Notes From A Small Intern…

A bit about the author:
Freya has recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a First Class MA in English Literature and has now joined the SPD as Content Executive. She’s interested in writing of almost every form, including screen/script writing, creative writing and publishing. She’s hoping to travel to Patagonia, Chile to pursue her love of Spanish but in the meantime, she’s loving being thrown into the world of financial services copy.

When she’s not drowning in small print, she scours the digital landscape for the hot topics of the day and here is her take on the latest developments in the world of search. Enjoy: 


How TikTok is giving Google a run for its money  

TikTok, the Chinese-owned platform that allows users to create and share short video-form content, has risen rapidly to become the most popular website visited in 2021, unseating Google for the top spot and surpassing a billion active users in September 2021.  

A new generation of social media users is turning to TikTok as its search engine of choice; and this phenomenon is having a profound effect on competitors as they scramble to respond to this emerging (and rapidly rising) trend.  

According to my research, there are three main reasons that TikTok has achieved such rapid popularity: 

  1.  Shorter attention spans 
  2. Visual learning preferences
  3. The type of results it delivers 


For Gen Z, time is of the essence 

Our shortening attention spans have long been changing the way we consume information, but TikTok’s content, short by nature, capitalises on our increasing  inability to stay interested for too long. Although, having initially only allowed fifteen-second videos, TikTok now allows videos of up to ten minutes long, and is slowly encroaching on YouTube’s appeal. 

For Gen Z in particular, TikTok is preferable to Google because it delivers answers instantly and in one place (in one video). Multiple answers can also be sifted by a user more quickly, by simply scrolling away if it’s not relevant, rather than clicking back and into another result on Google. 


So…has (short form) video killed the SEO star? 

A growing preference for visual learning is also a huge part of TikTok’s popularity. Even the senior vice president of Google Knowledge and Information, Prabhakar Raghavan, acknowledges that “visually rich forms” of information discovery are preferred by young people. For them, watching a TikTok is “easier” than reading an article on Google. 

It’s also a novel, exciting way of consuming complicated or dense information. Not only does TikTok excel at answering the questions “you would ask a friend”, its tailored and unique visual results are also proving to be an increasingly attractive way of answering more serious questions.  

In research from Credit Karma, 52% of Gen Z respondents turned to the platform to seek financial advice about personal finance. TikTok’s own What’s Next Report 2022 showed that videos tagged #NFT increased by a whopping 93,000% from 2020 and there are 1.9 billion videos with the #crypto hashtag 

So, having evolved beyond a pure entertainment platform, TikTok’s visual focus is giving it the upper hand as a search engine. While it mainly appeals to Gen Z users, as marketers we shouldn’t ignore the fact that TikTok usage among older age groups is increasing, with 36% of their users between 35 and 54 years old in 2021 – up from 26% in 2020 


The old adage still rings true: People buy people 

Thirdly, TikTok search results differ from Google. The personal, relatable qualities of TikTok’s answers are very appealing to users. It’s people hearing from people, rather than reading an article or think piece on the same topic. 

Raghavan revealed that a recent study showed almost 40% of young people use TikTok over Google when searching for a place to eat lunch, for example. Google maps or search fails to offer the more personal answers that younger people want. Watching even five short videos about good places to eat in a specific location, with a backdrop of dishes the person ordered, is a quicker and better way to judge your options than Google search. 


The battle of the algorithms 

For some, TikTok is considered a better place to discover new brands, ideas and voices than Google, delivering content from anywhere in the world to your feed that its algorithm identifies it as a potential interest of yours. 

Furthermore, the search results you get from the app are filtered through TikTok’s algorithm, meaning they are screened to be closer to the kind of content or creators in which your profile has already shown an interest. 

Another issue with Google is that useful results are often pushed down the page as paid-ad space continues to deepen. On TikTok they are right at your fingertips 

Ultimately, Google’s algorithm shows you what you’re looking for, while TikTok’s at times eerily prescient algorithm also gives you recommendations for things you didn’t even realise you’d like. 


Keeping up with the kids 

TikTok’s success is spurring change among all its competitors. For example, Instagram and Snapchat have both recently added TikTok-like video features to their apps and Google is now testing short videos in search results for destinations. For example, if I searched for “things to do in Bristol”, relevant TikToks or Instagram Reels might be shown above the organic search results. 

There is also a growing awareness among marketers of TikTok’s usefulness. Even a preliminary search yielded articles talking about SEO and TikTok’s search engine potential – with tips on how to get your brand/business noticed on the app (for which there will inevitably be TikToks as well). 


TikTok vs. Google – better the devil you know? 

While TikTok is gaining popularity as a source of educational as well as entertainment content, its Chinese ownership means it is plagued with data security concerns (not helped by the UK Government closing its account this week) and misinformation issues. Although Google is perfectly capable of facilitating the spread of mis- and disinformation, TikTok like all social media, keeps you in a ‘bubble’ – only interacting with the products, opinions and influencers you like (a massive issue for another time). 

For this reason, Google remains important as a verification tool. Careful users may be wary of trusting TikTok for answers to more complex queries or will put in the extra time and effort to fact-check information. 

All this being said, there are plenty of professionals, such as doctors, psychotherapists and lawyers using TikTok to combat misinformation in their fields. An American fertility doctor, Lora Shahine, uses the app to spread awareness of and fight stigma around infertility and miscarriage. For her, the app helps break down barriers between patients and the medical profession. British doctors have also taken to the platform to encourage take-up of the Covid vaccines, with one, Nighat Arif, recording videos in Urdu and Punjabi to reach communities with members who do not speak English. 

Despite some drawbacks, TikTok is proving itself as a new, exciting and extremely accessible search engine that fulfils the search habits of younger generations.  

Its influence on marketing and the digital world will only increase as its user base ages and expands along with its buying power, establishing TikTok as a search titan not of tomorrow, but of today.