search functionality and content discovery.

In this LinkedIn thread alone, several marketers share Phoebe Sophia Russell’s sentiment. Others don’t believe that TikTok can become a genuine search engine, debating that the platform only showcases search results within its own network rather than returning results from a range of sources around the web.

“[TikTok] feels genuine. I think a lot of people are having this counter-reaction towards being sold to for so long. People don’t like to be advertised to. So a lot of the complaints I’ve heard—and Google acknowledges it sometimes—the results seem gamified. It seems like it’s just brands selling you their affiliate links. And what people found from TikTok or micro influencers was a genuine experience or a genuine review.”— Luke O’Leary of Neil Patel Digital on The DMI Podcast

While some marketers feel that each platform has its own useful set of content discovery attributes. They argue that putting a definitive ‘label’ on what certain platforms are or what they do is unproductive.

The potential limitation of TikTok for search

One of the most glaring limitations of TikTok as a search engine (as it stands) is that it’s limited to platform-only queries. That limitation has not stopped YouTube becoming a key search engine but it’s clear that Google and its cross-platform search counterparts still lead the pack, as evidenced in a recent SparkToro survey.

That said, as a highly innovative and ever-evolving platform, there’s little doubt that TikTok will push the boundaries of its search functionality in the not so distant future.

Search engine marketing: Looking beyond Google and TikTok

Don’t think of the current search landscape in terms of ‘TikTok vs Google’. Instead, consider how search marketing is changing—and the brand-boosting opportunities that this might lead to.

By focusing on creating visually inspiring, value-driven content tailored to a balanced mix of leading content discovery platforms, marketers can tap into the ‘search engine’ power of Google, YouTube, Bing, Instagram, TikTok… the list goes on.

“A lot people are now using TikTok as a more visual engine to allow them to understand what they want to get up to when they go to a new destination.”—Luke O’Leary on younger generations using TikTok as a search engine for traveling and tourism

Understand individual social media algorithms to keep your finger on the pulse and develop a well-rounded SEO strategy that encompasses every emerging search marketing development. This will help you win on tomorrow’s commercial battlefield.

NOTE: It’s worth stating that in the most recent developments (March 2024), the U.S Government has stated that Bytedance (the Chinese company that owns TikTok) has six months to divest in any assets linked to the nation or it faces a ban. This is following security concerns surrounding certain AI-based technologies and applications.

At this point, TikTok’s fate within the U.S. is unclear (especially since the Biden administration took to the platform to promote a recent campaign), but it’s certainly worth keeping your eye on things as developments unfold.

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Dan Hughes
Dan Hughes

Dan is a content writer specializing in digital marketing, emerging tech, music and looking after a toddler. You can find out more about him and his work by visiting his Catchy Space.

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