What is TikTok and has it become the next search engine?

12 May 2023
Blue illustrations of the TikTok logo on grey background

The Chief Executive of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, endured a five-hour interrogation in March 2023 after US lawmakers raised concerns that his app was being used to spy on Americans. The US isn’t the only region with these reservations. Following issues around cybersecurity, privacy and misinformation, the social media platform has been prohibited from government devices containing sensitive information in countries such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Taiwan. Taking this one step further, India imposed a nationwide ban on TikTok for similar reasons.

Prior to this, the Guardian reported at the end of 2022 that TikTok admitted the app was also used to spy on reporters in a bid to track down sources that had leaked information about the app. The IP addresses of journalists who were also TikTok users were harvested and used to check if they were in the same location as employees suspected of breaching confidentiality.

More recently, the business was fined £12.7 million for failing to protect the privacy of children. The Information Commissioner found that many under the age of 13 were able to access the platform despite the age restriction setting. It also stated that children’s data may have been used to track and profile them, which could lead to filling their feed with inappropriate content.

As the internet and its capabilities become more integrated into our everyday lives, of course, the issue of privacy will follow suit. On the flip side, there are positive benefits. Although companies would do well to keep in mind the ethical controversy of the app, it is also a platform that can be incredibly useful for marketing strategies.

The video-sharing app that came to life as Musical.ly in September 2016 is now the most popular social media platform on the market, and it is being dominated by Gen Z users. TikTok began as a business focused on short-clip lip-syncing content, and it changed to TikTok after being acquired by ByteDance in 2018. Now, the platform is available in 154 countries and research shows that users spend an average of one and a half hours a day engaging with the app. To give you an idea of this scale, it took Facebook approximately 8.7 years to reach one billion active users, while TikTok succeeded in just under five.

In fact, its growth has been so exceptional that it recently overtook Google’s dominance as the world’s most popular web domain, which shows that the company is quickly transitioning from a library of entertaining video content to a multi-faceted search engine. Although the app won’t be able to answer your queries about how many people Google employs, it will be able to teach you a trick or two about repurposing old plant pots, if that’s what you’re into.

Illustrations of tiktok symbols on blue background

What makes TikTok so alluring is the algorithm technology used to load bespoke content to each user. Its For You Page (FYP) consists of a scrolling feed of organic content that the app’s algorithm has determined the user may be interested in. Content is then generated based on a variety of factors, including how long a user lingers on a certain type of video, or whether they like or comment on it, making the algorithm a big part of why younger users seem to enjoy TikTok over Google.

Research has shown that the biggest issue Gen Z users have with Google is persistent advertising. Usually, the first few results of any search are ads, and within the selected search, the golden nugget is shrouded in additional information. Subsequently, Gen Z has become dissatisfied with the quality of Google’s searches, whereas TikTok, by contrast, offers several avenues to obtain the same content, with more entertainment.

This research has meant that more brands are considering joining the platform to harness its potential. To do so successfully, a level of creativity on how to align your brand’s personality, and your marketing goals, with TikTok’s unique character is key. How can this be achieved?

Being able to utilize TikTok effectively will help gain greater traction for your brand. In order to do this, here are a few tips to help increase brand awareness:

1. Blend in branded content. As we’ve unpacked, content on TikTok needs to entertain or inform. Therefore, successful marketing content needs to balance both. It is advised to build your reputation before incorporating adverts. To achieve this, influencers can be used to endorse your product (read tip four).

2. Post as often as possible. The higher your post frequency, the higher your follower rate is likely to be, and the more the TikTok community will reward your engagement.

3. Encourage comments on your posts and comment regularly. An active interest in the world of TikTok will gain traffic to your content.

4. Search for influencers that specialize in your products and incorporate them into your post. This will encourage their followers to engage with your content as well.

5. Use TikTok ads. The platform hosts a formal advertising system, making it easier to advertise through the app. These come in the form of in-feed native ads, hashtag challenge ads, and brand takeover ads. Each holds entertaining and unique characteristics to make your content more appealing.

With these tricks in mind, the possibilities TikTok could offer become endless. As businesses become more dependent on social media to gain product awareness, statistics have proven that TikTok is by far the most useful app to utilize. However, this knowledge is caveated by the privacy laws the platform has been known to skirt around. Having said that, when used responsibly, the app offers exciting potential as a unique search engine to reach an audience other social media outlets do not have the means to.


Written by Danielle Champ.

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