“TikTok is the new Google!”
It’s a phrase that makes the color drain from any marketer’s face. But is it actually true?
We’ve heard claims that TikTok search engine capabilities could soon make Google obsolete. We were skeptical, so we decided to investigate ourselves.
We conducted some original research and asked some of our team members about their TikTok activities. Here’s what we learned about the furor surrounding Google vs TikTok search – and whether your clients need to change their entire marketing strategy as a result.
What TikTok vs. Google Existing Research Shows
At Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in June 2022, Google Senior VP Prabhakar Raghavan (who runs the company’s Knowledge & Information division) claimed that “almost 40% of young people” will go to TikTok or Instagram, rather than Google Search or Maps, when looking for somewhere to eat lunch.
Google confirmed to TechCrunch that Raghavan’s comments were based on the company’s internal research – a survey involving U.S. users aged 18 to 24 and containing data that has not yet been made publicly available. Media outlets ran with the headline that TikTok is quickly becoming Google’s #1 competitor.
What are some possible reasons for the supposed shift to TikTok vs Google?
- Attention spans are down
- Users want more visual answers
- Social media algorithms already tailor results to your interests
- Discovering solutions on social feels more fun
- Google Ads dissuade young users, while TikTok feels more organic
These points may be compelling, but we already know that TikTok has its limitations. Given the substantial amount of misinformation that’s rampant on “the clock app,” we’ve heard that most young adults know better than to rely solely on what they find on the platform for more serious subjects. For news and health-related content, they’ll typically use Google to at least verify what they find on TikTok.
TikTok may be a way to discover new information, but it may not be the most effective at pointing out specific solutions. How-tos, product demonstrations, recipes, fashion reviews, and personal recommendations are prevalent on the platform. But clear and actionable information, especially as it relates to small businesses, is lacking.
Our working theory: TikTok can be a good first step when you want to learn more about a product recommendation or a new offering. But the TikTok search engine isn’t likely to guide your target customer from initial discovery to eventual purchase without help from Google.
We decided to test this theory for ourselves. Here’s what we found.
TikTok Search Engine Experiment #1: Looking for Local Barbers
TikTok’s “Discover” tab (which features trending hashtags, as well as a search bar and a QR code scanner) is the closest thing the platform has to Google Search. We put it to the test to see if it could provide us with the type of valuable information we’re used to seeing in SERPs.
We first tried typing in the term “Rochester barber” into the TikTok search bar. The first top result was posted 9 months ago, in February 2022, by a user with fewer than 5,000 followers. The video itself has only 40 likes, shows a young barber giving a client a trim, and contains supplemental text that reads “Top3barber in Rochester NY.” A subsequent Google search for “Top3Barber” came up empty, as did the creator’s profile.
Overall, not much to go on here. If you’re into haircut content, you might give the video a watch. But you’ll have to turn to other platforms to find out where the barber works and how to contact them.
Though there are more recent videos that come up in this same search, most have the same level of engagement and information as the first. And while the hashtags indicate that most of the results are targeting the Rochester, NY area, other videos appear to be from Rochesters in the UK and Minnesota. Not entirely helpful if you’re looking for a solution close by. That’s another point for the reigning champion in the Google vs TikTok search fight.
We had to scroll down to the 13th video before we found any information about any of the businesses featured. Felix Barber Shop, which has over 350 Google reviews and a 4.5 star rating, was the first account we were able to find that listed any business information in its profile.
We continued scrolling through the search results and came to an “Others searched for” section – similar to the “Related searches” section at the bottom of SERPs. You can see below how they compare:
Those prompts may be similar in these Google vs. TikTok search results, but whether they offer the same value wasn’t immediately clear. Trying “traditional barber Rochester NY” took us to another series of videos – most of which were repeats from the original search with sparse actionable information. One account prompted users to “find him via Facebook” and to check out his podcast. Only the area code in the user’s handle clued us in that he’s in the Rochester area.
