TikTok SEO: The rise of TikTok search & how to maximise visibility

TikTok’s global expansion took the social media world by storm in 2018 before replacing Facebook as the most downloaded app worldwide in 2020. The following year, it passed 1 billion monthly active users and it’s expected to surpass 1.8 billion by the end of 2024. Now, the network is even eating into Google’s territory, as younger audiences find alternatives to the biggest name in search. TikTok SEO is very much a thing in 2024 and it’s only going to play a bigger role in marketing strategies as Gen Z matures.

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Is Google losing searchers to TikTok?

In 2022, TechCrunch published an article, featuring comments from Google Senior Vice President, Prabhakar Raghavan, on younger audiences using TikTok and Instagram instead of Google.

Here’s the standout quote from that article:

“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.” – Prabhakar Raghavan, Google Senior Vice President

Raghavan’s comments referenced an internal Google survey asking a limited audience of US users, aged 18 to 24. This tells us that a large minority of younger users are turning to TikTok and Instagram over Google for one, very specific purpose.

More recently, a 2023 survey found that 74% of Gen Z use TikTok for search and 51% prefer it to Google – mostly for its short-form video content and personalised results. Again, this survey asked a limited number of Gen Z users in the US.

A lot has been made of insights like these. The TechRadar article, in particular, prompted a swathe of articles around the web suggesting TikTok is replacing Google for Gen Z – with no mention of the very specific use case or limited scope of research.

Context is important, but TikTok’s role in search is undoubtedly growing and it will continue to grow as Gen Z matures. This isn’t the only Google alternative users are turning to for specific search purposes, either (eg: Amazon for product searches).

The search landscape is expanding and TikTok is emerging as a potential key player.

What is TikTok SEO?

TikTok SEO optimises content for the social platform to maximise visibility with your target audience. A growing user base is actively using TikTok to search for places to eat, product ideas and a variety of other purposes. So, in this sense, we’re talking keywords, queries and search results – all the key ingredients of a search experience.

Tiktok search for brunch soho london

At the same time, we can’t ignore the fact that TikTok is – first and foremost – a social network. While active searches are increasing, the primary TikTok experience is scrolling through the “For You” feed, which algorithmically serves content to users, based on their previous interactions.

To maximise organic visibility on TikTok, you want to “rank” for the right searches and show in the For You feed of relevant audiences.

This blurs the line between SEO and social marketing, but it was a similar story with social and PPC when Facebook first launched ads. Of course, TikTok also has its own advertising system – TikTok Ads – which you’ll need to use if you really want to maximise visibility on the network.

What can you achieve with TikTok SEO?

TikTok is primarily a content discovery platform and this user intent has a big impact on the goals you can realistically achieve. As things stand, people aren’t booking flights and hotel rooms on TikTok, but they’re constantly seeing inspirational travel content, exotic getaways and dreamy accommodation.

With this in mind, the most realistic TikTok SEO goals include:

time spent online using social media apps - Jan 2023


  • Brand awareness: The content discovery aspect of TikTok makes it a powerful platform for building brand awareness.
  • Relevance: TikTok is merely a platform, but the content formats, user habits and engagement patterns are shaping the modern online experience – and brands need to respond if they want to remain relevant.
  • Audience engagement: TikTok offers the best engagement rate among the major social platforms (by a long margin).
  • Inspiration: TikTok users are increasingly inspired by the content they discover on the platform and – more importantly – they’re actively seeking out inspiration by searching on the platform.
  • Product/service promotion: While you have to strike the right balance, users are receptive to discovering products and services on TikTok.
  • Lead generation: With commercial intent and active searches both increasing on TikTok, the platform is becoming a more valuable channel for lead generation.

Traditionally, social media has lacked the commercial intent of search where users are actively looking for things. The passive scrolling typical of social experiences leaves a large gap between engagement and commercial actions like purchases. However, Gen Z and younger users, in general, are closing this gap as they redefine the roles of search and social.

In a recent survey, 72% of Gen Z TikTok users say they’ve bought a product after seeing it advertised, promoted or reviewed on the platform. The same survey also found that 61% of users turn to social media influencers to discover new products – more than any other online activity.

