When you want to research a topic, a product, or a place, who do you turn to? In many cases, the answer would be search engines like Google. However in recent times, more people are turning to social media platforms for discovery and research. And along with them, brands are starting to explore how to optimize social media to make the most of those audiences.
So why is this the case? Is it a continuation of social commerce trends? Or is it a wider reflection of the future of search and SEO?
Today we’re going to look at the relationship between social media and search engines, why more people are turning to social platforms, and whether or not TikTok and others pose serious competition for giants like Google.
Quick recap of TikTok, Reels, and Google
Back in Summer 2022, Prabhakar Raghavan - a Google exec from their Knowledge & Information organization - shared insights surrounding social media during a tech conference discussion about the evolution of search. He shared that more and more young users were in some cases turning to platforms like TikTok and Instagram instead of Google Search and Maps for discovery.
“We keep learning, over and over again, that new internet users don’t have the expectations and the mindset that we have become accustomed to…the queries they ask are completely different.” Raghavan said.
He continued, “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.”
This statistic somewhat rocked the world of SEO and search marketing, as it was later confirmed to TechCrunch that it was based off of internal research among US users aged 18-24. This started a wider industry discussion over what this meant for the future of search and SEO, if young people continue to turn to these social platforms in place of traditional search engines.
In the months following, there was a lot of focus on how marketers could optimize these other platforms by applying SEO tactics. According to research conducted by Hootsuite, 50% of those aged 16-24 say they use social media to research brands compared to 46% using search engines. In the 25-34 audience, search engines were the favored method by just 1% of difference, with 48% saying they use search engines and 47% using social media. This reflects social commerce trends in recent years, as platforms like TikTok and Instagram continue to develop and grow their in-app commerce tools and user adoption.
Why younger generations are using TikTok and Instagram Reels for search queries
Younger people use and understand the internet in a different way to older generations - they’ve grown up with the modern internet. In fact, in the same conference discussion, Raghavan mentioned the fact that most people under a certain age had never seen or used a paper map, they were accustomed to things like Google Maps. This changes how they’ll perceive and use different sites and platforms to satisfy queries they may have.
One of the major reasons why young people turned to other platforms was due to what was called “visually rich content”. In other words, this is content which is visual in nature and therefore much more engaging, accessible and easily consumed. Rather than browsing through links on a SERP and having to visit multiple websites or read multiple Maps listings, users on TikTok or Reels can simply scroll through micro-reviews of restaurants, products, and more. They can see what a product looks like, see its features, and see the kind of people who are using it. It’s quick, easy, and engaging.
Relevance is a big deal in search, but not so much recency. It’s well known that it can take 6+ months for a page to reach the first page of a SERP, unless it’s related to current events or seasonal search queries. That can mean the result may be relevant, but it may not be the most up-to-date. If we take the original example of finding somewhere to go for lunch, using Google a user may find an article called “Top 10 places to eat lunch in the Bay Area”. However, that article may be a few months to a few years old. Younger users especially will be looking for something that’s new and interesting, so they’ll turn to social media platforms. These platforms prioritize relevant and recent content, so the user knows they’ll get the most up-to-date suggestions.
Then there’s the peer-to-peer nature of social media platforms. Micro-influencers were once a trend that had somewhat faded in relevance, but have since come back with the rise of short-form video. Users can see products and locations recommended by peers they trust, rather than reading reviews from people they don’t know or care about on a website or Google Maps. According to TikTok’s data, 72% of people who took an off-platform action as a result of a TikTok say they obtained reviews from creators they trust on TikTok. 75% of users also said that they agreed a creator showing a product was more useful than reading a review.
Finally, there’s the rise in social commerce. Social media platforms are increasingly making it more attractive to both retailers and platform users to buy and sell using their platform. This is easily observed with how TikTok continues to push its TikTok Shop function, as well as its ties to platforms like Shopify. The benefit for these platforms is that it keeps users on the app, rather than diverting their attention elsewhere. In return, users are provided a fast, simple shopping experience where they can discover a product on TikTok and buy it immediately without having to go elsewhere to find it. And it’s a big opportunity for brands with the social commerce market in the US set to grow by 34.4% in 2023. Especially if brands get smart with their marketing, they can see real returns - 27% of consumers would use social commerce to gain access to an exclusive item.
In short, social media platforms are understandably becoming a more attractive option for consumers’ search needs. They get more engaging, relevant, and recent content, created by like minded people they trust, on a platform that can seemingly do it all.
Does Google consider TikTok or other social platforms competitors?
At the moment, Google is still a giant in the tech and consumer space. In research mentioned previously, while it’s true that younger demographics are leaning more towards social media there is still a sizable portion using search engines. And the older the generation, the more likely they are to use search engines.
That being said, as more consumers age onto the internet and as social media platforms continue to target them, that share of the market could well decrease. We’ve already seen ways in which Google is trying to improve their proposition by developing new shopping tools for brands and users in an effort to make it more engaging. They’re also adding more visually rich content into their core offerings such as Maps, by incorporating tools like Live View and augmented reality. And of course, going back to where this discussion started, making it more engaging to find new places to eat.
Platforms like Google may not see platforms like TikTok or Instagram Reels as immediate threats. However, it’s clear there are innovations and developments driven by this desire from users for more engaging, visual, trustworthy content in their discovery journey.
The bottom line: If you haven’t already, start getting social
Most merchants these days have some kind of social media presence. With the rise in social commerce and a growing preference for social search journeys, it’s important that merchants do more with that presence. Social media at one time was a way to engage audiences with entertaining content, and it has grown into much more. It’s where your customers are discovering new products and brands, listening to influencers, and starting search journeys. What’s more, the searches they start on social media often have strong intent behind them - they want opinions, reviews, and demonstrations. Your customers want visually rich content that they can consume quickly, along with reviews from creators they trust.
SEO will remain a high priority for any ecommerce business. There shouldn’t be resources or attention taken away from search engines and optimization, instead merchants should look to apply some of the lessons and principles of SEO to their social media approach. This should be combined with revisiting the idea of the micro-influencer, and the influence of social commerce. This will not only allow merchants to make the most of the opportunity of the rise in social media search, but develop a stronger omnichannel strategy.
Social media and search engines play a huge role in customer purchasing decisions. Customers often use multiple channels before they place an order, making it important now more than ever that merchants consider how these channels may factor into the customer journey. Google may not be running scared of TikTok and Instagram, but their impact is clear. All this does is open up more avenues for merchants to really engage with and attract customers.