How digital marketers can use TikTok as a ‘search engine’ to drive results Having quickly conquered the world of social media, TikTok is coming after Google’s long-reigning title of “The King of Search” as it has begun positioning itself as a search engine. TikTok is already coming in hard and fast with their conquest; the less-than-a-decades old platform already surpassed Google by the number of searches in 2021. Whatsmore, TikTok has recently ended Google’s 15-year streak as the most popular web domain. In a move to solidify this transition, TikTok has launched a search widget on iOS, providing a shortcut for users to utilise their platform for search.
With 66% of consumers finding short-form videos to be the most engaging type of content, it is no surprise that the video-first platform has quickly climbed the social media ranks; but with what seems to be more differences than similarities to the synonymous search platform – does TikTok hold up as a search engine? And how can marketers leverage this transition to help drive success?
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What impact has growing up in the ‘digital age’ had? Generation Z (GenZ) – defined as those having been born in the mid-90s to the early 2010s – are classed as the ‘first adults to have grown up in the digital age’. With the majority of the generational bubble having been under 5 years of age when the first smartphone on the 3G network was launched, it is probably unfathomable for them to remember a world where trudging through libraries for research, waiting days (or weeks) for a correspondence to arrive, or having to choose between the phone line or the internet, was the norm.
For the entirety of their teen and adult lives, information has been readily available to them at their fingertips, and this innate familiarity with technology has moulded their expectations and preferences. The way in which GenZ digests information differs significantly to that of their counterparts from previous generations, requiring a quicker more instant response to finding information.
Research conducted by Google themselves found that 40% of people aged 18 – 24 use TikTok and Instagram to search for local food places, rather than using Google maps. Other searches more commonly conducted on the social platform rather than traditional search engines include:
New recipes Travel recommendations Workouts Product reviews DIY projects Why is this increasing TikTok’s popularity as a search engine? TikTok is able to engage the new generation of adults in a way that Google just does not (yet) have the capacity to. With quick delivery, tailored content, and an intelligent algorithm, TikTok keeps their audience hooked on the user-friendly app, making them reluctant to leave the platform to look elsewhere for their search queries.
Quickly delivered information TikTok (mostly) consists of short 15 – 60 second videos that get information across in an engaging and snappy way. The design of the platform is ideal for rapid content consumption and easily digestible information, which caters to GenZ’s preference for instant gratification.
Personalised and tailored content The intelligent algorithm that quickly learns user preference by taking viewing habits, watch times, likes, and repeat views into account, is how TikTok initially drummed up its fame among the social media platforms. This allows the user to connect with like-minded individuals and communities, and displays content that aligns with these preferences. These preferences are also taken into account when searching on the platform, instantly providing users with content on the search topic that greatly aligns with the type of content they want to, or hope to see.
While Google does have an intelligent system as to how they display content on SERPs – these are tailored to the query, and not necessarily the individual conducting the search. Though this content is likely to be useful, and probably answers the question – the information that Google spits back is not personalised, and probably not as engaging as the information found on TikTok.
User experience (UX) TikTok’s interface and content creation tools were designed for ease of use. With an infinite stream of videos available to the user by simply swiping up or down, and an easy-to-navigate set of creator tools that make it simple to add sound, filters, backgrounds, and voice overs to any video recorded on the app.
Google’s user interface is also quite sleek and easy to navigate, however Google’s text-based, list view of links directing users to multiple pages of information no longer provides the instant gratification that the younger generations crave.
AI recommendations TikTok uses their intelligent algorithm within their search engine; utilising the user data collected above to provide predictive text and AI recommendations for their search queries. While search engines are starting to implement AI features, the level at which they resonate with the user on a personal level does not quite compare in the same way.
As TikTok’s popularity skyrockets, are Google quaking in their boots? Although Google has not had the best start to 2023, with Bing’s adoption of AI directing Google’s audience to the rival search engine, and now TikTok encroaching on their territory, it is fair to say that they do not seem worried. Google is constantly changing and updating their platform to accommodate new trends and preferences; they have already announced their intentions to enhance the personalisation of their platform, and have begun trialling different AI features such as Bard, and Magi. With plans to make their platform more visual, in the not too distant future users of the popular search engine might find themselves swiping through visuals, and encouraged to answer follow-up questions on their queries to provide a more personalised response. Google hopes to promote influencers and social media platforms with this shift, in the same way they have been able to promote websites in the past.