Aside from rethinking the roles between search and social, brands need to be more ambitious with their goals on platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

How does TikTok’s algorithm work?

TikTok protects the specifics of its algorithm much like Google, but it’s also more generous with the information it shares. The first thing to know is that TikTok offers four key spaces for discovering content:

  1. The For You feed
  2. The Explore tab
  3. The Following feed
  4. Search
Example of tiktok seo

Engagement is the most important factor in TikTok’s algorithm. The platform gobbles up user engagement data (impressions, likes, comments, shares, etc.) and churns out an endless feed of personalised content in each placement.

How does TikTok’s ‘For You’ feed work?

The For You feed is TikTok’s main interface, delivering an endless feed of recommended content based on users’ previous interactions. It shows a mix of posts from accounts users follow and those they don’t (as well as paid ads) with a bias towards introducing users to new and trending content.

In TikTok’s own words, “the For You feed reflects preferences unique to each user” and it lists the following as key factors:

  1. User interactions such as the videos you like or share, accounts you follow, comments you post and content you create.
  2. Video information, which might include details like captions, sounds and hashtags.
  3. Device and account settings like your language preference, country setting and device type (lower priority).

If you want to maximise visibility in the For You feed, you have to optimise everything for interactions. You need to know your audience, what kind of content they’re engaging with on the platform and fine-tune campaigns to squeeze out all of the engagement you can.

How does the ‘Explore’ tab work?

The Explore tab shows users a feed of content gaining traction on TikTok. In this case, there’s a strong bias on trending posts but the algorithm still personalises results to match the interests of each user, based on their previous interactions.

So, if you want people to discover your content in the Explore tab, you need viral levels of post engagement. You also need to create posts that are relevant to the interests of your existing followers and the target audience you want to discover your content.

How does the ‘Following’ feed work?

The Following feed simply shows content to users from the accounts they’re already following. Again, total post engagement and users’ previous interactions influence the ordering of posts, but this feed basically filters out content from accounts users don’t follow.

However, the Following feed does recommend new, relevant accounts that users might want to follow.

How does search work on TikTok?

Users can type keywords into the search bar at the top of the app and the bar will also recommend trending queries when they tap or click on it. So, keyword targeting is a thing on TikTok, but users can also tap into a more explorational search experience by clicking on hashtags and trending topics.

The search experience is one of the easiest ways to target specific audiences on TikTok, as you can optimise for specific keywords and interests. TikTok’s personalised feeds are trickier to influence, as they prioritise total post interactions and each user’s previous interactions.

This means search is a great way to tap into the more commercial intent of TikTok organically with keywords like “brunch soho london” or “summer jackets free delivery”. Search is also valuable for smaller accounts looking to build interaction with their posts, as you can target specific interests and users who are more likely to engage with relevant content.

How to optimise your TikTok posts for visibility

Optimising TikTok posts to maximise visibility incorporates elements of traditional social and SEO. At the same time, TikTok is unlike any other platform on the market – both as a social media app and as a potential alternative to Google Search.

1. Know who your audience is

TikTok isn’t Google and you’re probably targeting a different audience here, even if it’s a smaller sub-section than your typical search engine crowd. Your Gen Z TikTok demographic has different problems, priorities and expectations than Boomers on Facebook and Millennials on Instagram.

2. Know what your audience is looking for

Interactions are everything on TikTok and attention is hard to win. Make sure you know exactly what your target audience is looking for, so you can create posts that capture and hold their attention.

3. Understand the TikTok culture

Don’t be another corporate brand stomping into TikTok with no understanding of how things work. Reputation is a fickle thing on this platform and people use it to be entertained, not sold to. Get a feel for what works on the platform, what resonates with your target audience and what other brands have done, tried and failed in their TikTok campaigns.

4. Use the right hashtags

Above all, use the most relevant and accurate hashtags to describe the content in your posts. Monitor hashtag trends in the TikTok Creative Center to find valuable content opportunities. Use 3-5 of the most relevant and/or popular hashtags for your posts to maximise visibility with your target audience.

