SEO for social media (Yes, social media)

May 13, 2024
Emmy Liederman
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“Google it.”

It used to be one of the most ubiquitous phrases in search. Like Kleenex for tissues, Google is the brand nomenclature for an entire action. But now it may be one of new media’s next casualties.

TikTok, Twitter, and other social media platforms are becoming the new search engine stars.

This is partially by design. “Search it with TikTok,” says a recent TikTok ad in the UK. “Learn it with TikTok.” You can practically hear steam coming out of the ears (er, servers) over at Google and Bing.

For those of us born after 2000, Google has always been the go-to engine for knowledge. It still is. According to MarketingBrew, Google’s “search and other” category earned almost $40 billion in revenue in the third quarter of 2022. You don’t get that without a healthy portion of the search market.

But slowly, one salt-your-cutting-board-to-remove-stains kitchen hack at a time, the new kids on the block are encroaching on previously-indomitable search engine territory. And here’s the thing: for once, they’re making inroads.

“Whether it’s for Whole30 recipes, planning a vacation in Portugal, or finding cheap eats in Brooklyn, people are beginning to turn to TikTok as a search engine,” writes Ryan Barwick for MarketingBrew. It’s a new way of marketing: while SEO used to mean GBO (Google and Bing Optimization), the way we search is changing.

And that means we’re going to need new optimization strategies.

This is creating a new challenge—and an opportunity—for a parallel universe in SEO.

The rise of social media search as an alternative to Google

Blame the youth.

According to Google SVP Prabhakar Raghavan, “something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search.” Instead, said Raghavan, they turn to “TikTok or Instagram.”

It may be worse than that. According to internal Google data, nearly half of Gen Z is already using TikTok and Instagram for search.

The reason? Proximity. Gen Z is already on TikTok and Instagram, so when they’re searching for something, why should they open Safari and that old fuddy-duddy Google? They have a perfectly good portal into a web of knowledge already at their fingertips.

Watching the trends on these apps is a bit like having a crystal ball into the future of search. On TikTok, 60% of users are Gen Zers. And TikTok is second only to Instagram in the list of social media apps already installed on phones.

“Let’s say I want to find the best Mascara,” said 22-year-old digital marketer Ashley Storino, speaking to USAToday. “Before, I used to look it up on Google and those results would feature articles and blogs with top 10 lists or top lists. As someone who has worked in marketing and PR, I know a lot of these lists are often, if not always, influenced by outside parties or brands trying to get products in an article.”

So cynical. But it’s also indicative of how Gen Z feels about the world of search.

Who can blame them? Companies and sponsored search bombard Gen Z’s apps every day. That may be why Gen Z is dead set on finding authentic brands and connections. Of Gen Zers, 73% either buy from or advocate for brands they feel are being authentic. 

Then we have the apps themselves. What if they’re just…kinda…better?

“TikTok offers a much more immersive search experience than Google or other popular search engines,” said Sarah Bodner, Digital Content Manager at Conklin Media. “People like searching on TikTok because not only is it accessible (they can both see and hear results), the videos sum up information extremely quickly. TikTok feels very personal too. It's much easier to trust someone when you can see their face and hear their voice in a video than just reading faceless information from search engine results pages.”

Social media challenges to overcome

Authenticity is still an obstacle

The idea of searching on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram is great—if the results feel authentic. But Gen Z has that thing about authenticity. 

For many apps, “SEO” makes it too easy to buy your way to the top. When MarketingBrew looked up “diet” on TikTok, they encountered a sponsored video from Nutrisense. When searching for “skin-care routine for men,” they found a sponsored video of LED light therapy.

Considering how many platforms add the “sponsored” tag for ads—and how many users expect that feature—there’s no hiding when the SEO just isn’t delivering what the user wanted. And maybe they wanted a skin-care routine, but a sponsored video of LED light therapy might not be what the user had in mind.

Platforms are different—and hashtags highlight this difference

A Google or Bing search is a silky-smooth experience. You can have a thought and the engine will practically type in the rest for you. They’re dialed into the thoughts behind your query, your search patterns, and what needs to come next.

Social media apps aren’t quite there yet. Social media queries often come in the form of hashtags rather than straightforward key phrases. “The method of discovery is [a] key difference between TikTok and traditional SEO,” says Buffer

Whereas traditional SEO focuses heavily on words, keyword density, and the reputation of inbound links, it’s often simpler for the TikToks of the world. Hashtag, popular video, popular account. That’s often enough for “SEO” success that places your video higher than the rest.

But that does give this new generation of “social SEO” experts something to hold onto.

“One way to do SEO on social media is to think of hashtags like keywords,” says Logan Mallory, VP of Motivosity. “Choosing the right hashtags ensures your content is shown to and found by your target audience, just like choosing the right keywords helps you increase your visibility on search engines.”