In contrast, the Google results for “Rochester barber” are far more helpful for someone who’s looking to get a haircut. Multiple business listings, Yelp reviews, and legitimate websites appeared within the first query we entered. When we clicked on “barbers near me” in the related search prompts, we got some different results in the map pack. If you want to make an appointment or find a place that takes walk-ins, you’re going to have a much easier time getting that information from Google.
Overall, we didn’t find TikTok to be a particularly efficient way to find a hair stylist in the area. Even if you happened to be captivated by a barber’s work on that platform, you’d need to jump through several more hoops to actually get in their chair.
But maybe it’s just not a great platform for barbers. So what happens when we look for, say, a restaurant in Rochester? After all, eateries seem to be the main focus when discussing preferences for TikTok vs. Google.
TikTok Search Engine Experiment #2: Searching for Renowned Restaurants
Restaurant-related searches on TikTok will typically bring up recommendations from (what are assumed to be) unbiased local patrons. The hashtags are doing the heavy lifting here, highlighting videos from customers and Rochester area creators who share their thoughts on the best bars, lunch spots, and hidden gems for foodies.
While you’ll find restaurant names and get some tips on hot new openings, you’ll still have to use Google (or your navigation app, at the very least) to find out more about their hours, location, and full selection of offerings. And while the list of results was immediately more relevant and intriguing than what we found with our barbers search, those results are far from complete. It’s tough to narrow them down to specific cuisines, the closest locations, or specific inquiries. If you’re trying to find out which eateries are open on Mondays (a traditionally dark day in the Rochester restaurant scene) or whether a locale offers outdoor seating, Google Search will be your next stop.
In the “others searched for” section, the prompts get a little bit more specific. Because food is a hot topic on TikTok, we found more videos in these searches – and they seemed to be far more valuable than what we found in our prior search. That makes sense, as these videos are intended to share information with local audiences and showcase the restaurant in question.
Most of these videos are like highly personalized and interactive Yelp reviews. And since we know that online review management is more important than ever, local restaurant owners should at least know what’s being said about their eatery on TikTok.
Still, the app isn’t really a substitute for what Google has to offer. You can’t call the restaurant right from the app like you could with a Google search. Creators aren’t necessarily affiliated with the restaurant, so their account may not offer answers to common customer questions. TikTok can be a great place to discover restaurants in your area when you want to try somewhere new, are wondering what to order, or would like to learn what others’ experiences have been like. But you’ll still need a traditional search engine to get directions, book a table, or find out when they open for the day.
Is TikTok Replacing Google? Understanding Google’s Shortcomings
Our research suggests that while TikTok contains an astounding amount of content and can be helpful during the discovery phase, it’s not currently a viable substitute for a Google search.
For one thing, location targeting seems to be a lot less sophisticated on TikTok. The platform does have a location feature that users can utilize when posting videos, but it’s unclear whether that has much of an impact on the video’s reach. And while TikTok is reportedly testing a “nearby” video feed as part of its “For You” page in other parts of the world, that feature has yet to roll out in all markets.
Additionally, TikTok’s algorithm may not understand context in a way that’s comparable to Google Search – particularly because TikTok has a lot less written content to work with. Generally speaking, TikTok gathers information about a video’s relevance through its captions and hashtags, though it also uses other signals to assess the content’s value. The platform’s algorithm essentially treats hashtags like SEO keywords.
This may work well in some situations, but it’s an imperfect system. While the algorithm is often fine-tuned to the user’s interests, creators may try to game that system by using trending sounds or irrelevant hashtags to get more views and followers. It’s common practice to try to “hack” the algorithm for the sake of engagement. That means even highly valuable and relevant content doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, while less useful videos rack up millions of views within hours. Google’s algorithm, in contrast, undergoes frequent updates to ensure the wrong sites aren’t being rewarded.
