TikTok is paving a new path for online search

May 13, 2024
Emmy Liederman
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@Colesflow summarizes a hot, new consumer trend in one sentence: “I don’t Google anymore—I TikTok.”

While it seems funny at first, stats show TikTok is more than an entertainment and social commerce platform—it’s a search engine. For many consumers, especially younger ones, TikTok is edging out Google as the preferred search engine.

Google’s senior vice president, Prabhakar Raghavan, even cited Google’s internal data, confirming that 40% of young people will go directly to TikTok or Instagram over Google Search and Maps.

TikTok is still in its infancy, yet it’s already fundamentally changing how people search online and how platforms cater to users.

TikTok is the browsing engine

To understand the nuances of online search, it’s essential to break down how people look for information and shop.

There are times when people have a specific goal in mind. For example, they’re searching for holiday decorations, so they hop in the car, drive to Hobby Lobby, and load up on exactly what they need. 

Other times, people want to find a cute pair of jeans. So, they go to the mall, try on jeans at a bunch of different stores, and settle on the pair that flatters their features.

Finally, there are window shoppers—people who make purchases based on what they come across when they’re out and about.

Each of these physical shopping experiences has an online equivalent. And, there are different ways consumers search to scratch these various shopping itches.

When people want to shop for the latest Everlane collection online, they go directly to everlane.com.

Google Search is where people go when they have a specific intent in mind. Take my most recent searches: “best food in Guadalajara,” “cute fall shoes,” or “Halloween shows.”

I don’t know of any specific websites that will return several relevant results that are specific to my keywords—but I know Google will.


But, since the inception of the Internet, there’s been a huge gap in the online search world. Until recently, no platform has catered to window shoppers. 

Even though Google Chrome is called a “browser,” it does nothing for shoppers interested in product discovery.

Enter TikTok, the browsing engine. 

TikTok draws people in with entertainment and tracks what people engage with. Then, its algorithm serves up accounts, ads, and product recommendations that fall perfectly in line with each consumer’s personal interests.

“In addition to a search engine, I've also used TikTok as a recommendation engine—the algorithm is so good that my 'for you page' knows exactly when I'm doing things like redecorating my bedroom and serves up content that inspires what paint color I choose and bed sheets I buy,” says Kameron Jenkins, content marketer & SEO expert.

Jenkins isn’t alone. 55% of users say TikTok has exposed them to new products or services, and TikTok reports 27% of TikTok users say they’ve purchased something they came across on TikTok. The popular hashtag, #tiktokmademebuyit, which has over 25 billion views, is further evidence that TikTok is the platform for window shoppers.

I like how Adrienne Sheares, social strategist and owner of ViviMae Labs, puts it:

TikTok has shaken up how we define search. Traditionally, when we have searched for information, the majority of the population in the United States has been on Google where you type in a query and you get information.

However, on TikTok, you can also just be scrolling your ‘for you’ page and get information that you weren't necessarily looking for, but it's highly relevant and the content can also drive you to take action as in I love those jeans, let me go buy those. It's a little different than just necessarily searching for something.

TikTok is the trust engine

People aren’t only adopting TikTok for search because of discoverability. They’re also turning to TikTok because of trust issues with Google, and an increased confidence in authentic content from creators.

“Search a term on Google, and you’ll get the answer you need, but there’s less and less confidence that it’s the answer you trust. After all, the Google algorithm is so notoriously complex that it’s no secret the best options for results are the ones the most significant digital marketing budgets can buy,” says Mindy Thomas, founder and lead creator at Upload Creative.

Despite what Google would have us believe, the first few search engine results pages (SERPs) don’t go to the best content. It’s purchased real estate, rewarded to the highest bidder (for paid search) and the biggest budgets for SEO and content marketing.

Take the travel niche, for example.

Back in the mommy blogging era, it was easier to find content from individual bloggers on the first and second pages of the search results.

Now, if you Google, “What to do in Lisbon,” you’ll see generic lists from the top travel giants—Lonely Planet, Conde Nast, and Time Out.

For a long time, Google was the only option. But, with the rise of TikTok, it’s now possible to skip the over-saturated and less-than-helpful Google results and find more helpful content on TikTok. 

With users' increasing frustration that the results on Google aren't genuine or trustworthy, many people (particularly Gen Z) are turning to TikTok to get their questions answered,” says Kameron Jenkins.

