TikTok as a Marketing Tool: Does TikTok Act as a Next-Gen Search Engine?

How has TikTok, the social media app popular with younger adults, become a search engine – and what does that mean for search-based digital marketing?

By DMJ Team

TikTok is one of the newer social media apps. As it has gained traction with younger audiences, its story-based posts and introduction of multiple search features, where users can search by hashtags, trends, and even sounds, have made it a powerful resource equal to some of the biggest global search engines.

Once seen primarily as a form of entertainment and interaction between its target demographic – a whopping 56% of adults in the US between 18 and 34 use the app – the development of user-friendly features and varied, functional search capabilities have seen it transform into a valuable digital marketing tool.

Younger audiences want to search rather than rely on algorithms to decide what they should see. Given the younger average user age, they’re also comfortable with more intuitive search criteria based on complex terms rather than sticking to the simple keywords we all know.

Interestingly, a study conducted by Adobe found that 10% of Gen-Z users are more inclined to use TikTok than Google and that 54% of businesses use the platform for promotional purposes. Let’s look at how this has all happened and why it’s so relevant to digital marketers.

How Has TikTok Become a Widely Used Search Engine?

The social media app has quietly but very deliberately evolved over recent years, and controversy around the potential for the platform to be banned in the US seems to have only increased its user numbers. While most TikTok users initially created accounts to participate in trends such as dance and music videos, it’s become much more.

In short, the app examined the content viewers were engaging with and created new features to make it easier and faster to navigate the billions of pieces of content within the app. This was all based on analytics that showed users were looking for diverse content, from recipes to home décor inspiration.

Rather than leaving Google to do the heavy lifting or ignoring these emerging search-based requirements, TikTok reimagined itself – almost before anybody noticed.

How Do TikTok Users Access Search Engine Features?

The app has many features, and if any time has passed since we published this guide, it’s very likely you’ll find lots more—and that is part of the secret: the app continues to monitor usage trends and appetites for content like tutorials that use the short-form video format.

Some of the most-used current search features are as follows:

  • Discover: This page shows users suggested content based on their previous searches, content, influencer follows and the engagement between the account holder and other TikTok profiles. Curated content is personalized and intended to help users find new accounts or content that appeals to their interests.
  • Refined search filters: Users can decide how they want the app to recommend content and use advanced filters to pick their own parameters – such as only seeing the newest content or preferring videos that last a specific duration.
  • Varied search prompts: TikTok doesn’t rely solely on keywords but allows users to search by almost anything, whether hashtags, music tracks or sounds, usernames, or challenges the user wants to participate in.
  • Mobile app search: When opened on a mobile device, a strategically positioned search bar appears at the top of the app, meaning users can type in any topic or content they want to see.

While user-generated searches are variable, TikTok maintains its own search algorithm. This ticks over analyzing captions and hashtags, viewer numbers, and interactions to determine the results that are most relevant to each user – and identifying underlying trends.

The ever-expanding catalog of sound clips, popular music tracks, keywords and hashtags, all of which can be used as a search prompt, have cemented TikTok’s use as a powerful, multimedia search engine.

How Do TikTok’s Search Capabilities Impact Digital Marketing Strategies?

Digital marketers and businesses keen to engage and communicate with younger adult audiences have known for some time that the app is a prime place to advertise their brands. The challenge for many, especially smaller companies or long-standing corporations with little agility, is that conventional digital marketing tactics and content formats simply don’t work.

There isn’t any one-size-fits-all solution, but businesses are increasingly looking to:

  • Create new, specifically formatted content to share their promotions, brand messaging, or products with TikTok users.
  • Collaborate with influencers and popular TikTok accounts to gain credibility or social proof by positioning themselves as desirable.
  • Allocate a proportion of their marketing budgets to content only for TikTok – whether product reviews and tutorials, unboxing videos, or non-sales-based content that features the brand, its products, or services.

The takeaway is that TikTok’s search engine steps away from the traditional format that we’re used to on search engines like Google and Bing. Rather than using defined algorithms that index and rank pages and content against factors like keywords or backlinks, TikTok creates search results on a different and larger number of variables.

Digital marketers keen to stay ahead of the curve need to recognize how search functions led by consumer behavior – rather than dictated by the search engine – are meeting a need and how audiences’ expectations have changed so quickly.

For example, Google’s own research shows that around 40% of young people will use TikTok or Instagram to find restaurant recommendations as a first preference. Therefore, positioning your business in this dynamic space may be necessary to avoid being left behind.

Will TikTok Take Over From Google as the Largest Search Engine?

All this discussion should be taken in context. While the rise and popularity of TikTok are not in question, it also remains subject to potential bans or restrictions. The US government has passed a bill that demands the Chinese owners sell the app’s US-based ownership to avoid a ban.

Should that happen, users will probably be able to continue using TikTok, although they won’t receive any updates or fixes to bugs, and the app will likely stop working over time.

However, in the meantime, digital marketers and brands can’t ignore the fact that value-based content and user-focused searches have delivered unexpected results and provided TikTok with a competitive edge that has rivaled a service as big and established as Google.

Social media has become a far larger and more important part of the marketing mix. As new channels and platforms are developed, each with its own algorithms, search functions, and features, the battle for search supremacy is far from won.

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