James Carr

Hello. I’m a 35-year-old man, and I don’t use TikTok. I consume TikTok media the same way all the desperately uncool people do: Two weeks later, on Instagram. It always reminds me of Vine (RIP), which makes me feel even more old.

And yet TikTok is now being discussed by the SEO community. I say “discussed”. A gathering of SEO specialists may as well be called a “disagreement” at this point. The lines are being drawn, and the industry is marking out the battleground. Once again, I stand in no man’s land, trying to make sense of the latest question to ignite the anger of the SEO world:

“Is TikTok a search engine?”

You can probably see the issue immediately. Of course, TikTok isn’t a search engine. The traditionalists are right! Search engines are a web-based system, built on an algorithm designed to return the most relevant results to whatever a user chooses to type in and… Ah. TikTok might be a search engine. I knew the traditionalists were wrong!

Now you can see the very blurry lines we’re working within. The traditionalists don’t like TikTok. It belongs to the social media team, so it’s just recycled jokes, trends, and *shudders* influencers. It’ll die out, just like all the others did. You can’t run it through the usual tools, and you can’t even reliably see what people are searching for or the volume of those terms.

The modernists’ response is simple: “People use it to search for things”, and round and round we go. With much gnashing of teeth and frothing mouths, but no ground given on either side. Both sides make good points. 10 years ago, we couldn’t have dreamed of anything knocking Facebook off the top spot. Then Instagram. Then Snapchat. TikTok will surely go the same way; replaced by another titan. But, for now, at least, people do use it to search.

In the middle, lay the facts, which don’t do much to help either side.

TikTok is definitely a search engine, right?

TikTok is the #1 search engine for more than half of Gen Z.

A survey by Her Campus Media revealed that 74% of Gen Z uses TikTok to search, with 51% of those surveyed saying they prefer TikTok over Google, with the biggest reasons being:

  • The video format of the results (69%)
  • More relatable answers (65%)
  • Personalised answers (47%)

Ordinarily, that would be enough. We’d declare the final result, and TikTok would take its place as a search engine. But there’s a problem.

The statistics are about Gen Z, sparking a fiery debate that often descends into clichés. You’ve heard it before—Gen Z is pegged as lazy, entitled, technology-obsessed, and fad-driven. But is this fair? Or are we missing the bigger picture?

Gen Z love trends, and TikTok is full of them. Of course, it might be one – just a blip. Google is forever. And suddenly we’re having a very different conversation, instead of the one we should be having. Things have gotten personal.

Wisdom says that Google is only the latest in a long line of search engine heavyweights. Remember Yahoo? Who could forget Ask Jeeves? The traditionalists have a short memory, it would seem. Yes, Google dominates worldwide search, with a 91.47% market share, but Gen Z makes up 30% of the world population and is expected to account for 27% of the global workforce by 2025. The point of the matter is this: They’re not going anywhere, and they have huge influence.

We still haven’t answered the question… Is TikTok a search engine or not?!

You’re right. We’re into the third section of the article and I still haven’t told you what you want to know. It’s a “yes” or “no” answer, and yet I’m stringing you along. Dancing on both sides of the question at the same time. I’ll put you out of your misery.

TikTok isn’t a search engine. It’s a social media platform, with built-in search functionality. Just like the rest of them. Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube; all have the same ability. You put some words in a search bar and results pop up. But that doesn’t mean that the SEO community should discount it. People have been saying “SEO is dead” for years, and the traditionalists aren’t helping themselves by refusing to acknowledge the new kid on the block.

The fact of the matter is this: The goal of SEO is to drive conversions. Some experts on LinkedIn will tell you it’s all about impressions and sessions. It isn’t. It’s all about cold, hard conversions. People search for a term, they see the results, they choose the best option for them, and they convert.

TikTok is no different. Yes, it’s full of people who are being paid to recommend a particular product or service, but have you heard of Google Ads? On TikTok, users are getting something hugely valuable: An almost unmatched level of social proof. People who share their interests and beliefs, giving immediate, mass feedback on everything they’re interested in. Which brings us to a startling fact:

72% purchased a product after seeing it on TikTok [*]

There it is. It doesn’t matter if TikTok is a search engine or not. People are using it like one, and there’s a whole new generation coming up behind them. As a community, SEO specialists can either deny it or use our years of experience to help businesses leverage their TikTok presence better.

We may not be able to tell what terms are being searched for, or the volume of searches, but we know search in our bones. We know all about intent, long-tail search terms and the additional information searchers might need to help them make a decision. In that way, TikTok is as relevant to us as it is to our social media colleagues. For now…

Settling the debate…

In the swirling debate over TikTok’s classification as a search engine, one thing remains clear: its impact on consumer behaviour and digital marketing strategies is undeniable. While traditionalists may argue against labelling TikTok as a search engine, the statistics speak volumes, with a significant portion of Gen Z considering it their primary source of content discovery. Whether TikTok fits neatly into the search engine category or not, its influence cannot be ignored.

Talk to us today to find out how the combined forces of our SEO and social media team can help you get the most out of your TikTok presence. 

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