Hashtags are simple enough to research. You can look up hashtags in your niche and many apps will tell you how active they are. But according to Buffer, two additional elements go beyond what a traditional approach to SEO might consider:

  • User interactions. A simple blog link on Google doesn’t have a “heart” button underneath it. Twitter does. This shapes each user’s experience, as well. Likes, shares, comments, followed accounts, and the type of content you typically create all factor into what the algorithm shows you. It also works the other way around. The more likes and engagement you get, the more likely the algorithm will nudge you up the search ladder.
  • Video information. Let’s say an app like TikTok assigns terms to the type of content you like to see—as measured by engagements. Now, any relevant video information will “push” those videos to your feed, even if there aren’t a ton of engagements on them yet. Details like captions, sounds, and hashtags are the tools optimizers have to work with here.

And social media algorithms always favor highly-engaging posts. User interactions such as likes, shares, and comments matter on platforms like TikTok search. Highly-followed accounts with lots of engagement will rule in this environment.

A potentially-unfortunate side effect? Look for celebrities to dominate social media search results, at least before an algorithm change. 

Yes: Katy Perry may take over search results every Fourth of July. Rather than lighting fixtures for your new house, you may end up with The Weeknd’s blinding lights.

SEO is becoming “young” again

It isn’t just TikTok, either. Expect to see popularity contests on platforms like Twitter. There, optimizing with keywords in your bio will overlap with how popular the bio is to begin with.

In that way, social media SEO might be the only thing on the internet that still reminds us of 2002. Just ask Henry Dalziel, who’s been around since the keyword-stuffing days. He reports that his memories of the olden days of SEO meant focusing on three things:

  • Add keywords
  • Update your meta tags
  • Get inbound links

Modern social media is very much the same. Add hashtags, update your bio, and get followers.

The result: SEO is “young” again. It’s the wild west, which means it’s time to experiment. Does your Twitter handle influence search results like domain names once did with Google? Will TikTokers be adding alt-style context to videos to enhance their search rankings? 

There are few clear answers. As it always was with Google, we can only go where the algorithms lead us.

The benefits—and challenges—of optimizing for social media

Then there’s this challenge: in 2002, no one was worried the American government would ban Google. 

It’s different with platforms like TikTok. While lawmakers remain skeptical about a full ban of the platform (one senator told Insider: “I’ve got teenagers”), TikTok faces more political scrutiny than your average search engine. It’s already banned on government devices, after all.

But there are benefits to optimizing for search on social media as well. The potential to capture TikTok’s $10 billion in ad revenue, for one. For its part, Twitter is a top-ten most visited website globally. Missing out on one of these “search engines” is akin to missing out on a mini-Google.

Tips for improving SEO on social media

Get hashtags to spread like wildfire

Logan Mallory, VP at Motivosity, says you can think of keywords and hashtags almost interchangeably. “By strategically using hashtags that align with your content, you can improve your social media presence, increase your visibility, and ultimately drive more traffic to your website or social media profiles.”

But social media hashtags offer more back-and-forth than conventional keyword optimization. That’s for one reason: user-generated content. Guess Jeans used #InMyDenim to track the 5,500 user-submitted videos in a campaign that generated 10.5 million views. 

The goal isn’t just to show up for hashtags, but to disseminate the hashtags you choose. Inviting people to submit their own videos gets their followers to see a hashtag on their timeline. It’s a neat lever brands can pull—and one that doesn’t exist on conventional search engines.

Remember the human user

“Consider human users,” says Sarah Bodner. And what are human users looking for when they’re using social media search features? Simple: they’re looking for answers. Not novels.

“[Don’t] just throw words on a page that align with what we think Google is looking for,” said Bodner. “Content should be easy to skim and feature short, digestible videos that get to the point quickly.”

Mireia Boronat, Senior Content Marketing at The Social Shepherd, reiterates the “human” touch that some brands sometimes forget.

A search engine listing can often be dry. But with social media, users are frequently as interested in other people as they are their queries. 

“[The Social Shepherd will] find entertaining ways to introduce our team and what we do daily, which helps with engagement,” says Boronat. “This means we’re not saying who we are and what we do in every video, but instead, we come across as a unique group of real individuals rather than a brand.”

Match results with user intent

This is one rule that overlaps neatly with conventional SEO. You have to know what it is people are searching for.

“Matching search intent is at the heart of SEO success,” reiterates Alvin Wei, CMO of SEOAnt. “Create high-value content that incorporates keywords and join in on trends and hashtags to position your brand prominently.”

It works the same with hashtags. #attorney could mean anything, but #attorney paired with #personalinjury might be someone looking for medical malpractice advice. 

Social media searching might not be as sophisticated as conventional search engines yet. But figuring out hashtag search intent still requires the forethought of a human approach. Dig into what videos resonate with which hashtags, and then ask yourself why.

A new frontier in SEO

It’s been a while since a concept like SEO felt new. But today’s social media platforms are popular enough that even a slight edge in search results could make a difference for your brand.

Optimizing for social search queries requires many of the same habits. You should watch what hashtags your audience keys in on. You should use your content to answer questions common in your niche. You should load up on hashtags and keyword-rich descriptions in videos and social bios.

And like traditional SEO, popularity counts. That means your SEO can be as simple as building stuff people like and sharing it with the world. And wasn’t that kind of the point of social media in the first place?

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