Becoming successful on the TikTok platform often requires a big personality, a niche talent or skill, and ample time to devote to the app. Your local plumber may be great at his job… but he probably doesn’t have TikTok stardom in his future. Though he might have some helpful tips to share, TikTok likely isn’t the right social media channel on which to share them.
That said, you don’t have to discount TikTok entirely – especially if your clients are focused on younger customers. Since Gen Z is linked to TikTok, we asked members of our own team about how they interact with the app to see if it’s worth worrying about whether Google will soon be replaced.
What Gen Z Says About the TikTok Video Search Engine
So is TikTok replacing Google? We spoke to three of our Gen Z digital marketing specialists to learn more about how they use TikTok and whether they ever rely on it as an alternative to Google Search.
Adelle: “I use TikTok probably once a week! I often use it in lieu of Google because it gives me real people showing me what I want to know, rather than having to read through a bunch of articles. I mainly use it for how-tos and tips, but I’ve definitely found so many small businesses on there just from scrolling my FYP (For You Page).”
Max: “I probably use TikTok only a couple of hours a week to find small businesses and other craftspeople to shop from. It’s definitely a primary draw for me to be able to see what other people make. I don’t tend to use it if I’m searching for info; I usually use Google or Instagram search first, or Facebook if they’re local. If I find out about a local business, I’ll usually go follow them on Instagram because I’m more familiar with that platform. But if a business comes across my FYP that I like, I’ll usually follow them and favorite a video for later shopping. The discovery and live features are the main ones I use.”
Sydney: “I would say I use TikTok every day for at least a couple hours. I don't use it for ‘important’ information like news, but when it comes to recipes or tips for a specific topic, I'll go to TikTok first. It’s easier to digest and much less spammy than Google. When I was in Dublin, I’d look for places to eat and things to do on TikTok because there were millions of posts about it. But that's a lot harder to find for stuff in Rochester with it being a much smaller city with less tourism, so I actually go to Reddit for stuff like that when I'm home.”
Our Gen Z team members seem to echo the sentiments of our research, as well as what other outlets have reported: TikTok can be really useful in initial stages of discovery and can dispel information quickly, but it’s not a yet a feasible replacement for Google (or even more established platforms like Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram).
This could make a case for your clients to work with local influencers, rather than devote much of their own marketing efforts to posting on TikTok. Their own time and money would be better spent on SEO or even paid ads. If they’re wondering whether TikTok is the new Google, you can tell them that the evidence simply doesn’t support it.
The Truth Behind Google vs. TikTok Search
With all that in mind, why is Google hyping up the potential competition that TikTok could pose? One reason could be that they’re attempting to downplay the way in which Google dominates the internet search game, according to The Verge. “Competition in the space makes Google look less like a scary monopoly to regulators,” points out David Pierce.
The other theory is that the whole outcry is a bit of a red herring. It’s hard to believe that Google is actually threatened by TikTok, despite its growing popularity. There’s no doubt that TikTok has an allure. But unlike Meta, Google isn’t really trying to beat the clock app at its own game. Although Google Search results may contain video content, TikTok’s discovery tab satisfies a very different search intent. No one mindlessly scrolls through Google looking for inspiration, so TikTok is a lot more well-suited to content discovery. But when you want to take the next step in your search journey, you’ll have to turn to Google to find actionable information.
So who wins in the TikTok vs Google debate? We can conclude that TikTok isn’t replacing Google anytime soon – at least not in a widespread way. Although younger generations are certainly making use of TikTok video search engine capabilities, even they realize the platform has drawbacks.
Ultimately, TikTok and Google share a goal: to entertain and educate with valuable, relevant content. One may be better suited for the initial discovery stages of search, while the other is unparalleled in delivering actionable information. If you make use of both, your ultimate search experience could be all the better for it. Just don’t abandon all your marketing efforts in favor of TikTok. Google isn’t going anywhere, so your best strategy is to stick with SEO.