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Getting Started With TikTok SEO

February 3, 2023
Rachel Vandernick

Table of Contents

When marketers think about the search experience, this often means a search performed in a traditional search engine, such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo. However, with users passing multiple touchpoints on the path to conversion, search too has started to segment. While stand-alone search engines continue to dominate, social platforms like TikTok are beginning to solidify their place as bonafide search tools.

With over 136 million monthly users in just the United States, TikTok’s place is already cemented as a social media giant. As TikTok also becomes a competitive search contender, it’s important to understand how it can work as a search engine both in-platform and in traditional search results, as well what type of content does well in this ecosystem. According to recent TikTok Insights data, 40% of millennial users say that TikTok helps them to “discover new things”. Here’s what you need to know to get started using TikTok as a search engine optimization (SEO) vehicle for marketing your business. 

What is TikTok SEO?

Broadly, “TikTok SEO” refers to one of two types of search results: 

  • Results surfaced directly within TikTok’s own native platform. 
  • TikTok results are populated in another search platform, such as Google. 

As of October 2022, TikTok content shows up in a variety of places within the Google ecosystem. You’ll find TikTok videos on both desktop and mobile search in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs ), as featured videos and as video listings, and you’ll also find them indexed as both photos and videos within Google Images. 

“TikTok SEO” is typically used as a shorthand way to reference the process of helping both TikTok and Google better understand and surface that content.

How does TikTok SEO work?

Much like Google, TikTok relies on signals from the content and users in order to aid users in content discovery. Unlike within the many content types on Google, there are fewer places to incorporate keywords and information in each TikTok video and account as a whole, so it’s important to maximize every video where you can. 

Below are the five key TikTok focus areas to help you get started:

1. Captions

Both embedded and below the video, captions are one of the few places TikTok creators have a chance to manually place keywords, tag other creators, and add some narrative framing around your content. This is also where hashtags can help garner some additional placement within search.

2. Text overlay

Sometimes instead of closed captions, users will adopt a text overlay for their video. This is another way to include a keyphrase or provide context for the video content.

3. Categorization

Making playlists, pinning videos and linking to related videos in comments are all ways to help users navigate your channel and may indirectly help the platform understand which content on your channel is connected (think of this as being a cousin to the idea of internal links in SEO). Note that at this time, not all accounts have the playlist functionality.

4. Bio/username information

Limited value seems to be in the actual name of the account or username (though you’ll still find accounts trying to hack the system with “search-friendly” usernames that are essentially just keywords). Here it is recommended to adopt a short but informative description for your bio over something clever but unclear.

5. Thematic consistency

This factor is a bit more nebulous, but the more TikTok connects an account to a few topical pillars, the more it understands what topics to surface your account for in search. Related searches and suggested accounts all come from relevancy, and in order to make those connections, it helps to have content that speaks to it in a number of ways. Categorizing series and multipart videos about particular topics into helpful playlists and linking to them within other video comments are useful tactics for helping to build thematic consistency.

Is TikTok a search engine?

The short answer is yes. Users, and increasingly millennial and Gen Z users, are actively using TikTok to aid in the discovery of new brands, things to do, and places to visit. That doesn’t mean, however, that mainstream forms of search are going away. 

The pros of TikTok as a search engine

Common complaints with Google are that results are crowded with ads, and relevant articles and recommendations are buried deep in results pages. Additionally, the majority of results are often listicles from publications looking for top search engine rankings rather than helpful content developed by experts best poised to answer the user’s query. That’s where TikTok comes in and is filling a void in traditional Google results. 

TikTok is often used as a supplemental search platform for more niche and recommendations-based searches. It’s  largely powered by users and prioritizes passive discovery with trending content. First-person narrative is the keystone of TikTok content, and the platform provides a level playing field for brands, publications, and users alike.

The process of content discovery is also different. In Google, the search is self-directed and the user has to express an active demand; while TikTok's interface inspires more passive demand generation with content fed directly into the for you page (FYP), as well as enabling self-directed discovery through a search bar function. On Google, for example, the idea for trying out the new restaurant must be your idea, and you must fulfill the search to discover the menu. On TikTok, the newest dish review populates directly to your For You Page, actively inspiring the idea of going out that night.

The cons of TikTok as a search engine

It is worth mentioning that many professionals working in SEO have doubts about the TikTok platform’s legitimacy in search, stemming from its early adoption by teens and emergence as an entertainment platform. While TikTok’s data and multiple brand case studies have repeatedly refuted that it is “just a dance platform,” there is a subset of marketers who deny TikTok’s seat at the marketing strategy table and dismiss it. 

Not every brand is a fit for every platform, and that’s true for TikTok as well. But it’s worth doing your own research to determine if your brand and industry might be a good fit. TikTok Insights is helpful for surfacing such data. And if nothing else, give the platform an earnest try for yourself!

What  content  thrives in TikTok search and discovery

Visually rich, narrative-forward content comes out on top in TikTok. And while the algorithm is built to cater to topical preferences and content categories frequently viewed by the user, there are a few industries and content types that seem to find the most repeat success. Categories such as dining and experiences, home decor, beauty, fashion/style, travel, health and wellness, and personality-driven content tend to stand out.

These categories are particularly attractive because it showcases a first-person point of view, unfiltered narratives of lived experiences, and provides context to otherwise ordinary aspects of life. For example, where a beauty product’s true match and impact on skin texture might otherwise be hidden in photoshop, TikTok allows an unfiltered, up-close take on its impact on complexion and skin texture. Brands that lean into this narrative are able to build authentic audiences and brand affinity.

How to begin prioritizing TikTok search

Plan

As with all meaningful marketing content, the first steps of planning are introspection and fact-finding. Brainstorm a list of ideas that your business is uniquely positioned to talk about. Compile ongoing questions from your customers. Source comments, questions, and feedback directly from your customer service team and customer surveys.

Research

The goal of surfacing results, like with all SEO, is to end up top in search. Before creating anything new, learn what content is currently showing and what TikTok considers related searches. Run your ideal terms through Google and see what, if any, TikTok videos come up. Note commonalities and differences. Repeat this in-platform on TikTok and add in more detailed research on the creator accounts. For this purpose, try and exclude trends. Because trends move quickly on this platform, in the research phase, it’s important to parse out content that has evergreen appeal versus content that was generated for a quick shot at views. Also note how accounts structure their videos (captions, length, etc).

Create

TikTok content is different from other video formats. Low-fidelity video with a more honest point of view and defined voice resonates here, compared to a more polished video on Instagram. Be cautious about using copyrighted songs or sounds and stick to Creative Commons music if you're unsure. 

Iterate

TikTok rewards consistent effort. Don’t make one video and expect instant viral success. After a few videos, check out your analytics and see what gets more traction. Try to identify patterns. Are certain topics doing better than others? Do longer versus shorter videos have more engagement? And, of course, if your audience is specifically asking for your take on something (and it’s aligned with your missions, values, and brand), then lean into it! 

Not every video is going to produce the same results, but on TikTok, you're not even in the consideration deck for consumers if you're not actively producing regular content. The key here is continuity.

The bottom line

TikTok is not going to replace a solid Google-based SEO strategy. However, based on search behavior, topic niche, and generational preferences, it could be a strong tool in capturing search traffic and new audience acquisition opportunities. Leaning into this platform provides another channel to grow revenue and reach your audience organically.

Rachel Vandernick
about the author

Rachel Vandernick is a growth and performance marketing consultant and founder of The Vander Group. She specializes in helping consumer-facing brands build efficient and effective digital marketing channels including paid and organic search, paid social, and influencer ads activations.

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