TikTok’s meteoric rise in popularity stirred up the world of Search, prompting heated discussions about how to future-proof optimisation strategies. After a Google exec recently mentioned that almost 40% of young people are turning to TikTok or Instagram when looking for a place for lunch, some industry pundits went as far as calling TikTok the ‘New Google’. How likely is this future TikTok to topple the old-timey Goliath? Are they even trying to compete with Google, or is TikTok building their own niche of social marketing and e-commerce engagement? Right now TikTok is riding high. They are like a promising young graduate who has entered the job market, and the future seems bright. Consider the many different possibilities for this platform, as we ponder the impact of TikTok’s continued evolution.
What Is a Search Engine Anyway? Specialty vs Ubiquity
There is a reason so many gen z-ers flee to TikTok to look for anything from new recipes to fashion recommendations. Searching on TikTok is a highly engaging experience with short and snackable videos catered to fun trends and user likes. This type of engagement is contained within a single platform, much like the linear search results we see on Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and even Amazon. All of these platforms are powerful search engines in their own right, each with their own distinct area of specialisation – even when competing for the same audience. Their primary business objective is all about the depth: growing user participation within their own platform with little to no crossover to third-party platform experiences.
Unlike TikTok, Google’s search dominance is rooted in its ubiquity: the ability to scale across multiple platforms in order to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” What started as a single obsession to build the StarTrek’s omnipresent computer has evolved into an ambitious vision of a trusted personal assistant. Google relies on the content depth already achieved by multiple social and e-commerce platforms to fulfil both informational as well as functional requests.
A social search for a banana bread recipe on Google uncovers a multitude of options across not only the most prominent TikToks, but also YouTube shorts and long-form videos, Pinterest boards, Facebook discussions, reviews-heavy recipe sites and popular blogs.
This symbiotic relationship amplifies TikTok’s content through added visibility in Google search results while Google expands its multi-platform content offering every time a new video gets posted on TikTok.
Becoming the ‘New Google’: What If… TikTok Wants Ubiquity?
While the prospect of TikTok driving users offsite feels like a long shot now, this type of organic growth may happen naturally over time as TikTok scales brand partnerships and introduces creative new forms of brand engagement.
Impact to Search Strategy
The most obvious void in how TikTok partners with brand strategists today is the complete lack of visibility into how consumers are searching within the platform. There is no Search Console or Keyword Planner equivalent to tell us how, when, and what is trending within a specific vertical. If TikTok ties scaling brand partnerships to immediate revenue goals, search strategists can likely expect to gain more visibility into platform-specific consumer behaviour data to enable effective targeting and campaign planning.
In The Meantime…
Since TikTok’s growth as a social platform has shown no signs of slowing down, it should be a prominent pillar of any organic search strategy today, with these immediate considerations:
- Leverage Google search data to pinpoint the most relevant trends in TikTok search. Use this data to optimise both the TikTok brand profile as well as individual posts. This strategy is very similar to what SEOs already do for YouTube, Pinterest, as well as other social platforms.
- Partner with TikTok creators to bolster visibility in both TikTok and Google search results. This form of SEO is reliant on bolstering valuable upper-funnel content in the same way Search strategists engage with PR and editorial teams as part of website optimisation.
It’s a Matter of Trust
So far TikTok has seen very few push backs to balance content’s popularity with accuracy. If you search for ‘safe sleep products’ on TikTok today, you’ll see many popular videos from influencers with no obvious credentials. If TikTok is to become the ‘New Google’, they’re likely to start facing regulation pressure in a quest to help users ‘find answers to life’s questions, big and small’.
A recent resurgence of the NyQuil chicken craze illustrates a growing push for the platform to introduce more checks and balances. After authoritative sites such as the Mayo Clinic and FDA issued strong statements discouraging users from cooking chicken in NyQuil rather than butter or oil, TikTok posted the following warning to a direct search for this recipe:
However, more videos about this trend can still be easily found with slight modifications to the original query. Searching the term ‘nyqu chicken’ pops up as a predictive search term within the platform and ultimately generates the original search results with the full recipe:
How Did the ‘Old Google’ Do It?
