Is TikTok a search engine?

The debate over whether Tiktok is a search engine continues to rage. Over the past twelve months, I’ve searched on TikTok for “how to make a gratin,” “Things to do in Collioure,” and “how to varnish a door” and found the results much better than Google or YouTube. While some of the searches were more fun than others (yes, varnishing a door is a pure “Dadtok” search), I found all the results really useful.

Recipes in particular on Google are a frustrating read with adverts and long SEO copy heavy intros to game Google, whereas Tiktok serves up a video of the recipe in seconds.

Our creative content team definitely recommends using search volume insights as a way to plan and create vertical video content on the platform for brands. We also like to post daft videos on TikTok too and here is the PR Agency One Tiktok account.

But does this make it a search engine any more than Pinterest might be for interior design ideas? PRs, social media types and SEOs continue to froth at the mouth on the subject.

But, but, but, no one got ‘shouty’ when they declared Youtube as the second biggest search engine.

Yes the world is full of hypocrisy. People have indeed considered YouTube as a search engine for many moons, even though it’s primarily a social media platform for sharing videos. TikTok’s search functionality does indeed make it function as a search engine for certain topics or queries, even though it’s primarily a social media platform for short-form videos. The classification of platforms can sometimes blur based on how people use them for information retrieval. I don’t make the rules up, in fact no one does so let’s just say that there is plenty to disagree on. Especially as we dig deeper.

Calling Tiktok a search engine is basically a marketing move

TikTok has commissioned advertising and PR campaigns positioning itself as a search engine. This shift in branding reflects its evolving role beyond just a social media platform. By highlighting its search engine capabilities, TikTok aims to attract a broader user base and compete more directly with established search engines like Google and Bing.

This strategy also caters to the growing trend of users, especially younger ones, turning to social media platforms for information and discovery, rather than traditional search engines.

Tiktok wants advertising agencies to advertise on its platform and to steal some revenue from Adwords, and it seems at least that this is working.

Data to the rescue

So if Tiktok says it is a search engine then it is one, right? There is substance to back up its claim. Recent data suggests that TikTok is gaining popularity as a search platform, particularly among certain demographics and for specific types of queries. In fashion, for instance, searches on TikTok for items like ‘new jeans’ and ‘leggings’ far exceed those on Google, indicating a preference for visual, user-generated content.

In the beauty sector, terms like ‘makeup’ see substantially higher search volumes on TikTok. This trend extends to the automotive and finance sectors as well, with searches for brands like ‘BMW’ and queries such as ‘how to invest’ being significantly more popular on TikTok.

This shift implies that users, especially younger ones, are increasingly turning to TikTok for discovering and exploring topics that were traditionally dominated by search engines like Google.

So if people use Tiktok to discover things then it has some search functionality and why not call it a search engine? Does anyone really care what the hell you call it?

No one really cares, but seeing you have read this far, here’s my take on it.

People do search for things on Tiktok but there are several reasons to be cautious in declaring TikTok as a superior search engine compared to traditional ones like Google. Firstly, the nature of content on TikTok is primarily user-generated and entertainment-focused, which may not always provide the most accurate or comprehensive information.

Unlike Google, which indexes a vast range of websites for a variety of information, TikTok’s content is limited to what is uploaded by its users. TikTok’s algorithm is designed to promote engagement through entertainment or interest, rather than informational accuracy, which can sometimes lead to the spread of misinformation.

Traditional search engines are often a link graph and use complex algorithms to provide a wide array of information from different sources, ensuring a level of objectivity and comprehensiveness in their search results. Google, for instance, has a sophisticated indexing system and prioritises authoritative sources in its results. This depth and breadth of information are not typically found in TikTok’s content.

The search experience on TikTok is also influenced by its social media nature. The platform is more about discovering trending topics and engaging with popular content, which is quite different from the targeted and specific information retrieval that search engines offer. Therefore, while TikTok may be a popular platform for certain types of searches, especially among younger users, it does not necessarily replace the detailed and comprehensive search capabilities of traditional search engines like Google.

TikTok, primarily known as a social media platform, centres around short-form video content. It allows users to create, share, and engage with videos ranging from entertainment to educational material. The platform’s algorithm is tailored to personalise user experience based on their interactions.

Traditional search engines like Google or Bing provide a service to find information across the internet based on specific queries, employing complex algorithms for indexing and ranking web pages.  Tiktok is just not set up that way.

Let’s get into the weeds – the case for TikTok’s search engine capabilities

Let’s take opinion out of it for now and let’s look at the facts.  What criteria could we consider to really declare Tiktok a search engine.

Personalised content discovery through algorithms

TikTok’s platform showcases a keen ability to curate content that aligns closely with user interests. The core of this feature is an algorithm that mirrors traditional search engines’ capacity to filter and present search results tailored to the user’s past interactions and queries. This personalised approach to content discovery is central to TikTok’s appeal and functionality as a search tool.

Navigating content with search-related features

TikTok’s design incorporates several functionalities that assist users in navigating the platform’s vast content landscape. With options to search for hashtags, trends, or specific creators, TikTok’s interface bears resemblance to the query input and results mechanism of classic search engines. The “Discover” section further enhances this by acting as a hub for users to explore and engage with trending videos and topics.

Engagement metrics as a content refinement tool

Engagement signals such as likes, comments, and shares are crucial for TikTok in shaping the user experience. These metrics inform the platform’s algorithm, similarly to how traditional search engines utilise user data to refine and optimise search results.

So it is Searchtok then? Really? Here are a few points challenging TikTok’s search engine status

Constraints in diversity and objectivity of search results

TikTok’s primary focus on personal interest and entertainment content shapes its search results, which may not always provide the diverse and unbiased information one might expect from traditional search engines. Such engines are designed to tap into a broader spectrum of web-based information, providing a more comprehensive set of results.

The narrower scope of content curation and indexing

The nature of TikTok’s user-generated content leads to a more curated experience, lacking the wide-ranging indexing of web pages characteristic of established search engines. The absence of a complex indexing system on TikTok results in a limited and less diverse informational scope.

Assessing the quality and accuracy of information

The pursuit of virality on TikTok can at times compromise the accuracy and quality of the information provided. This contrasts with the tendency of traditional search engines to elevate sources that are deemed authoritative and credible, thus ensuring the reliability of the information presented in search results.

So what is the final judgement? Is it a search engine

While TikTok exhibits certain features akin to a search engine, particularly in content discovery and user engagement, it fundamentally differs from traditional search engines in scope, methodology, and the nature of content provided.

You might search for videos of recipes and how to advice and use it for discovery but it’s not really a search engine as much as Tiktok and marketers might find it advantageous to push that narrative.

Its algorithm is designed more for entertainment and engagement rather than comprehensive information retrieval. While it can serve as a supplementary tool for content discovery, it does not replace the wide-ranging, objective, and detailed search capabilities of traditional search engines.

Do a bloody love Tiktok though? Yes I do. Do I search on Tiktok? Yes. It’s super useful and I do use it to find out a all sorts of information. It’s also  entertaining and we’d definitely use its keyword data as a way to plan content creation.

Keep on posting TikTok fam.

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