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

The debate over whether to consider TikTok as a search engine continues to split the SEO community. But here’s the thing: a lot of people, especially younger users, see TikTok as a place to search for and find things they’re interested in. So even though we’re debating this within SEO circles, brands that don’t include TikTok in their search strategy risk missing out on the chance to increase their visibility and engagement with users.

So, why do people seem less interested in our SEO jargon and why do they see TikTok as a search engine? Let’s explore.

SEO professionals have long thought of search engines as systems for conducting web searches, with Google and Bing as classic examples. These platforms list web pages based on keywords and backlinks, following a user’s search query. However, the definition of a search engine is evolving quickly. As we argue about which platforms really count as search engines, users are just doing more searching, everywhere. Platforms like Siri, Alexa, TikTok, and others are rapidly expanding it’s control and capabilities. 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. Similarly, Gen Z users favoring more personalized, algorithm-led social networks (48%) over search engines (44%) when looking for information about brands, products, or services signify this shift.

This evolution means that the definition of a search engine broadening and we need to update how we think about search engine platforms. The shift is driven by user behavior, which has shown a growing preference for quick, visually engaging content, especially among Gen Z and Millennials.

The point of this is that younger audiences value platforms’ speed, convenience, and relatability, often preferring the visual and interactive content format that TikTok offers.

There’s a bit of debate going on about this, with some people arguing that Google is trying to challenge platforms like TikTok with their own visual search capabilities. For example, Google has been testing TikTok videos in search results and actively improving the factors that drive people to regional search engines or social networks.

The conclusion here is it’s not up to us to dictate what content users should consume and where they should consume it. Instead, we need to react to our audiences’ interests and create the content solutions they want, in the format they expect it. And right now, it’s about being on the platforms where they’re searching for this content.

Ultimately, if TikTok meets your brand’s strategic needs, then you should be there. And you shouldn’t avoid a platform just because it doesn’t meet your current definition of a search engine, because while we’re arguing about this, a brand competitor is likely executing these observations and gaining visibility.

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