Much like many social networks today, the wild wild west Google search results of the early 2000s were driven largely by popularity, and therefore easily manipulated by black hat optimisation efforts. After years of shallow search results achieved through backlinking voodoo, Google’s need to balance popularity with credibility became existential. Gone are the days of amateurs discussing ‘safe sleep products’ or extremely unsafe trends such as the NyQuil chicken yielding a step-by-step recipe. Today’s Google SEO strategy adheres to multiple compliance and accessibility rules, follows search engine’s YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) and EAT (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) guidelines, and places heavy emphasis on the most optimal user experience. And while Google’s efforts to fight disinformation are not perfect, their continued quest to pair users with the most authoritative sources of information possible has built a lot of trust over time. Google users have come to rely on the hard-earned top search results being awarded primarily to authoritative sources and trusted brands.
Becoming the ‘New Google’: What If TikTok Wants More Trust?
We are yet to see an example of a social network successfully shifting focus from showing what’s popular on its platform to becoming the universal ‘source of truth’. Facebook came close to being the primary go-to place for many controversial questions related to what Google classifies as YMYL (Your Money, Your Life). However, the giant wave of misinformation during the 2016 presidential elections in the US pressurised the platform. Facebook took too long to respond to disinformation spreaders. They were ultimately forced to begin safeguarding certain types of social posts, applying misinformation labels, and pointing users to authoritative search results instead. Furthermore, Facebook as well YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and Snapchat have already been approached by more than 120 civil rights and advocacy groups pushing these platforms to take more aggressive actions to curb election-related disinformation.
Growing Privacy Concerns
In addition to needing to take more immediate action to safeguard users and filter out misinformation, users have recently been concerned with privacy issues on the app. Specifically, the app has been under scrutiny because the Chinese owners of TikTok, ByteDance, may have the option to view and/or sell user information from any of its American users. At the moment, the Biden administration is in the process of negotiating with Chinese officials to reach an agreement surrounding these issues. And at the same time, Texas and Iowa have just joined a growing list of states such as South Carolina, Dakota and Nebraska either to ban or request to block TikTok on government-issued devices.
Balancing content’s popularity with accuracy seems to be the inevitable struggle during the social platforms’ evolution to grow and scale as independent search engines.
Impact to Search Strategy
While TikTok is still toying with the concept of authors’ credibility, Search marketers can actively leverage this platform to build and grow the profiles of authors who may already be writing your brand’s upper funnel/blog content. Google has been placing a lot of emphasis on the power of ‘entities’ vs keywords, meaning the authors who publish your blog content are just as important as the content they publish.
A credible author with multiple high-value pieces of social content on a related subject is a high ranking asset to any site. It demonstrates deep subject matter expertise, impacts Google rankings, and consequently leads to more impressions and site traffic.
In The Meantime…
It is more important than ever for brands to manage how they are represented in organic search results. Google’s continued effort to detect false information still leaves numerous gaps for malicious takeovers and brand safety concerns. Consider incorporating the following safeguards and trust signs into any brand’s reputation management and Search strategy:
Trust signals: People buy from the brands they trust and Google knows that.
- Highlight authentic product reviews and credible product tests, opinion pieces from subject matter experts in the industry.
- Steer clear of marketing speak and avoid publishing any content written with no strict UX considerations in mind.
- Implement Fact-Checking Markup
- Claim your brand’s Knowledge Panel and periodically check to make sure all information Google displays about your brand is accurate and up-to-date. Manipulating these panels to harm competitors is still a distinct possibility in the search world, and therefore should be taken seriously.
- Continuously check for fake product reviews.
- Review your site’s backlink profile and 302 takeovers
- Vet all content contributors and data sources used on your website
- Take Google’s verification courses. You’ll learn time-saving methods to verify the authenticity and accuracy of images, videos, and reports.
TikTok Takes on YouTube
As Google holds tightly to its ‘Heavyweight Champion of Search’ belt, it’s YouTube that is starting to feel threatened. Riding high with 2.6 billion active users and a 43% boost in engagement after the pandemic, YouTube is now seeing increased competition from TikTok when it comes to longer form video content and in-channel ads. TikTok in China has been testing user demand to upload 10 and even 15-minute videos. And the recent announcement of TikTok’s new advertising strategy, Focused View, is quickly gaining popularity with brands and advertisers seeking a more guaranteed form of engagement for their ad experiences. Unlike YouTube, TikTok’s new ads on the For You Pages (FYP) are designed for ‘focused viewers’ only, targeting users who have already engaged with the ad. This new form of advertising is rapidly growing in popularity as brands discover a highly targeted way to drive immediate impact.
