TikTok is the new Google. Or some say. As TikTok has grown, Google, in particular, has begun to describe the app as a new way of creating and consuming the Internet, and may pose an existential threat to its own search engine. Prabhakar Raghavan, SVP of Search at Google, said in July: “When nearly 40 percent of youth look for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search, they go to TikTok or Instagram.” Recently, The New York Times And others have talked to young internet users and found that, in fact, they’re turning to TikTok for more of the things you can Google.
On the one hand, there is nothing particularly surprising about this: the Internet is becoming a purely visual place. YouTube has long been the second most popular search engine on the Internet, and for many things, video is actually the best answer. (It’s also worth noting that Raghavan and Google have a real incentive to hype other search engines, because competition in the space doesn’t look like a scary monopoly to Google regulators.) But do you really want to watch a bunch of videos about deli sandwiches? Looking to find the best deli sandwich near you? Beyond that, how many Google search use cases can TikTok really replicate?
I tried to find and for a few days, I TikToked every question I had before I googled it. (You can also hear how it happened in a recent episode The Vergecast.) What I found was, in a sense, not too surprising: although TikTok’s algorithm and content are not yet tuned for it, there are elements that make TikTok a useful search engine for sure. But there is no competition for what Google does best. Ultimately, I don’t think Google is actually afraid of TikTok’s growing search prowess. But YouTube probably should.
I started with lunch because, well, that’s what all of us cool kids are doing today. I searched for the phrase “restaurants in my neighborhood” and found nothing useful. Then I searched for “restaurants in Del Rey VA” where I live and the results were surprisingly helpful. Matt & Tony’s is a nice new restaurant down the street from me; Del Rey Cafe is a neighborhood staple. The next result I scrolled through was for a restaurant in Del Rey Beach, California, which is literally thousands of miles away from me. Next flip: Pork Barrel BBQ, which is a few blocks from me and very good. And then another Matt & Tony recommendation. And then back to California. And then Matt & Tony again.
None of these videos are brand websites or standard Yelp / TripAdvisor fare at the top of Google search results. Some are made by TikTokers trying to be local influencers, like DC Spot and District Eats. Others are foodies showing off their latest finds. I don’t know if I trust any of them personally, and the information density here is pretty low – it took a lot of swiping and looking to get the names of three restaurants – but I got a good vibe of each place. And Matt & Tony are really cool.
Food search, in general, is a real strength of TikTok. It’s an excellent tool for finding recipes, especially simple ones; A search for “chocolate chip cookies” led me to a feed of every type and variety imaginable. The videos often move very fast, so you have to take notes or watch them a hundred times, but the results contain a lot of good information.
Where TikTok Search really falls short is Google’s most basic feature: quick access to other content on the Internet. TikTok certainly won’t help unless the most popular searches on Google are words like “Facebook” and “Amazon” and what you really want is endless videos of weird junky people buying from Amazon.
Beyond the basics, the things people search for are very specific and transactional: “USPS tracking” and “tomorrow’s weather” and “coffee shops near me.” Google is many things, but it’s mostly a glorified question-answer service or a way to find more information on the Internet. “Who was the 16th president of the United States,” “How many ounces in a cup,” or “When does the Super Bowl start?” Asking such questions will get 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 is a bunch of people mad at their friends for being late.) Part of the problem is that TikTok’s creators Not creating content with search in mind — but helpfully answering these questions often results in bad video.
According to one study, the number one question asked in Google searches is “what to watch.” Behold, Tiktok Excellent. For the first recommendation I got Weekend away, a thriller on Netflix; Next is the lightning round of reviews Industry, defending Jacob, And many other new shows; Then there’s just one creator’s list of “5 Shows I Love.” Nothing about the results felt personalized or understood my taste, yet I came away with good ideas about what to look for. And flipping through TikToks is a much more fun way to browse than reading Google results or swiping through rows of Netflix images.
In my experience so far, TikTok is like a choose-your-own-rabbit-hole adventure story, a new but fun way to think about search. You can just type in “Billie Eilish” or “ASMR” or “best soccer games” and watch as long as you want.
TikTok is like a choose-your-own-rabbit-hole adventure story, a new but fun way to think about search.
In many cases, TikTok is actually better than YouTube because the app’s structure — quick, scrollable videos — allows creators to be more efficient. One thing I searched for a lot was “back stretches” because I have back problems and sit in front of a computer all day. TikTok is perfect for this and the results don’t come with the long intros you get on YouTube – it’s just 30-second video stretches after 30-second video stretches. It rules. The results aren’t always accurate or on target, but TikTok makes it easy to flip through your options to find something that works. #TikTokTaughtMe is also a huge success story, and it fits right in with YouTube’s popular DIY “how do I unclog my sink” content.
If search is truly the long-term vision for TikTok, the platform may need to change a bit. Right now, creators only get a link in their bio, so you’ll get a lot of videos in their bio telling them to watch something new, but by the time I see that link it’s gone. Also, TikTok is all about the page for you, meaning people are using sounds and doing challenges and generally doing everything they can show when you open the app. Longer, more in-depth, evergreen useful content doesn’t really work in that space, so TikTok needs to find a way to encourage people to create search-friendly content.
Search also presents new content moderation issues for TikTok. It’s one thing to influence what users see on their About page, but it’s another thing entirely to get people to see the right things when they’re actively looking for something. A recent NewsGuard study found massive amounts of misinformation on TikTok and “for a sample of searches on popular news topics, nearly 20 percent of videos returned as search results contained misinformation.” TikTok says it doesn’t allow “harmful misinformation,” but that proves how difficult it is for Google and others to enforce that rule.
TikTok won’t replace Google for me — or anyone — anytime soon. But it’s clear that 10 blue links — with a bunch of simply labeled ads at the top, a large shopping widget, and lots of links to Google services — isn’t always the right interface for search. Google is trying to make search more human and give people an easier way to ask questions. TikTok instead offers an endlessly watchable library of endless content on almost any topic. I don’t know if I’ll ever make these chocolate chip cookie recipes that I’ve been staring at for an hour, but it’s so much fun to watch others make them.