How do you find what you want on the internet? Instead of turning to Google, like their parents and older siblings are, Gen Zers are now going to TikTok to search whatever they’re looking for. Whether it be restaurant recommendations, career advice, or ways to fix a leaking sink, TikTok is quickly becoming the first place that young people go to online for help.
Here, we explore TikTok’s potential to be the next big search engine, and how worried Google should be about this emerging competitor.
While Google isn’t on the way out quite yet, TikTok is fast becoming a preferred search engine option for Gen Z. Not only did TikTok’s domain beat Google’s for most popular at the end of 2021, but Google’s own research is sounding alarm bells.
While speaking at Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2022 in July, Google’s Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan made it clear that the company has its eye on TikTok: “In our studies, something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search. They go to TikTok or Instagram.” By “young people,” Raghavan is referring specifically to Americans aged 18-24.
Not only is Google aware of this trend among Gen Z, but it’s also actively trying to stop the bleeding. Right now, that means attempting to make deals with TikTok and Instagram so it can integrate videos from these platforms into Google’s search results.
Why is this happening?
So why isn’t Gen Z just using Google like their parents? Like anything else that happens in tech, this is far from a simple trend. However, there are a few obvious factors we can identify here.
It’s a natural evolution
Google has changed, in one way or another, since its creation in 1996. One of the things that made it stand out from other search engines of the time was picking out a short paragraph from each search result, so you could evaluate the quality of the result yourself.
But beyond this, Google showed blue hyperlinks and not much else. Since then, Google has not only made changes behind the scenes that affect which search results appear first, but it’s also tinkered with the way we search. From localized results to paid ads to snippets, the platform has come a long way.
It seems like, in this case, Google might have just missed the next stage of this evolution: video content. And that’s crucial because…
Gen Z is more visual-driven than other generations
There are 1.3 billion Gen Zers using social media worldwide, and the vast majority of them use it to research their options before buying something. So it’s fair to say that they’re having a major impact on how social media evolves.
In his Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2022 address, Google’s Raghavan revealed that younger people (Gen Z) put a bigger emphasis on video content than other generations. It’s one of the reasons why TikTok is so popular among them, as the app has mastered the art of short-form video.
When asking Gen Zers why they use TikTok as a search engine, Mashable found something interesting. It’s not just that they like watching videos more than reading blog posts — the video format creates trust. As 23-year-old Ella Boyce put it: “It’s harder to tell someone’s credibility from an article than from a video because you can see the person.”
Think about it this way: Some boomers still buy products they see on TSC, because they trust the person presenting the products. Gen Z is just doing the same thing through TikTok.
Younger people don’t trust Google’s algorithms
It’s not just the video format that creates more trust for Gen Z, it’s the platform itself, too. Some Gen Zers are well aware of Google’s faults as a search engine, and they don’t believe that they’ll get search results that suit their needs. As Boyce told Mashable, “There’s no centralized fount to crowdsource info; it’s all random decentralized blogs from Google.”
Are TikTok’s algorithms particularly trustworthy though? While that is debatable, TikTok reports that 53% of its users trust that other TikTokers are being authentic on the platform.
How TikTok might replace Google
Now, while Gen Z’s online preferences are making TikTok into a search engine as much as it is a social network, that isn’t all there is to it. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that it’s all part of the platform’s plan.
In a piece called “E-commerce as Video’s Killer App,” Connie Chan and Avery Segal of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz argue that TikTok is actively trying to go from a pure social media network to an all-in-one e-commerce platform. They point to some of the trends emerging on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
Businesses using it as an advertising platform
Small- and medium-sized businesses seem to have picked up on video as a trust-building vehicle. A common strategy in China is to showcase the origin of a product, or some other element of its journey between creation and purchase.
Think it’s already easy enough to buy a sponsored product from your favorite TikToker? In China, you can purchase a product without leaving the app at all. When a video loops for the first time, a small window will pop up, giving you the option to buy whatever product it’s showcasing.
Gen Z Tripadvisor
In Douyin, many videos are geo-tagged and organized according to their location. To find a restaurant or a store, all a user needs to do is go into a feed for a specific location, and tap the Food, Attractions, Hotels, Culture, Entertainment, Shopping, or Exercise button at the top of their screen. From there, they will be directed to a business page, similar to what you might find on Google.
All-in-one travel booking
Douyin has also been trying to make it easier for a user to book a complete trip without leaving the app. In 2019, the platform partnered with homestay brands in a campaign pushing for travel bookings within the app. In the first three days, it received 150 million video views and approximately $150,000 in bookings. Following the initial success, in March 2021, the app launched its travel ticket reservation function and hotel booking service.
The clock is tik-ing
TikTok — or at least the parent company behind it and Douyin, ByteDance — knows that Gen Z is using it as a search engine more than they’re using Google. And it looks like the app is working to make its search feature a smoother experience, tailored to Gen Z.
Google has had a good time in the lead, and while that’s still true for most people, the search habits of Gen Z is showing that the times are changing. It remains to be seen if Google can find ways to adapt to the younger generation’s expectations, or if TikTok will truly edge it out. Until then, one thing’s for sure: Gen Z loves using TikTok as a search engine, and Google needs to watch out.