Long-time YouTube creators such as MrBeast have already started spending more time on TikTok, slowing down their YouTube posts to only one-two videos per month, compared to daily TikTok posts possibly reaching a more active audience.
Given this increasing pressure, YouTube has fired back with YouTube Shorts and their own attempt to forge a more exclusive community of vlogger influencers. While anyone can create a 60-second Short, YouTube now touts an ‘invite-only Shorts creator community’ as a way to partner with YouTube’s Community Partner Managers (CPMs). In some ways, it feels like YouTube is trying to make becoming an ‘influencer’ feel more attainable for all of their users – and push more creators to use the platform. YouTube has recently shared that over 2.9 million channels are already creating Shorts content. It’ll be interesting to see if YouTube Shorts competes with the engagement levels we see happening on TikTok.
In the meantime…
Paid search data can finally give us the TikTok behaviour and trends insights we’ve been waiting for. Leverage this data to pinpoint new shopping trends, inform content creation and product marketing.
With so much overlap in competing video formats, be sure to extend your video engagement strategy across both TikTok and YouTube influencer communities. Don’t focus on a singular platform or video type.
Growing Pains: What Does TikTok Want to Be?
While Google works hard to expand its multi-platform offering, TikTok has been making significant investments into new and exciting forms of in-platform brand engagement that seem to combine both social and shoppable experiences.
Shopping platforms, such as Shopify, and multiple affiliate options are helping to transform TikTok into an online e-commerce destination where influencers are able to monetize their content through social engagement. According to Shopify, social commerce is projected to generate an impressive $79.6 billion by 2025, solidifying TikTok’s niche as a hybrid social/shopping experience.
Stitches and Duets in the Metaverse?
As social engagement continues to ramp up on TikTok, its parent company ByteDance is getting serious about leveraging the power of social engagement in the world of virtual reality. Having acquired Pico, the third-largest VR headset maker in the world, ByteDance is now well positioned to re-envision real-time Stitches and Duets in the world of Metaverse. This virtual TikTok experience is bound to open the door to endless possibilities for brands and advertisers to reimagine engagement with their target audience online.
In the meantime…
- Focus on accessibility: As TikTok expands into the realm of virtual engagement, voice commands and speech-to-text are slowly revived as important considerations for the user experience in mixed reality environments. While it may be too early for large-scale metaverse optimisation, improving content accessibility today sees immediate benefits. Optimise all on-site content for voice and visual search in accordance with WCAG and ADA guidelines to ensure everyone can engage irrespective of their abilities.
- Stay shoppable: As more social experiences become shoppable, it’s crucial to highlight product attributes across both owned and earned experiences.
- Invest in multi-touch attribution: While virtual experiences evolve, it’s integral to plan for and implement key data and measurement touchpoints to track and understand audiences across multiple social and commerce platforms.
Assuming that TikTok can continue to operate in the US, we are likely to see this platform make significant investments into in-app forms of user engagement. Contrary to Google’s quest for ubiquity, TikTok’s focus on extending social into shoppable may yield innovative opportunities in VR, new ad formats and brand marketing for Search.
In the meantime…
- Don’t burn your Search playbook just yet:
After all, TikTok is only one out of multiple influential, large-scale social platforms that should be considered as part of the overall digital marketing strategy. Create a cross-platform approach to be found in social media search results. Ensure your strategy accounts for both in-app experiences as well as TikTok content appearing in aggregated Google search results.
- Work smarter, not harder:
Implement an omni-channel approach to optimising content. This means any media asset produced for the digital world should be optimised for organic, paid, and social touchpoints of the consumer experience.
Leverage rich, on-site content to create YouTube videos or Shorts, Instagram Reels, or repurpose for ads and email newsletters.
- Safeguard your brand’s online presence:
Monitor the impact of social engagement on how your brand appears in organic search results across ubiquitous aggregators, such as Google. Be sure to claim your Google knowledge panel and consistently check for the types of information showing up in branded search results. This upfront context is extremely important for users discovering your brand.
Leverage Search to sweep for any toxic, discriminatory, or hate groups sharing damaging content or linking to your brand site. Submit a Google request to disassociate from negative context, if needed.
The search landscape is constantly changing, offering brands multiple touch points to be found online. While TikTok has become an important building block for brand and e-commerce engagement, we emphasize the importance of a cross-platform, integrated approach to ensure efficient, scalable, and impactful digital strategy.