Gen Z see TikTok as the future of ‘search’ – let’s explore if they are right

By Ash Liddell, Rise at Seven on
gen z tiktok

TikTok has been causing seismic changes in the world of social since its launch in 2016. However, as TikTok continues to evolve and audiences’ relationships with the platform continue to grow, its upcoming battles seem to be more aligned with the world’s various search engines, as opposed to against other social media platforms. 

For the longest time, when a content marketer discussed SEO, it was widely accepted that the conversation would be focused on Google. However, the direction of the conversation has become muddied as powerhouse brands from the worlds of e-commerce and social have established their own offerings that users have decided can compete with Google and therefore enter conversations for SEO focus. 

As audiences discover platforms that can assist them in a more efficient way than what they utilise currently, the behaviours of audiences change and users migrate to the more efficient platform. For search, this has resulted in shifts to the likes of Pinterest, Amazon and most recently, TikTok. 

Currently, one such emerging migration is that of gen Z users to TikTok to aid them with search queries. 

Why has Gen Z turned to TikTok for its search queries?

As recently reported by TechCrunch, 40% of Generation Z users are already putting a significant emphasis on the potential of TikTok as a search engine, having a preference for Social platforms like TikTok and Instagram over Google. 

And, as there is the continued belief that a majority of the population responds positively to visual learning methods, it is a reasonable assumption that TikTok’s more visual-first approach to handling user queries will continue to resonate with audiences.

From here, as word-of-mouth begins to establish the functionality advantages and early majorities begin to adopt the platform for search, we could see more users, from wider audience groups, embrace TikTok for their searches over Google. 

When you partner this more visual approach to search, with the findings of a recent Ofcom study that Gen Z users now spend more time on TikTok than watching LIVE TV, It becomes clear that the approach of TikTok is resonating with Gen Z massively. But why is this affecting search? 

Generation Z hate the friction that inevitably happens when ‘googling’

When it comes to search, Gen Z are hyper-aware of the friction they are encountering when making a search. Google’s results currently feature a lot of fluff, and it’s this fluff that is reducing efficiency, turning off Gen Z users in the process. However, when Gen Z attempt those same searches on TikTok, they are greeted with the information they require in a more simple, effective way, without the bloat and friction. 

tiktok search
Trending topics that lead to searches are better managed on TikTok over Google.

This user experience is what is driving the migration of Gen Z over to TikTok for their searches. As Natalie Gomas, a 23-year-old, explained in an interview with Mashable, “The way recipes are done on webpages annoys me a lot. You have to scroll through so much stuff to get to the actual recipes.” And here is where TikTok begins to flex its muscles, especially to a younger audience, who see themselves constantly in a sense of ‘rush’ and expect answers quickly. 

Google requires websites to meet criteria to evidence that its content is worthy of ranking on its SERPs, the user is always in mind but you have to meet this criteria. TikTok’s algorithm instead lets the engagement of its users do the talking, removing the friction as creators can focus on simply creating content! 

Trending topics that lead to searches are better managed on TikTok over Google.

TikTok’s algorithm lends itself to displaying hyper-relevant content to its users. Generation Z users have began to understand that their searches for a ‘Things to Do’ query may return completely different results on the platform, based on the time of year, what events are happening in the location, the opening of new restaurants or the emergence of a new “Best VietnameseVietnemese Street Food” location that begins to go viral.

Unlike when searching for a typical keyword query, the search for hashtags will return related elements typical to the platform, such as sounds, music, people and more. Users can then favour the type of engagement more important to them, are they looking for the most liked content or the most viewed? TikTok allows active filtering as required, and displays the content it believes the user will engage with. By doing so, TikTok is able to return often completely different pages of video results for searches, better tailoring results to the needs/pains/wants/desires of the user. Unsurprisingly, Generation Z users are absolutely loving this approach! 

A MEGA example:

One such example of this in practice was the emergence of the ‘Binley Mega Chippy’ content on TikTok. Earlier this year, an otherwise average fish and chips shop in Coventry became the most talked about chippy in the UK – all thanks to a viral content trend on TikTok. As users searched for the hashtags #binleymegachippy and #chippy, users were greeted with the most relevant results related to the trend, allowing them to enjoy the entertaining renditions of the catchy jingle, learn more about the restaurant and participate in the trend.

Had users googled ‘Chippy’, results would have been more likely to reflect their local fish and chips shops and a wiki page explaining the phenomenon of Britains favourite dish, content not at all like what users wanted to be greeted with! 

For the most part, Google reflects the expected intent of their users, believing that someone in Manchester, for example, expects to see results for Manchester fish and chip shops if they search ‘chippy’. In this example, Google would have returned results that didn’t fit the need of the query, whereas TikTok absolutely did.

