The Future of SEO and Search – Will TikTok Take Over?

If you have anything to do with marketing, we’re sure you’ve heard the news: “SEO is dead!” “TikTok is the future of search!” Bold claims. But how much trust is in these words? If you believe them, you’ll give up on SEO and EEAT and take all your marketing to TikTok, Instagram, and the like. So, should you?

At Salience, we don’t think it’s as clear-cut as all that. After all, it’s just the “same old internet” we’re talking about. And when it comes to being found, we believe that all strategies should be built upon a “human first” approach, so it’s all about what your target audience wants and needs and where they search. You might be surprised at how the human element can completely change what you should do! Interested in our two pennies worth? Read on to find out.

Who Uses TikTok as a Search Engine?

In April 2024, Abode did a great study on the use of TikTok as a search engine, and the results were certainly interesting! They surveyed 808 customers and questioned 251 business owners to find out how they use TikTok (if at all).

The key takeaways from this study were:

  • Over 2 out of 5 Americans use TikTok as a search engine.
  • Nearly 1 in 10 Gen Zers are more likely to rely on TikTok as a search engine over Google.
  • 54% of business owners use TikTok to promote their business.
  • 1 in 4 small business owners use TikTok influences for product sales or promotions.

The study also found that 41% said they’d used TikTok as a search engine. However, it’s important not to take this at face value. The question asked was if they had EVER used TikTok. Any point they’ve used it. This could be just one use for all we know from the data. Like Managing Director Brett Janes says in our podcast discussion about this study:

“Data can say anything, right? If you shape it into the right mould.”

 In all honesty, consumers and businesses are likely using various platforms and not just one. So, chances are, they’ve used TikTok at least once, and that’s all the question asks. It doesn’t ask if they predominately use it, how often they use it, etc. More context and data around this would be helpful before any rash decisions are made to give up on SEO and concentrate solely on TikTok!

The study also found that 1 in 10 Gen Zers prefer using TikTok as a platform, but, over the wider data set, 91% still prefer Google, and 11% prefer Chat GPT.

You can’t really make a judgement on TikTok vs SEO for your marketing campaign based solely on this data. What do they mean when they say they have used the search engine? There’s much more you need to know beyond if people use a certain platform for search; there’s a lot of nuance behind it.

are they A-level students Googling for the facts about Tutankhamun or something like that? Like, I’ve used it as a search engine for that purpose. Is that useful to the people whom we work with, which is E -commerce, B2C, B2B, and finance companies? No, not really. Not unless you’ve got some tie in Egyptian. Maybe if you’re an Egyptian travel brand, maybe those stats can’t tell us that it’s particularly useful for a shopping journey.

Thinking About Intent

It’s also important to think about the type of searches people are making when they use TikTok and how important they are to your business. This is what the study found:

You can see these aren’t high-intent consumer searches and are unlikely to lead to a direct purchase. Although TikTok does now have shopping features and affiliates using it, this is tipping into influencer marketing rather than search.

We know that people use Google and other search engines for different intent-level searches. The variations of searches are huge. TikTok may have a higher volume of searches for a keyword, but when you add all the variations that people search on Google, it can tell a different story. The direct product or commercial searches that lead to a quick conversion are still mainly seen on search engines.

TikTok appears to be a good option for brands selling cheap and impulse products, though. This was discussed in the podcast:

The sort of stuff you’d see on a quick video, a short form video and be like, oh, that looks cool. Like some weird kitchen gadget and stuff. And then you just buy it on impulse.

 But, on the opposite end of the spectrum:

… (If) you’re selling £30k engagement rings, you then just tip into, you know, just marketing it and wherever you go, it’s just a touch point when the perceived value of an item goes up, whether that’s on its kind of technical specifications, its cost or whatever else, the amount of touch points required in theory to make a conversion massively go up. Again, TikTok probably is part of that. If your audience exists there, you know, why not? But… They’re not going to see it, they’re not just going to convert off, you know, 10 TikTok videos. All this engagement ring company’s got is the funniest content. I’m going to spend £30k of that, like, that’s not how it works, is it?

