TikTok’s transformation from fun videos to serious search tool

TikTok has gone through a major transformation, evolving from a platform known for its entertaining, short-form videos into a serious search tool, especially popular among younger generations.

TikTok is particularly preferred among Gen Z, with almost 1 in 10 of them choosing TikTok over Google for their search needs – pointing out a broader trend in which visually engaging content and interactive user experiences are increasingly valued in the search space.

A recent Adobe study highlights that TikTok ranks as the fourth most-popular search engine among digital natives, coming in behind YouTube, Bing, and Google.

Gen Z’s inclination towards TikTok is attributable to the platform’s user-centric design, which facilitates quick and engaging content discovery. Search for content using videos, sounds, and hashtags has made TikTok a versatile and dynamic tool for information retrieval, contrasting with the more traditional, text-based approach of other search engines.

What’s fueling TikTok’s rise as a search powerhouse

How TikTok resonates across generations

While TikTok is predominantly popular among Gen Z, comprising about 40% of its user base, it also enjoys engagement from older demographics.

Approximately 20% of TikTok users are aged between 40 and 49, showing the platform’s wide-ranging appeal.

Cross-generational usage spotlights TikTok’s success in creating content that resonates with diverse age groups, contributing to its growth as a versatile platform for both entertainment and information.

Older users find value in TikTok’s easy-to-navigate interface and the variety of content available, from educational videos to lifestyle tips, which cater to their interests.

Inside TikTok’s game-changing UK marketing blitz

TikTok launched an ambitious marketing campaign in the UK to spotlight its search-centric features, further solidifying its position as a powerful search tool. The campaign prominently featured influencers such as Hardest Geezer, known for his marathon run across Africa, and MadeWithMud, a creative pottery enthusiast.

The campaign used a diverse mix of marketing channels, including traditional television advertising, BVOD (Broadcaster Video on Demand), social media platforms, radio, podcasts, in-app promotions, and strategic out-of-home (OOH) placements.

TikTok’s 8 most powerful search features

1. Discover page

TikTok’s Discover Page provides personalized recommendations based on user interests, interactions, and browsing history. Users encounter content that aligns with their preferences, increasing engagement and satisfaction.

The Discover Page combines trending videos, personalized suggestions, and curated content categories, offering a comprehensive and engaging content discovery experience.

For businesses, this feature brings opportunities for targeted marketing and reaching specific audiences more effectively.

2. Hashtag search

Users can search for specific hashtags to discover content related to their interests. The platform’s search algorithm ranks content based on relevance and popularity, making it easy to find trending or niche content.

Hashtags facilitate community building and enable users to participate in broader conversations, making them powerful tools for content discovery and engagement.

3. Keyword search

Keyword search functionality on TikTok allows users to find content using terms related to their interests. The search algorithm analyzes video captions, user profiles, and other key information to deliver the most relevant results.

In 2023, keywords like ‘how to’ and ‘what is…’ ranked among the most popular, indicating users’ inclination towards educational and explanatory content.

4. Sound search

TikTok’s large audio library improves its search capabilities with Sound Search. Users can find videos featuring specific sounds or music tracks, tapping into a massive collection of audio clips.

Search Sound enriches the user experience by allowing discovery based on auditory preferences while driving viral trends, as popular sounds often become the source of trending challenges and memes.

5. User search

User Search on TikTok enables individuals to look up specific users or content creators, giving them direct access to their favorite accounts. This supports content creators by making their profiles easily discoverable, boosting follower growth and engagement.

For users, it simplifies the process of finding and connecting with preferred creators, building up a sense of community and loyalty within the platform.

6. Trending searches

TikTok’s Trending Searches highlight the most popular hashtags, sounds, and challenges at any given moment. This real-time feature helps users stay updated with the latest trends, encouraging participation in viral content.

For marketers and content creators, Trending Searches offer insights into current user interests, providing opportunities to craft relevant and timely content that resonates with a broad audience.

7. In-app search bar

Located at the top of TikTok’s mobile app UI, the in-app search bar offers quick and easy access to the platform’s search functionalities. Users can swiftly search for trends, topics, and specific content, making the search process more seamless and intuitive.

8. Advanced filters

Advanced Filters refine search results based on criteria such as video type, duration, and upload date. Users can easily narrow down their search to find content that precisely meets their needs.