What this means for the future of search

The future of search is already being shaped by the move of the Gen Z early adopter audience to TikTok for its searches. For a period of time before the emergence of TikTok as a search platform, Google has been looking at reducing the friction of its offering, actively developing featured snippets and “people also ask”, so that people don’t need to leave the SERPs. 

More recently, Google has reacted to its findings around TikTok (and Instagram) as search platforms and has started featuring content from the social platforms within its SERPs. And whilst, this step may slow the transition of users away from Google, there are drawbacks here. 

If we look at another example, focusing on Airbnb, it becomes clear that there are potential concerns for a search intermediary when recommending a brand, let alone a separate search intermediary. 

Google ranks Airbnb within its SERPS and has done since its creation. Throughout its development as a brand, Google likely directed users to the Airbnb platform and at a certain time, Airbnb would have been dependent on the traffic it received from Google. However, a distinct shift in their marketing effort, along with a move by users that sees the app now sitting at ‘mass adoption’, means that users turn to the accommodation giant directly, without ever consulting Google. As reported in Marketing Week, the shift to brand building assisted the platform in attracting 90% of its traffic from ‘direct to site’ users. 

It is not farfetched to suggest that as users continue to be exposed to TikTok, with some likely being introduced to the platform within a SERP presented by Google, TikTok could experience a similar path as Airbnb.

Instead of users searching on Google to then be presented a TikTok result, users could instead head straight to TikTok and receive the same result there, whilst also benefiting from the features presented by the app directly, that Google cannot easily imitate. (Such as saving videos, engaging with content, following specific users etc.) 

In addition to this, TikTok also has the social functionality that made the app the most downloaded app in the world alongside being the most visited website in the world, in which it overtook (you guessed it!) Google. And you have to wonder if Google’s move to displaying TikToks within its SERPS could actually work against the search giant, as opposed to removing the TikTok threat. 

There are likely to be other reactive moves by Google to avoid this. We have seen the Introduction of YouTube shorts, which could replace the placement of TikToks in the SERPS, to rival the social media giant, could we reach a place where YouTube shorts are utilised in a similar way to how Gen Z are utilising TikTok for search? Algorithmic issues and core functions are missing from YouTube’s offering at present, but this could be one way to influence the future of search in the favour of Google. 

A further step taken, at least in the opinion of this content marketer, is Google’s “Helpful Content Update” announcement. Shared by Google on August 18th 2022. Google explains how the update will look to ”ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.”, or put simply, remove the fluff.

Google wants to prioritise content that looks to assist a user genuinely and effectively, as opposed to meet the needs of a search engine to gain visibility. And whilst this is a much-needed update for all audiences, there are clear advantages to the Gen Z audience that it has already identified as alienating! 

These evolutions will shape the future of search

This is what the future of search has to look like. And this is a really positive development for users and also brands with effective, audience-driven, content strategies. The constant evolution of the search intermediary platforms, based on audience behaviour, is not only positive but it’s a MUST for search engines. And this is best for brands too! 

If a brand understands its audience and is actively responding to behaviour shifts, it will likely be ahead of the search engines in reacting to changes, who need to see large-scale behaviour changes before rolling out evolutions, which will only benefit brands with effective content strategies when such updates are rolled out. 

For example, If a brand identifies its audience as responding and engaging with visual content, it should double down on visual content. If a brand observes a shift to audio content within an audience (podcasts for example) then they should pivot and look to create this type of content – evolving their content strategy based on the audience. 

Search engines must do the same. If Google does this, they will be able to prevent the mass adoption of TikTok as a search engine, due to users being able to find answers on the platform they have come to rely on for such activity. However, as we have seen throughout history with various brands, such as Netflix and Blockbuster, if Google fails to respond to the changes within its audience’s behaviour, in a way which resonates with audiences, audiences will find a brand that does resonate with their expectations.

What brands can do to be prepared for the future of search

For brands and content marketing teams, the message is simple: 

  • Deliver quality content that users will find useful and seek out.
  • Present information as content on wherever your audience is actively looking for it.
  • Repurpose content across multiple content platforms to better leverage your budget to allow you to achieve the above. 
  • If you are a Gen Z-focused brand, you should already be creating content on TikTok, if your audience are elsewhere you need to understand if your audience is using the platform. 

Need some Inspiration? check out the likes of ASOS and GymShark, two of my favourite brand channels on the platform. However, if your audience is not Gen Z, I would still be looking to leverage the platform. User numbers across demographics are positive and you could leverage TikTok to gain visibility that is currently being left on the table – especially if your competitors are yet to embrace the social platform.

I would recommend integrating TikTok within your content strategy, creating video content to meet search queries as TikTok SEO content but also embracing the wider world of TikTok, jumping on trending sounds, hashtags and video formats to leverage the social proposition also.

Ash Liddell is Senior Content Strategy Executive at Rise at Seven

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