TikTok is the new Google. Or so some say. As TikTok grows, Google in particular has begun to portray the app as a whole new way to create and consume the internet and perhaps an existential threat to its own search engine. Prabhakar Raghavan, senior vice president of search at Google, said in July that “something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place to have lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search, they go on TikTok or Instagram.” More recently, The New York Times and others have spoken to young internet users and found that they are, in fact, turning to TikTok for more and more of what you might call Google-friendly stuff.
On the one hand, there is nothing particularly surprising about this: the Internet is simply becoming a more visual place. YouTube has long been the second most popular search engine on the Internet, and for many things, a video is actually the best possible answer. (It’s also worth noting that Raghavan and Google have a real incentive to boost other search engines, because competition in the space makes Google less like a creepy monopoly to regulators.) But do you really want to watch a loads of deli sandwich videos just to find the best deli sandwich near you? And beyond that, how many Google search use cases can TikTok really replicate?
I tried to find out, and within days TikTok answered all the queries I had before I googled them. (You can also listen to how it happened in the most recent episode of MovieBeatcast.) What I found was, in a way, not very surprising: there are things for which TikTok is an absolutely useful search engine, even if the algorithm and the content of TikTok are not yet quite suitable for this. But for what Google does best, there’s no competition. Ultimately, I don’t think Google is actually worried about TikTok’s growing search prowess. But YouTube probably should be.
I started with lunch because apparently that’s what all the cool kids do these days. I searched for the phrase “restaurants in my neighborhood” and found nothing useful. Then I searched for “restaurants in del ray VA”, where I live, and the results were surprisingly helpful. Matt & Tony’s is a nice new restaurant downstairs from my house; Del Ray Cafe is a neighborhood staple. The next result I scrolled through was for a restaurant in Del Ray Beach, CA, which is literally thousands of miles from me. Next round: Pork Barrel BBQ, which is a few blocks from my house and pretty good. Then another recommendation from Matt & Tony. Then back to California. Then Matt and Tony are on again.
None of these videos were branded websites or the standard Yelp/TripAdvisor fare that tends to be at the top of Google search results. Some were created by TikTokers trying to be local influencers, like DC Spot and District Eats. Others were just foodies showing off their latest finds. I don’t know if I trust any of them individually, and the information density here is quite low – it took a lot of scanning and monitoring to get the names of three restaurants – but I did had a decent vibe from each place. And the one from Matt & Tony is really, really good.
Foraging, in general, is a real strength for TikTok. It’s a great tool for finding recipes, especially simple ones; a search for “chocolate chip cookies” led me to a feed of every recipe type and variation I could imagine. The videos often move very fast, so you either have to take notes or watch them a hundred times, but there’s an awful lot of good information in the results.
Where TikTok search really breaks down is Google’s most basic feature: quick access to other things on the internet. The most popular searches on Google are words like “Facebook” and “Amazon”, and TikTok is precisely of no help unless what you really want is an endless amount of videos showing weird people being bought off Amazon. .
Even beyond the basics, much of what people search for is specific and transactional: “USPS tracking,” “weather tomorrow,” and “coffee shops near me.” Google is many things, but it’s mostly a glorified question-and-answer service or a way to find more information on the Internet. Ask questions like “who was the 16th President of the United States”, “how many ounces in a cup” or “what time does the Super Bowl start?” largely gets you nowhere on TikTok. (The second video in my presidential search featured Abraham Lincoln, which is something, but my measurement question just led to a bunch of mug hacks and weird wikiHow-inspired videos. The Super Bowl was just (a bunch of people mad at their friends for being late.) Part of the problem is that TikTok creators just haven’t created content with search in mind — but also, helpfully answering these questions generally makes bad video.
That said, the number one most asked question in Google searches, according to a study, is “what to watch”. Here TikTok is excellent. The first recommendation I received was about The weekend, a thriller on Netflix; the next was a series of searing reviews for Industry, defending Jacob, and several other new shows; after that, there was only a list of “5 shows I love” from one creator. Nothing about the results felt personalized or like it understood my taste, and yet I came away with a bunch of great ideas on what to watch. And flipping through TikToks is a much more fun way to browse than reading Google results or browsing through rows of Netflix pictures.
In my experience so far, TikTok is like a choose-your-own adventure story, which is a new but fun way to think about search. You can just type in “Billie Eilish” or “ASMR” or “best football games” and watch for as long as you want.
TikTok is like a choose-your-own adventure story, which is a new but fun way to think about search
In many cases, TikTok is actually much better than YouTube because the structure of the app – fast, scrolling videos – forces creators to be much more efficient. One thing I have researched a lot is “back stretches” as I have back issues and sit in front of a computer all day. TikTok is perfect for this, and the results don’t come with the long preambles you get on YouTube — it’s just 30-second video footage after 30-second video footage. He reigns. The results aren’t always as precise or targeted, but TikTok makes it easier to sift through your options to find one that works. #TikTokTaughtMe is also a huge achievement, and it goes right to the kind of “how to unclog my sink” DIY content that YouTube is so well known for.
If search is really a long-term goal for TikTok, the platform will have to change a bit. Right now the creators only get one link in their bio so you get lots of videos telling you to watch a new thing in their bio but that link is already gone by the time I see it . Also, TikTok is about the For You page, which means people use sounds and complete challenges and generally whatever they can to pop up when you open the app. Longer, deeper, evergreen useful content won’t really work in this space, so TikTok will have to find a way to entice people to create search-friendly content as well.
Search also introduces new content moderation issues for TikTok. It’s one thing to influence what users see on their For You page, but it’s another to make sure people see the right things when they’re actively searching for something. A recent study by NewsGuard revealed a huge amount of misinformation on TikTok and that “for a sample of searches on important current topics, almost 20% of videos shown as search results contained misinformation”. TikTok says it doesn’t allow “harmful misinformation,” but enforcing that rule is proving just as difficult as it is for Google and others.
TikTok isn’t going to replace Google for me – or anyone – anytime soon. But it’s increasingly clear that 10 blue links — with a bunch of barely labeled ads at the top, a big shopping widget, and lots of links to Google services — aren’t always the right interface for search. . Google is trying to make search more human and give people a way to ask more questions more easily. TikTok instead offers an endlessly searchable library of endless content on almost any topic. I don’t know if I’ll end up making these chocolate chip cookie recipes I’ve been watching for an hour, but it’s really fun to watch other people make them.