Admittedly, I still find Google incredibly helpful for things like local searches, product information and reviews, deep dives into topics, and how-to articles. But, it’s no longer my first search option when I’m looking for niche recommendations (like for travel). 

When I travel, I go to TikTok to build an itinerary. Alex Garcia does too.

The main reason people are moving to TikTok for niche recommendations is that they trust creators.

“TikTok shifts the power of search into the consumer's hands so that when we search, we don't see businesses and their content, but the content from creators and fellow consumers. It shifts the search from B2C to C2C," says Christina Garnett, senior marketing manager at HubSpot.

And, report after report has told us consumers want authentic content and they trust creators over brands. In fact, 37% of consumers say they trust social media influencers over branded content.

“In a digital landscape where trust is hard to establish, feeling as though your questions are answered authentically (on TikTok) provides a sense of empowerment back to consumers that’s been missing for far too long,” says Thomas.

While consumers tend to trust creator content, they also haven’t closed their eyes to potential misinformation and the obvious lack of disclosure from influencer-endorsed brands.

Adrienne Sheares conducted a focus group where she asked members of Gen Z about their opinions on misinformation on TikTok when using search for TikTok. Ultimately, she found her focus group wasn’t concerned. 

They reported they were aware of misinformation but said they avoid content that can be false, and still prefer quick answers from TikTok.

TikTok is the Gen Z search engine

It’s likely that older generations will turn to a traditional search engine to find information, especially considering TikTok usage is much lower among Gen X and Boomers.

The same isn’t true for younger generations. TikTok is mostly used by younger generations, and Gen Z has largely adopted it as its own social media platform. 

To quantify this, Comscore found 62% of TikTok users are between 10 and 29, and only 7.1% of users are older than 50.

Younger generations grew up in the digital world and on social media and report they became tired of “older,” less trust-worthy, or inauthentic social and tech platforms. As a result, TikTok is often the go-to social and search platform.

“TikTok's raw nature is, in itself, at the heart of why younger generations would much rather search it instead of Google. The lack of premeditated SEO is just as appealing and we are seeing the same movement that made people shun the highly curated nature of IG for raw TikTok,” says Garnett.

Gen Z doesn’t only turn to TikTok for search because they trust it more and find authentic content more compelling. They also use TikTok because it caters to how they like to consume content.

Namely, it’s quick, doesn’t require a lot of reading, and it’s highly visual.

When Sheares conducted her TikTok search focus group with members of Gen Z, participants told her two critical reasons why they prefer TikTok.

“TikTok shows them relevant content faster than Google. The algorithm knows them well, and they love that,” revealed Sheares on Twitter.

“They don’t want to read to find information. They will if they have to. But if they can get a quick video with the answer, that’s what they prefer.”

The cherry on top is that TikTok is visual, and everyone knows images are worth a thousand words.

“Instead of looking through reviews, wondering if a product is good or if I should try a place to eat or travel to, TikTok provides a virtual touch point where I can search and see if I really want something. We want to learn from our fellow consumers beyond a written POV,” says Garnett.

TikTok is also highly visual. It’s easy to go to TikTok to look at a pretty boat or a cool restaurant and see the vibes. TikTok has a big advantage where you can see the aesthetics,” adds Sheares.

One of the best examples of where TikTok is really winning in the search game is in niches where visuals are essential to the experience. This includes travel, make-up, beauty, and food.

“Foodies and chefs are beginning to use TikTok to search for recipes and restaurant recommendations rather than Google. TikTok is gaining popularity when searching for food because Google reviews are often padded with fake reviews and food is a very visual-first content type. People want to see the food rather than just read a menu,” says Amanda Laine, CEO at Spacebar Collective.

What’s more, brands that benefit from showing more visuals are benefiting heavily by moving to TikTok. An August 2021 survey revealed that 36% of TikTok users have visited or ordered food from a restaurant after seeing a TikTok video about the restaurant.

TikTok search moving forward

It’s hasty to say that TikTok will replace Google search. But, it’s certainly carving out a path in the search world, influencing how people search, and catering to different kinds of consumers—especially younger consumers and window shoppers.

TikTok is also showing signs that it’s moving to compete in the search marketing world. For example, it recently extended its post descriptions to allow up to 2,200 characters, which is a clear SEO move.

So, what’s the TikTok search takeaway? If you’re a brand looking to reach younger consumers—especially if you work in a niche industry—now is a great time to invest in TikTok.

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