In addition, although the younger generations are frequently turning to TikTok for certain search queries – that is not to say they do not also use Google. While TikTok seems to be the perfect platform for light searches, when looking for more hard information, such as educational, medical, or political content, Google still seems to be the go-to platform.
How can marketers use ‘TikTok as a search engine’ to their advantage? Regardless of whether you are an avid TikTok searcher, or a steadfast Google stan, it is undeniable that the use of TikTok as a search engine is only going to continue to grow in popularity. Like with any update on the web, digital marketers need to adapt to changes, and understand how best use them to their advantage – this shift in the TikTok platform is no different.
Make short product information videos One of the more frequently searched for things on TikTok is product information. Creating quick, snappy videos that feature your products and their key features or selling points will greatly benefit your brand, and likely boost sales.
Use TikTok influencers There are a wide array of influencers on TikTok that encompass a variety of niches; no matter the specifics of your brand, there is probably an influencer out there who will relate to your offering, and who’s following fall within your target audience. The use of influencers can introduce your brand to potential customers, and start the research process, searching TikTok for more information on your product(s) and brand.
Mobile-first content creation 60% of all online searches are done through mobile. Considering that TikTok is predominantly a mobile application, we can presume that the majority (if not all) searches on this platform will also be mobile-based. For this reason it is vital for content to be created with mobile-friendliness in mind. Things such as filming product videos in portrait, rather than the traditional landscape mode can make a huge difference when it comes to creating engaging mobile content.
Set up a TikTok shop TikTok shop is a feature that allows merchants to showcase and sell products through the social media platform. Having your products listed on TikTok shop means that potential customers can see your product advertised (organically, or through an influencer), do their research on the product, and make a purchase, all without leaving the TikTok app. This streamlines the marketing to sales process, making it almost effortless.
What problems might arise in the foreseeable future, as TikTok continues its transition to a search engine? Although TikTok’s ability to show users what they ‘want’ to see is a contributor to its popularity as a search engine, this may also cause problems in the future. If the platform is only showing you what you ‘want’ to see, then it is likely that the content you are seeing consists of biassed information. Consequently, this will lead to tighter echo chambers, and could lead to a greater rift between people whose opinions differ to one another, less friendly debates, and less chances for cohesion between differing groups. This could exacerbate social problems, particularly if people are seeing an increase in information that corroborates their dangerous, outdated, or politically incorrect views and opinions.
Furthermore, anyone is able to post freely on the app and there is yet to be a way to distinguish between factual information and ‘fake news’ on the platform. Research from 2021 shows that TikTok shows misinformed content 20% of the time – that’s as much as 1 in 5 videos you come across. Although already establishing themselves as a search engine, the owners of TikTok, ByteDance, do not yet penalise misinformation – with user engagement being their top priority.
So, do we see a ‘search engine coronation’ on the horizon? TikTok have certainly set their sights high – but are they on the path to dethrone Google as “King of Search”? Though they have definitely won a few battles, as it currently stands they are more like the rebellious knight playing at ruling the kingdom – and it certainly will take a lot more effort to remove Google from the throne. Google remains an essential part of a customers buyer journey, and marketers still need to have a strong focus on organic search (SEO) to maintain success. If TikTok are serious about becoming more well known as a search engine, they are going to have to take the way in which they handle misinformation more seriously; and while their algorithm is a popular way to drive engagement, they need to think about how this might contribute to dangerous biases.
So while I don’t think TikTok can yet call themselves “King”, I do think they are giving Google a run for their money. Regardless, we are continuing to see these changes on the way the popular social media platform is positioning itself and there are ways in which marketers can adapt to these changes to drive organic social media results. As digital marketers it is important we keep up-to-date with these changes, and learn how to leverage them in a way that benefits our brand and our customers.