Katelyn Robinson
November 25, 2022

TikTok takes search: How Google is responding

Within the past 5 years, TikTok has experienced unprecedented growth. Having already rewritten the paid and organic social playbook, the TikTok feature roadmap has been aimed squarely at search capabilities. Study after study is continuing to find that TikTok is becoming Gen Z’s new favourite way to search with nearly 40% of Gen Z preferring to use TikTok for online searches.


TikTok is a market leader on the frontier of not only social media platforms but the digital landscape more widely. From Meta platforms increasing emphasis on short-form videos to more casual and authentic communication becoming the norm across the board, the TikTok-effect can be felt everywhere. 

Now leading as the platform that receives the most screen time, TikTok has officially outgrown its dance app origin story, and is now pushing marketers to re-strategise their approaches to paid advertising and SEO in a battle for relevance.  

How did TikTok enter the search arena

20% of Gen Z is spending up to five hours a day on TikTok.  It’s no surprise the platform has succeeded in staking claim over our youngest generations’ attention when they’re spending up to a third of their waking hours scrolling through the platform on a daily basis. 

TikTok is likely a culture shock to anyone not fully immersed in its world. The content relies upon a unique formula of video, sound and text, which Gen Z and beyond have adopted to create a wide range of content. On TikTok, you’ll find all the elements of good entertainment: comedy, vulnerability, oversharing and education. Whether it’s dancing, skits, daily vlogs, static imagery, opinions, story times or how-tos, TikTok has afforded Gen Z an engaging and adaptable way to communicate anything and everything. 

It’s this openness and authenticity that gave way to TikTok attaining search engine status.  As early as 2019, we were becoming aware of audiences increasingly fatigued by the highly engineered and curated feeds of Instagram and the social pressure that came with it. TikTok emerged into the Western market at the perfect time to take advantage of this feeling and offer the antithesis. 

Alongside this growing apathy towards Instagram and Facebook, we also saw a rise in the conversation regarding the trustworthiness of mainstream media and organisations.  The political and cultural moment has driven many to seek more authentic and less manufactured sources of information, including TikTok’s creator-led, unfiltered content cycles. The New York Times’ recent study found that TikTok’s results “don’t seem as biassed” as Google’s, according to Gen Z, who opt to search on the app because it provides “a different opinion”.

These cultural shifts, accelerated by stay-at-home orders, were the perfect storm for TikTok to capture Gen Z and become a digital one-stop-shop for education, fashion, entertainment, news and advice. The TikTok search engine connects audiences with ordinary creators just like them, so they can gain a personalised and authentic answer to whatever they’re searching for. 


All hail the algorithm

The back end of TikTok’s growth is its elusive yet almost omniscient algorithm that provides users with an unrivalled experience. Extremely personalised, instinctual and responsive; the TikTok ‘For You Page’ provides the perfect mirror to its user. And naturally, this level of intimacy encourages users to take to the search bar for results just as personalised. 

TikTok’s distinctly individualised experience is the opposite of Google, which has users scrolling through paid ads and knowledge bars to find the right link. In the past, classic SEO tactics have had users scrolling through copy to find the answer they’re after once they click.  For an attention-low, sensory-starved and time-poor audience, it’s no surprise that they want their answer quick, easy and engaging. 

If they’re searching for a recipe, they’ll opt for a 30-second video with ingredients and instructions to screenshot rather than a webpage that begins with an extended family story in the name of SEO. And instead of scrolling to reviews, maybe even making an account to have to view them, they can easily see other users’ responses whilst the video plays by clicking TikTok’s comment section. 

Audiences are naturally gravitating to the more convenient and easy-to-navigate interface, which feeds them information in multi-sensory forms. And it’s time for other platforms to take note.

What’s Google doing to keep up

The dominance of social media triggered a decline in people using search engines as early as 2015, and in turn, Google has never managed to recreate its stronghold with younger generations. But with close to 90% of the market share, Google is far from death, still processing over 8.5 billion searches every day. 

In response to TikTok’s exponential growth and popularity, Google has taken to its mobile interface to provide a better and more elevated search experience. As of September 2022, Google has tapped into TikTok results and integrated them into searches. This provides users with a wider range of results, including different modes and sources, without users even having to use the search term: ‘TikTok’.

The decision to have TikToks appearing in search results challenges the guidelines pushed by SEO rulebooks, as short, creator-led content is now ranking as early as seventh in the organic results.

What does this mean for both SEO and social

With TikTok operating as a search engine and Google ranking TikTok videos, the opportunity is presented for these two giants of digital to begin working in tandem. For brands on TikTok, content has the opportunity to rank in mobile search results instead of being solely isolated to that platform. 

Keywords remain crucial, with TikTok most recently extending its caption lengths from 300 characters to 2,200. An increase like this offers users the chance to integrate longer form copy into their TikTok content and increase keyword opportunities. 

SEO findings can now be extended into TikTok strategies, as longer-tail keywords in captions that are hyper-specific serve to strengthen the content. As people start depending on TikTok more for information, their queries will get more specific, and content should innovate in response. Instead of captioning your videos “Brisbane Restaurant”, try “Affordable Japanese Restaurant on Brisbane Northside”. 

Beyond captions, closed captions and overlay text in video are crawled and indexed and present an opportunity to further optimise your content. In terms of creative, across both organic and paid,  concise, informative content that answers key questions will be best for capturing TikTok searchers at an ideal video length of 22-40 seconds.


However, with TikTok’s algorithm informing what search results appear for each individual user, the impetus is still on brands to create engaging and relevant content that connects with a core and well-defined audience. Content quality, as well as hashtags, can help your brand find and understand its audience, so content can perform well and be served to the most relevant user. 

In terms of Google results, the TikToks ranked within mobile searches depend upon engagement as well as keyword relevance. Prioritising a strong TikTok strategy now has the potential to not only boost your organic social results but also support how your brand performs in search. 

Moreover, TikTok trends start somewhere. Now that this clear link between Gen Z, SEO and TikTok has been mapped, both your SEO content and TikTok can learn from one another for a more detailed and well-rounded understanding of what audiences want. Certain TikTok trends will result in a spike in search terms, as well as certain searches preceding TikTok trends and user interests. 

Digital as a whole: the paid social perspective with Gus Hicks

With more and more users using TikTok as a search engine, this opens up opportunities for more technical paid targeting via hashtag and search term targeting.

Marketers can take advantage of this for their campaigns by analysing trending terms and hashtags and applying these to their ad set targeting, allowing them to reach high-intent audiences at lower funnel stages, akin to Google search.

The difference being the ad won’t immediately serve as they are searching but will appear afterwards at varying levels of frequency. This opens up opportunities for longer-tail keyword targeting, as users get more specific and TikTok’s search engine AI gets smarter.

Where to next?

With TikTok’s interface making updates on a regular basis, we know the platform is continuously evolving in response to its users’ interaction. TikTok is no longer just child’s play; users under the age of 24 now make up around 66% of users, with the millennial and Gen X numbers on the incline. We can expect this search behaviour to trickle down to inform older generations, and Google will be challenged to keep up. The move to incorporate TikTok videos in results is likely just the beginning as Google strives to improve the user experience and stay attuned to user instincts. 

The relationship between TikTok and search confirms that TikTok and TikTok strategy shouldn’t be considered in isolation but rather engaged and informed by your wider digital approach. 

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