Search experiences are improved by allowing for more targeted and specific queries, catering to users’ diverse preferences and requirements. For businesses, Advanced Filters can be a valuable tool for market research and understanding audience behavior.

What lies ahead for TikTok as a top search tool

TikTok’s search features streamline the process of finding answers and valuable content, positioning it as a competitive player in the search engine market.

Video-based search results, in particular, stand out with a 41% higher clickthrough rate compared to text-based results.

This major difference highlights the preference for visually engaging content among users, especially digital natives. Many in this demographic regard TikTok as the go-to search engine, relying on its dynamic and interactive format for everything from educational content to entertainment and trends.

Why TikTok is generating hype as a search engine

The excitement surrounding TikTok’s potential as a search engine gained traction following remarks by Google’s Senior VP, Prabhakar Raghavan. He noted that nearly 40% of Gen Z users turn to TikTok as a replacement for Google.

This also includes Instagram users, emphasizing a broader trend where younger generations prefer social media platforms for their search needs. The data shows a shift in user behavior, with digital natives gravitating towards platforms that offer more engaging and visually driven content experiences.

It also points to an evolving digital landscape where traditional search engines face competition from social media platforms that provide rich, multimedia content. Integrating video and interactive elements into search functionalities better meet the expectations of modern users.

How marketers are adapting to TikTok’s search capabilities

Many marketers recognize the TikTok’s value for search and content discovery, acknowledging its ability to reach a highly engaged audience. The general consensus points to TikTok’s unique advantage in delivering authentic, user-generated content, which resonates well with consumers tired of traditional advertising methods.

That being said, some marketers still express skepticism towards TikTok as a genuine search engine. The primary concern is the platform’s limitation to its own network for search results, unlike traditional search engines that pull from a wide array of sources across the web. Inherent limitations like this raise questions about the comprehensiveness and reliability of TikTok as a search tool for broader information retrieval.

Despite these concerns, the platform’s success in fostering organic engagement and its high clickthrough rates for video content can’t – and shouldn’t – be ignored by businesses or searchers.

TikTok authentic and reliable content paint a stark contrast to the more polished, often commercialized results found on traditional search engines. Genuine connection with users is a powerful draw, pushing TikTok to the top as an appealing option for marketers aiming to leverage user-generated content and community-driven engagement.

The challenge TikTok faces as a search engine contender

Platform-only queries

TikTok’s search functionality currently confines users to platform-only queries, limiting the breadth of information available compared to traditional search engines.

Searches conducted on TikTok yield results exclusively from within its ecosystem, preventing users from accessing a diverse range of sources across the web.

YouTube has managed to establish itself as a key search engine with similar constraints, showcasing the potential of platform-specific search engines.

Google and other cross-platform search engines continue to lead the market thanks to their comprehensive search functionalities that span across websites and databases. Traditional search engines offer more extensive information retrieval, making them key for broader and more in-depth searches.

TikTok’s current challenge lies in expanding its search capabilities while maintaining the engaging, user-generated content that sets it apart.

TikTok’s future amid U.S. regulatory scrutiny

What Bytedance’s U.S. divestment means for TikTok

The U.S. Government has mandated that Bytedance, TikTok’s parent company, divest any assets linked to the nation within six months due to national security concerns – stemming from worries about data privacy and the potential for foreign influence through the platform.

The Biden administration’s involvement in promoting campaigns on TikTok adds complexity to the situation, reflecting the platform’s great reach and influence.

TikTok’s future in the U.S. remains uncertain, with potential outcomes ranging from a complete ban to a restructuring of ownership to address security concerns.

Regulatory compliance and geopolitical considerations are still guiding priorities in the tech industry. Companies operating in this space must stay vigilant and adaptable to navigate these challenges expertly and rapidly.

The potential divestment or ban of TikTok in the U.S. could have profound implications for the platform’s user base, advertising revenue, and overall market presence. Businesses relying on TikTok for marketing and engagement should monitor the situation closely and prepare contingency plans to mitigate any disruptions.

Exploring alternative platforms and diversifying digital marketing strategies will be critical for maintaining audience connections and achieving business objectives amidst regulatory uncertainties.

Tim Boesen

June 20, 2024

8 Min