TikTok is the new Google. Or so some people say. As TikTok grows, Google in particular is beginning to describe the app as an entirely new way to create and consume the Internet and perhaps an existential threat to its own search engine. Prabhakar Raghavan, the SVP of Search at Google, said in July that “about 40 percent of young people, when looking for a place to have lunch, don’t go to Google Maps or Search, but to 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-compatible stuff.
On the one hand, there’s nothing special about this: the Internet is just becoming a more visual place. YouTube has long been the second most popular search engine on the web, 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 hype other search engines, as the competition in the space makes Google look less like a scary monopoly for regulators.) But do you really want to watch a ton of videos about sandwich shop just to find the best sandwich shop near you? And beyond that, how many of the Google search applications can TikTok really replicate?
I tried to figure it out and spent a few days typing every question I had before googling it. (You can also hear how it went in the most recent episode of The Vergecast.) What I found wasn’t very surprising in a way: there are things for which TikTok is an absolutely useful search engine, even though TikTok’s algorithm and content aren’t quite geared up for that yet. But for what Google does best, there is no competition. Ultimately, I don’t think Google is really nervous about TikTok’s growing search capacity. But YouTube probably should be.
I started with lunch, because apparently that’s what we all do today. I searched for the term “restaurants near me” and didn’t get anything useful. Then I searched for “restaurants in del ray VA” where I live, and the results were surprisingly helpful. Matt & Tony’s is a good new restaurant down the street from me; Del Ray Cafe is a staple of the neighborhood. The next result I scrolled to was for a restaurant in Del Ray Beach, California, which is literally thousands of miles away from me. Next cover: Pork barrel BBQ, that’s a few blocks from me and pretty good. Then another Matt & Tony’s recommendation. Then back to California. Then Matt & Tony’s weather.
None of these videos were branded websites or the standard Yelp/TripAdvisor rate that usually tops Google search results. Some are made by TikTokers trying to be local influencers like DC spot and District food. 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 swiping and looking to get the names of three restaurants – but I did get a good vibe from each place. And Matt & Tony’s is really quite good.
Food search in general is a real strength for TikTok. It is an excellent tool for finding recipes, especially simple ones; a search for “chocolate cookiesled me to a feed of every type and variation of a recipe I could imagine. The videos often go very fast so you either have to take notes or watch them a hundred times, but there is a huge amount of good information in the results.
Where TikTok searches really fail is Google’s most basic feature: quick access to other things on the web. The most popular searches on Google are words like “Facebook” and “Amazon”, and TikTok is exactly of no help there unless you actually wanted an endless supply of videos show weird mess people bought on Amazon.
Even beyond the basics, so much of what people are looking for is 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-and-answer service or a way to find more information on the web. Asking 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 quest featured Abraham Lincolnthat’s something, but my measurement question just led to a lot mug hacks and weird wikiHow inspired videos. The Super Bowl was just a bunch of people… mad at their friends because you’re late.) Part of the problem is that TikTok creators just didn’t create content with search in mind — but also, helpfully answering these questions usually makes for bad video.
That said, according to a study, the most frequently asked question in Google searches is “what to watch.” Here, TikTok is excellent. The first recommendation I got wax for The weekend away, a thriller on Netflix; the next was a lightning round of reviews in front of Industry, Jacob defend, and several other new shows; after that was only one list of the makers of “5 programs I love.” Nothing about the results felt personal or understood my taste, and yet I came away with a ton of great ideas about what to watch. And browsing TikToks is a much nicer way to browse than reading Google results or swiping through rows of Netflix images.
In my experience so far, TikTok is like an adventure story where you choose your own rabbit hole, which is a new, yet fun way to think about search. You can just type “Billie Eilish” or “ASMR” or “best football games” and watch as long as you want.
TikTok is like an adventure story where you choose your own rabbit hole, a new but fun way to think about search
In many cases, TikTok is actually much better at this than YouTube, as the structure of the app — fast, scrollable videos — forces creators to be much more efficient. One thing I’ve searched a lot for is “back stretching” 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 preambles you get on YouTube – it’s just 30 seconds of video stretches after 30 seconds of video stretches. It rules. The results aren’t always accurate or focused, but TikTok makes it much easier to scroll through your options to find one that works. #TikTokTaughtMe is also a huge success story, and it fits right in with the kind of DIY “how to unclog my sink” content YouTube is so famous for.
If search is really a long-term focus for TikTok, the platform will have to change a bit. Right now creators only get one link in their bio so you get a lot of videos telling you to watch something new in their bio but that link is gone by the time I see it. TikTok is also all about the For You page, meaning people use sounds and do challenges and generally anything they can to show up when you open the app. Longer, more in-depth, evergreen useful content won’t really work in that space, so TikTok will have to find a way to incentivize people to make search-friendly stuff too.
Search also presents new content moderation issues for TikTok. It’s one thing to influence what users see on their For You page, it’s quite another to make sure people see the right things when they’re actively searching for something. A recent NewsGuard study found a huge amount of misinformation on TikTok and that “on a sample of searches on prominent news topics, nearly 20 percent of videos presented as search results contained misinformation.” TikTok says it doesn’t allow “harmful misinformation,” but enforcing that rule is proving to be just as difficult as it is for Google and others.
TikTok isn’t going to replace Google anytime soon for me — or anyone for that matter. But it’s becoming 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 — isn’t always the right interface for search. Google is trying to humanize search and give people a way to ask more questions more easily. TikTok instead offers an endless-to-watch 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 looking at for an hour, but it’s really fun to watch other people make them.