The chances are that at least some of your audience is on TikTok. It’s not just for teenagers anymore. But it’s important to consider what they are likely to engage with and how far they are from conversion and meeting that intent. For different companies, it’ll be different. TikTok is a good touchpoint for customers and should be part of your marketing campaign. Just because your customer isn’t ready to convert, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be in front of them. Think about:

how many touch points are involved in a purchase, involved in people kind of becoming aware of an issue that leads to you as a product, then at that consideration stage, zoning in on you as opposed to your competitors? They all involve marketing touch points…”

How Trustworthy is TikTok?

We’re sure you would’ve heard about E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authority, Trust) in the SEO world. Every site must prove it has these to rank. But does TikTok show any of these? The study found that no, it didn’t. Users don’t particularly trust the content on TikTok. As Brett said:

I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the crypto TikToks out there where it’s got like the one person pretending like they’re two people having a conversation and talking about some random crypto you’ve never heard of, and you’re like, this is a bit snaky looking.

TikTok relies on that influencer element, which is not seen as trustworthy. It’s like in the SEO world when you look for lists of the best X. Those outlets with lists are typically third-party articles that get revenue through affiliates. These are the only sites that can make this type of list. If you were a brand that sells this product, you can’t exactly make these lists. What are you going to do? List competitors? Only list products from your own brand? Either way, it’s not seen as trustworthy, and that’s where the third-party influence comes in.

Engagement Vs Conversion

When thinking about any platform to do with marketing, you’ve got to be aware of the algorithm. We never truly know what Google wants when it does an update, but we do know it is trying to put helpful websites that meet the intent of a search term in front of users. For commercial terms, this should lead to conversions. If you’re more useful, you’ll be higher up the SERPs, and if you meet the intent, you’ll have more conversions. Sounds simple when you put it like that, right? Though we all know it’s a constant struggle!

However, when it comes to TikTok, the algorithm is completely different. It prioritises user engagement. And user engagement doesn’t always lead to conversions. You could make an amazing guide on a product with up-to-date and useful information, but will this be engaging compared to, say, someone spinning around on a go-kart listing their favourite pairs of shoes? The latter is going to be more entertaining and more engaging and so get loads of views, but will users even know what has been said during the video? The former is likely to get way fewer views but might actually lead to conversions.

So if you’re going to use TikTok as part of your campaign, know what you want. What’s the point of a social report that shows you have loads of views and likes if you get no conversions from them? Yes, you need those videos to get in front of people, but you also need the more serious ones that can lead to conversion. However, getting conversions will be easier said than done, as the study found that the greatest problem with TikTok was converting engagement into sales.

A few months ago, it was the same with ChatGPT. Everyone said that it would be the one-stop shop for the internet. But we’re still waiting for AI to kill SEO. ChatGPT hasn’t taken oven for one particular reason (though there are other issues with it), so we believe – it lacks that human element. People buy from people, and ChatGPT can miss that human element.

Adding the Human Element

Now, we’re not saying TikTok isn’t worth it because it doesn’t lead to conversions. It is an amazing platform for awareness content, getting in front of users, and making them curious about your brand. Humans engage with humans more, and TikTok can add that human element to your brand.

On any social media platform, it is people who perform well; it’s not the brand. No one wants to see a video of a stiff, awkward human talking in the “brand tone of voice”; they want to engage with a human when on social media, and this is true for TikTok too. A good example of this from Brett is:

Percival, who do men’s clothing are really good for this. So even in their like social ads, they’ve got one of the guys, and I can’t remember his name, but he’s talking about, you know, they’re not the cheapest. It is like 40 quid for a T-shirt. It’s not the cheapest. An explanation of, like, do we make loads of money at Percival? And he kind of does the breakdown similar to the naked wines, like the price of a bottle of wine type stuff almost and goes, we know the t-shirts cost this much. Still, we use like this really good cotton that cost us like that’s 15 quid of it, and then we use the like marketing to get it in front of you, and things like that, and like every list over stuff and then at the end of it goes our margin. Still, it’s like it’s the guy it’s like you know Sam or whoever it is and kind of explaining that I think quite often a lot of like older brands, particularly like the brick and mortar guys you know big or small, they’re not quite comfortable with giving, you know, giving the voice to an actual human quite a lot. And I think they suffer for it.

