TikTok, ecommerce, and the future of search

How we use search and our relationship with search engines is always evolving and changing. Many years ago, it was as simple as entering a couple of keywords and being presented with blue links. Now we have technology that allows us to search using just our voice, we have AI capable of understanding complex natural language, and a whole host of SERP features designed to give us the information we need.

At a recent discussion on the evolution of search, Google’s Senior Vice President of their Knowledge & Information session, Prabhakar Raghavan, made remarks about one emerging competitor - TikTok. 

“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.” Raghavan said, “the queries they ask are completely different.”

“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.”

Younger users are changing how they search, and our understanding of what’s important to the future of search. So let’s talk about why that is, and how ecommerce merchants can adapt.

Why younger users are turning to TikTok and Instagram for search

There are actually many ways in which Google and TikTok are similar. They both rely on using algorithms to determine the most relevant, interesting and engaging content to display to individual users. The more you use Google, the more it understands your queries and interests, and the better positioned it will be to provide you with relevant search results. TikTok and Instagram too will start to show you content based on what their algorithms believe will be most interesting to you. If you watch a lot of videos about traveling to Japan, the more videos about Japan you’ll start to see. If you skip videos about DIY, then you’ll start to see fewer videos on that subject. 

So what’s the key difference between Google and platforms like TikTok and Instagram? It’s called “visually rich content”. 

TikTok and Instagram are both visual platforms by nature. It’s what makes the platform appealing, and it’s the primary way in which they engage their users. It’s an immersive form of discovery, you’re watching a video rather than looking at a list of blue links or a map. Instead of Googling “best brunch in Sydney” and getting a local pack with ratings, they can go on TikTok and scroll through engaging content that shows them exactly what the food looks like, what the ambiance is like, and get a peer recommendation. This is more valuable to them than looking at Google Maps. 

Virality is also a big factor as to why younger users are turning to social media instead of search. They discover products on these platforms, and they have to have them. If you’ve ever heard of the “TikTok made me buy it” effect, then you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about. There’s a FOMO element to these platforms that just doesn’t translate to traditional search engines. 

What this means for ecommerce brands is that if they want to target these demographics, they need to meet them where they’re engaging with brands and for younger people that’s TikTok and Instagram. The path to discovery for many young people isn’t Google to brand websites, it’s TikTok to brand profile pages. There is still a search and discovery journey, however, and that’s where we can apply some of what we already understand about SEO along with some social media marketing tactics to optimize for this emerging trend.

5 ways to optimize for TikTok and Instagram

#1 - Be active, create content, and engage

As with any other social media platform, the first step in attracting the attention of your target audience is simply to be active on the platform. This means creating content that speaks to the trends of that platform, the interests of your audience, and showcasing your product all at once. Unlike platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram focus more on short-form video content and what you create for one can be repurposed for the other. 

As well as creating content, you need to ensure you’re engaging with users on the platform. Replying to comments you receive, responding to videos relevant to your product, niche, or audience, dueting relevant videos etc. 

The more you create and engage, the better for your profile and content reaching the right audiences. 

#2 - Work with influencers and use promoted posts

Another great opportunity through both Reels and TikTok is engaging with influencers. Prior to the growth in these platforms, influencers had become known as just large content creators which were inaccessible to many brands however TikTok especially has led to a rise in micro influencers. These influencers enjoy collaborating with brands, especially those relevant to their audience or which can be seen as “hidden gems”. 

TikTok makes it easy to identify these influencers, through the TikTok Creator Marketplace which allows easy collaboration between brands and creators. You can find micro influencers who align with your target audience, and start working together to increase your brand awareness on the platform and have even more engaging content for audiences to discover through TikTok’s search function. To really boost your profile, you can also look at promoted posts which work much like other social media ads and allow your content to reach more relevant users.  

#3 - Develop and nurture a social commerce strategy

Social commerce has been a growing trend for a while now, and the rise in popularity of TikTok has only expedited that growth. As we mentioned earlier, the “TikTok made me buy it” effect means that users on these platforms want to be able to get to checkout as quickly as possible to grab that viral product. They don’t want a lengthy path to purchase, and given the attention-grabbing nature of TikTok and Reels they won’t hang around if your process has too many steps. They want to see the product and immediately be able to buy it. 

That’s why you need to nurture a social commerce and omnichannel strategy that gets those users to checkout quickly, that ties in with your wider ecommerce business. Shopify merchants can make use of Shopify’s own connection with TikTok which allows you to create a TikTok storefront, create paid ads, add links to products from your store’s catalog, see analytics, and more. 

This will help your brand go even further in TikTok search, and make it so that when users discover your brand through search they can immediately start shopping.

#4 - Analyze how users find brands in your niche on social media

Similarly to how you identify and optimize for keywords on your website, you’ll want to identify the hashtags and words users are searching for when they discover your product or niche. These will help you to know which you should target when you’re creating content for your profile as well as which to target for advertising. 

Much like traditional search engines, most of the time users won’t discover your brand through branded hashtags. For example, they might search “coffee brewing v60” but unless they’re looking for a very specific brand, they’re probably not searching “Verve Coffee brewing v60”. 

Create content around the hashtags most relevant to your product, and look at which search terms your competitors are appearing for. 

#5 - Create TikTok/Instagram focused landing pages and content on your site

Lastly, to really tie up that omnichannel approach, you should include some TikTok and Instagram focused content on your site. By finding the terms and hashtags that users are discovering your brand through, you can create content on your site that will target a similar audience when they leave TikTok. For example, if there are trending methods of brewing coffee on TikTok you can create blogs that speak to those trends, e.g. “What is a Cuban Pull or Coffee Cubano? (and how to make one at home)”. 

You can also create collections and landing pages, along the lines of “as seen on TikTok”. This will also help potential customers who maybe found your product on TikTok but weren’t ready to purchase then and there. When they go to Google and search something along the lines of “shelf organizer unit TikTok” it may be more likely to appear in those search results. 


Younger users moving away from traditional methods of search can seem intimidating, especially if you’ve put a lot of time and effort into developing your SEO. However, it’s really an opportunity to engage with your audience in a visually interesting way. You can also utilize the skills and lessons learned through SEO, and apply them to your approach to TikTok and Instagram, super-charging your strategy on these emerging platforms.