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Is TikTok a search engine? Why meeting searchers’ needs matters more than semantics

The debate around whether TikTok should be considered a search engine continues to divide the SEO community.

But here’s the thing – users don’t care about definitions or technicalities. For many, especially younger audiences, TikTok is a go-to place to search and discover information.

So, while we argue semantics within the SEO community, brands that are not considering TikTok as part of their search strategy risk losing visibility and engagement opportunities.

Let’s explore why users aren’t interested in our jargon-fuelled definitions and why they treat TikTok as a search engine. 

The shift in search engine dynamics

As SEOs, we traditionally see a search engine as a system designed to conduct web searches. It crawls through the web systematically to locate specific information specified in a search query. 

The classic examples include giants like Google and Microsoft Bing. These platforms index and rank webpages based on keywords, backlinks and other factors, presenting them in an ordered list in response to user queries.

However, the concept of what constitutes a search engine is evolving rapidly. While we are arguing over which platforms are actually search engines, users are just searching – everywhere.

This evolution is not just in the technology that powers search engines but also in their form and functionality. Siri, Alexa, TikTok, Pinterest, Reddit, ChatGPT, Gemini (formerly Bard), and SGE signify this shift.

Platforms not traditionally considered search engines are now fulfilling similar roles to the likes of Google and Bing. As far as users are concerned, they are doing so more effectively. They see these platforms as search engines, so why can’t SEOs?

And, please, don’t take my word for it.

Gen Z users favor more personalized, algorithm-led social networks (48%) over search engines (44%) when looking for information about brands, products or services, per WARC’s 2023 Consumer Trends report (subscription required).

This shift is broadening the definition of a search engine, in my opinion. It should signify an innovation in executing search marketing strategies and thinking about platforms.

Central to this transformation is user behavior. The way people search for information has changed dramatically.

There’s a growing preference for quick, concise, and visually engaging content, especially within those Gen Z and Millennial audiences (which tend to be my focus).

We’ve all seen the “40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search. They go to TikTok or Instagram” quote by Prabhakar Raghavan, Senior VP at Google.

When it comes to user behavior, those younger audiences value these platforms’ speed, convenience, and relatability, often preferring the visual and interactive content format TikTok offers.

Dig deeper. Survey: 51% of Gen Z women prefer TikTok, not Google, for search

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SEO today: Meeting users where they are

Someone might search for a cooking tutorial on TikTok instead of Google. Perhaps they’re seeking more than just the recipe.

They might be interested in the platform’s engaging presentation, improved user experience, and community aspect. This could be because certain searches are suited to visual content or due to their connection with a particular creator.

Search engines are no longer just about indexing and retrieving web content. They need to meet users where they are and in the format they prefer – and Google recognizes this shift.

In response to these developments, “Perspectives” has been created to challenge these platforms (TikTok, Instagram, Reddit) and their search capabilities and bring users back to a Google SERP for these types of queries. Google also recently has been testing TikTok videos in SGE and featured snippets.

E-E-A-T has been iterated, placing more emphasis on the first-hand experience of content and its creator. This is a crucial factor driving people to other platforms in the first place. This shows a further commitment to improving the relatability and trustworthiness of content solutions.

Dig deeper: The modern search landscape: How and where to reach your target audience

What actually matters 

This debate can drag on endlessly, with arguments over semantics and definitions trying to sway people to one side. However, this won’t make a difference for our brands.

Instead, we should be looking to our audiences to guide us. Because, as much as we can argue TikTok isn’t a search platform, if audiences are searching there and your brand is not present, you leave valuable visibility on the table.

Ultimately, we should prioritize activations on the platform that best meets our brand’s strategic needs and develop search content there.

If that results in a TikTok search strategy, great.

If we instead focus solely on Google because that is what will move the needle, then fantastic.

It may even be a combination of them both, leveraging a more holistic “search everywhere” approach.

The key here is not to turn down a platform because it doesn’t meet your definition for a search engine right now. Because while we’re debating about this, a brand competitor is likely executing these observations and gaining visibility.

Ultimately, as has always been the case, it’s not our job to dictate to users the content they must consume and where they should consume it. 

Rather, we react to the signals provided by our audiences and create the content solutions they desire in the format they expect them to appear. 

And, in an expanding search universe, on the platforms, they are conducting such searches. 

Dig deeper: Search universe analysis: A deep dive

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