Working in Harmony

So, what is the future of search? From our point of view, TikTok will play a part, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. It’s certainly going to enhance the web experience, but it isn’t going to destroy SEO. Brett believes:

My bet for the future is that, okay, we’ve got this, people have discovered this really useful digestible content format is in the future, you’re going to see websites implementing that similar style content online and pages and blogs etc., as opposed to like having a lengthy bed buying guide, you have a reputable source coming in to shoot a video that you can get all the information or a bulk of the information they might need in a minute that then falls into a better user experience.

TikTok will just be another touchpoint with your customers. But its importance to you and your business will depend on your audience. How much of your audience is there? Are they likely to convert on TikTok? At what part of their purchase journey is your TikTok audience? Chances are, at least some of your audience is on TikTok, so a multi-touchpoint approach is key to reaching as many potential customers as possible.

Diversification is important for all marketing strategies. You want your fingers in as many pies as possible. We often see brands become reliant on one strategy or platform, for instance:

You see a lot of young brands who are over-reliant on paid media as their only marketing channel, and the ones who are self-aware enough are making efforts to diversify away from that. 

Those that diversify can turn the various taps on and off at different points, taking advantage of trends. However, the difficulty of having several channels is getting everyone on the same page. Your marketing needs to be consistent; all your channels should work in harmony. This is more of a problem for larger brands with established departments, where change at scale can be a struggle. Start-ups have the advantage of usually having a “Jack-of-all-trades” doing their marketing, so it’s easier for them to coordinate with, well, themselves.

So, if you have departments, how do you get them all to work in harmony? We’re a fan of agile working and goals to keep everyone knowing what the plan is.

“… our approach where we take on like quarterly topics, quarterly goals and that aligns with seasonal trends in e -commerce and things like that. Just trying to pull it all together into some sort of roadmap or any sort of meaning and then tackling them in unison is a good approach.

Each channel isn’t its own completely independent thing. They should all work together to meet goals in their own way. It’s all marketing at the end of the day, just across different channels, whether that be SEO, TikTok, YouTube, emails, other social media, etc. They don’t all need a sales message either, so long as they help meet the goal, that’s all that matters. One great example of a company having their marketing in harmony:

I really like there’s an indoor plant brand called The Stem, and they incorporate their kind of TikTok videos into their guide section, so the consideration section. Again, it’s not a particularly high value in terms of pounds and pence product, but for indoor plants, when you look at all those like mad monsteras and stuff like that, they can be quite a pain in the ass to keep alive. So I suppose I put it in the technical bracket. You’ve got to consider it quite a lot. Can I keep this thing alive? So it was really useful, and they’d incorporated that TikTok-style content into their actual website. They’ve embedded it when they go to the guide. So it’s a, you know, it’s a uniform look. They get that kind of brand recall wherever you’re existing.

What Does the Future Hold for Search and SEO?

From our point of view, SEO isn’t going anywhere soon. There’s always the noise of “SEO is dead”, “ChatGPT is going to be the new search”, “everyone now searches on TikTok”, etc. But when you look at the data, that is rarely the full story. Yes, people have used TikTok, but that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know.

In marketing, no matter what your business is, it’s vital that you get in front of your customers with the right information at the right time. Campaigns, whether SEO, email marketing, social media, etc., should always be human-first. Strategy should start with the human behind the search; understand them and their needs first. It might take longer, but the results will be clear. Just like a load of viral videos that don’t get conversions won’t reach your conversion goals, all the P1 rankings won’t either if you don’t meet the intent behind the search. But remember, marketing isn’t always about selling; it’s all those little touchpoints that allow users to gain confidence and awareness of your brand, TikTok, blogs, an social media are all important touchpoints that shouldn’t be ignored.

TikTok can be great for these touchpoints, but for converting, it’s less effective. Google and other search engines still hold the crown for the high intent searches. And because of this, SEO is going nowhere, yet.

If you want to know more, click here for the full discussion