Is TikTok Becoming a Search Engine? Let’s Make Sense of this Moment …

Jessica Van Sack-Downey
3 min readSep 18, 2022

The NYTimes published an article describing how TikTok is evolving into Google for Gen Z.

The article is anecdotal but reflective of what many prominent TikTokers are saying about changes to the platform.

In my last three TikToks I tested the theory that the TikTok algorithm was scanning for keywords in the caption and videos. I reposted the same videos but added SEO keywords in the captions and the video for comparison. The videos with my SEO keywords actually had lower reach, but that just means the changes may not have rolled out on my side of TikTok. We will continue to test different in-app keyword search optimizations.

YouTube is still the second largest search engine in the world, second-only to its parent company Google. With YouTube having adopted short-form content well over a year ago in the form of YouTube Shorts, the platform shows no signs of ceding its silver medal to TikTok. Not by a longshot.

And yet by pioneering full-phone, vertical short-form video, TikTok filled a huge gap for audio-visual learners. It’s a more immersive selfie format that happens to fit our human behavior of holding a phone like another appendage affixed to the palm. Although artists and videographers may prefer the aesthetic opportunities of landscape format, technology combined with youth pulls us in a different direction.

For as long as computers have been on desks, content consumption was about that horizontal format, and tediously scanning words and lists in from top left to bottom right. But now we know more about how people learn. We have research on differentiated learning styles and neurodiversity that makes so much sense out of our magnetic pull toward the audio-rich, multi-modal knowledge base of something like TikTok. Google seems like a dinosaur when you think about it in that context. As far as inputs go, Google has nothing on TikTok.

TikTok has been evolving into a searchable platform for some time now, and not just for Gen Z. It’s the circle of social media channel life and it goes something like …

Infant — Ultra-early adopters secure largest advantage, advertising emerges, short-form content dominates; (TikTok before 2020)

Toddler — Early adopter advantage, decent organic reach, advertisers get more options, compete w/ existing platforms; (TikTok from 2020 to early 2021)

Tween — As advertisers buy up reach, algorithm tightens, some niches, trends cycle out, longer form content arrives and niched communities / groups grow, platform becomes a new source of news to loyal users; the platform proactively curates / chooses trends (TikTok in 2021)

Teen / Young Adult — Search becomes key for content discovery, some niches become saturated, organic growth for users becomes competitive; misinformation / shock content challenges the algorithm, trends (think trending audio and funny dances) phase out; (TikTok from 2021 to now)

Fully Formed Adult — Mature platform w/ under-represented age groups and demographics now represented, monetization/investor pressure eats into the user experience. Shock/clickbait content challenges the algorithms; what’s trending takes a backseat to content discovery. The platform can still reinvent itself a bit, but users will grumble and resist change; (TikTok next year to 2024)

Think of TikTok as a college senior at the moment.

Facebook was a Tween and Teen around 2013–15, if you remember when open graph search launched around that time and deprecated in 2019.

TikTok has an opportunity to learn from the missteps of other platforms, and to be sure, it has shown some leadership along those lines but also some grave missteps. Here’s hoping parent company ByteDance continues to resist taking TikTok public, because that’s when it becomes a lost cause for thought leadership and vision.

As a social media manager and agency owner, part of my job is to evaluate the space and anticipate what comes next. I nerd out about this stuff so you don’t have to.

The big question is how to find the emerging platforms with an early adopter advantage and get in early.

Right now I’d say there are two: BeReal and Shuffles. Neither is anywhere close to becoming a keyword-saturated elder. So, stay tuned for more on those two platforms!

#TikTokMarketing #TikTok #SocialMediaMarketing

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