The “I don’t Google anymore, I TikTok” sentiment can be seen across viral tweets, Instagram posts, and daily conversations in which “According to a TikTok video I watched…” is now a common phrase. TikTok’s users agree that the platform provides more specific and authentic recommendations than Google searches. While Google searches for restaurants or other services can be heavily influenced by sponsored reviews and advertisements, on TikTok you are likely to see the genuine opinions of customers who have already tried out the business.
The rise of TikTok as a search engine
In its latest annual report on news consumption, Ofcom has revealed that TikTok is the fastest-growing news source for adults in the UK, with 7% currently using it to obtain news updates, and Google’s own data reveals that nearly 40% of Gen Zers prefer using TikTok and Instagram for search over Google. Further, at the end of 2021, the security and performance company Cloudflare released new data indicating that TikTok had surpassed Google as the most popular website of the year, while overtaking Facebook as the most popular social media website. In a digital environment where news content is saturated and derives from numerous outlets, this explosive growth is unprecedented and indicative of the influence TikTok has obtained in just a few years.
The reactions to TikTok surpassing Google in popularity have been divisive. While some agree that TikTok provides more personalised and authentic results, others fear that this trend could make the young generation more reliant on disinformation:
Apart from stimulating the increased consumption of goods, TikTok has provided a platform for individuals from various industries and walks of life to share their unfiltered experiences, creating a wealth of information and insight that has attracted millions of viewers. TikTok’s emergence as an app that promotes authenticity and spontaneity provides an appealing alternative to Instagram and YouTube’s overly-curated images and videos.
How does the TikTok algorithm work?
TikTok’s algorithm is arguably the key differentiating factor that makes the app stand apart from its competitors. The algorithm is known for quickly learning about users’ preferences, location and interests, providing them with content that’s relevant to them, which makes the app popular and addictive.
While we are not party to the details of TikTok’s algorithm, it’s clear that a variety of SEO fundamentals are at play in determining how the rankings work. In June 2020, TikTok published an article explaining how its “For You” page (FYP) works. It explains that recommendations are based on several factors:
Engagement is also of high value when it comes to video recommendations. Videos on TikTok will automatically loop by default, so a short video seen multiple times in one sitting will tend to rank higher than a longer video skipped over after 15 seconds.
However, research shows that TikTok does not appear to differentiate between positive and negative engagement. An outraged user watching a video loop round multiple times in disbelief, or commenting disagreements on the video, is as likely to result in it climbing the rankings as someone captivated for more positive reasons. This could lead to users being shown unreliable information.
When it comes to hashtags and keywords, specific long-tailed keywords containing more than three words are believed to have more of an effect than chaining popular hashtags within a video’s description. The algorithm is fairly well-equipped in weeding out irrelevant videos, and users know they can find what they are looking for by searching specifics, as TikTok will link together relevant hashtags. For example, a search for #sustainablefashionbrandsuk could return a video with the hashtags #shopsustainably and #ethicalfashion.
The implications of a TikTok-dominated news world
With these factors ensuring relevant videos end up on users’ individual FYPs, TikTok’s users are increasingly turning to its search engine to return even more specific content – whether that be related to news, research, or a particular topic of interest. Accustomed to the high level of personalisation the TikTok algorithm offers, users are seeking the same kind of accuracy by searching for specific videos and trends within the app: turning to TikTok to undertake searches where previously they may have used Google.
However, while TikTok provides timely and tailored content to users, there are concerns around the type of material favoured by its algorithm. TikTok’s coverage of the Depp v Heard trial provided an example of how biased, one-sided news can be relentlessly promoted on the platform. The montages and fractioned news reporting promoted on TikTok created an echo chamber: Amber Heard’s testimonials were edited and her facial expressions ridiculed, while Johnny Depp was widely admired and his humour applauded. Such biased content is rife on TikTok, and its algorithms can lead users into a rabbit hole in which a one-sided view of events becomes repeatedly validated by the content that is served to a user based on their behaviour and preferences.
This highlights one of the key issues prevalent on the platform: the lack of transparency and context when it comes to information sources. According to online disinformation specialists investigating the platform, such as Callum Hood, TikTok is making it increasingly difficult for users to distinguish between true and false information. Most videos on the platform are uploaded without any context, making it challenging to determine what the information source is and who is managing the account behind the content. The lack of transparency on the platform is threatening to blur the lines between disinformation and credible news.
In response to the rising threat of disinformation, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Google, among other tech companies, have signed up to the new anti-disinformation code implemented by the European Union. However, despite the efforts from government authorities and social media companies, gauging the real impact of disinformation and curbing its negative influence is extremely challenging, mainly due to the varied nature of information regulation across different platforms.
TikTok has created new opportunities for knowledge sharing, entertainment and consuming online content, providing a unique platform for individuals, information services and commercial entities to learn and share. However, the ethical considerations concerning the app’s algorithm and content selection suggest that total reliance on TikTok as an information source may result in an increased influence of disinformation on Gen Z’s worldview. With TikTok’s share of the search engine market increasing, it is likely to come under increasing pressure to take steps to ensure its users receive a balanced view of topics and issues of interest.