5. Optimise your video posts

Video is the primary content format on TikTok, so make sure you optimise the right elements. Include keywords in your video titles, captions, dialogue, hashtags and even in on-screen text.

Use TikTok’s Keyword Insights tool and keep track of trending topics to find the right balance of relevant keywords and trends you can jump on, parody, contradict, etc.

6. Use trending sounds

According to research from TikTok and Kantar, “people experience sound on TikTok as “fun”—a 66% increase compared to other platforms with the audio turned off”. Unlike most social platforms, sound is an asset on TikTok – it’s more engaging and it also has the power to stop users from scrolling past your posts. Keep tabs on TikTok’s trending sounds and songs to use in your posts – particularly those popular with your content, keywords and hashtags.

7. Optimise everything for engagement

Interactions are the most important currency in TikTok SEO. Optimise everything for engagement – what you post, when you post, how often you post, etc. Find what works and do more of what turns visibility into engagement, engagement into more visibility.

Make sure you engage with your audience, too. Ask questions, reply to comments and give your audience every reason to continue engaging with future posts.


Q. Is TikTok replacing Google Search?

No, TikTok isn’t replacing Google but is becoming a primary search tool for certain purposes, particularly for Gen Z users. In 2022, Google Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan was quoted saying that “something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch… go to TikTok or Instagram”.

Now, Reddit claims Gen Z is increasingly using its platform (and other social channels) over Google for product searches. This isn’t so much a TikTok or Reddit vs Google thing. It’s more Gen Z, search trends and a variety of other factors are expanding search beyond the limits of Google.

Q. How good is organic reach on TikTok?

We’re used to seeing social networks use organic reach to maximise growth and, then, choke reach as they monetise visibility and engagement with paid ads. So what’s the state of organic reach on TikTok in 2024?

Well, the early days of gaining easy traction on TikTok are over and you’ll hear plenty of chatter about the death of organic reach on the platform. We have to remember how quickly this platform has grown, though, and how many people are competing for attention there now.

You don’t need to go viral to gain traction on TikTok, but you do have to cut through the noise to get those all-important interactions that its algorithm is looking for.

Q. How effective is TikTok for lead generation?

As an organic platform, TikTok is most effective for building brand awareness and reaching audiences that may not be active on other platforms like Instagram. In terms of lead generation, you can generate organic traffic with the right campaigns, although paid ads are generally more effective at driving qualified leads and they allow you to use follow-up strategies like remarketing to tempt previous visitors back.

Q. What are the most important metrics on TikTok?

This really depends on your goals with the platform. If you’re simply looking to reach the widest possible audience, then metrics like post views, likes, comments, shares and profile views are the key metrics to monitor. You’ll also want to pay attention to total followers, follower growth and interactions for followers vs non-followers.

You can get pretty granular with post analytics on TikTok, too. For example, you can view total and average watch times for video posts and how users discover your posts (For You, Discover, Search, etc.).

If you want to turn visibility into web traffic, then you’ll also need to track referral traffic sources in Google Analytics 4. By default, TikTok traffic is lumped in with “direct” traffic in GA4, but you can create custom URLs with UTM parameters to segment traffic from TikTok (and other sources labelled as direct).

Q. What happens if TikTok gets banned?

The US has passed a bill that could ban TikTok in the country unless Chinese parent company ByteDance sells it within a year. TikTok has appealed the bill, on the grounds it violates free speech rights in the country, and warned a US ban is inevitable without a court order blocking the law.

As of yet, there’s no proposed TikTok ban in the UK and a potential ban in the US wouldn’t affect users in the UK. However, any company using TikTok to target users in the US would be affected. As of March 2024, TikTok is banned from all UK government phones, but several countries have imposed similar bans on government-issued devices.

Start building visibility with TikTok SEO now

TikTok is already a force in the social media world and it has the user numbers to claim a bigger share of search. Even if Gen Z isn’t your priority audience now, it will be as it ages into a more active consumer demographic.

TikTok is defining what the future of social and search looks like and consumers won’t wait around for brands to catch up. Call our team on 023 9283 0281 to start building visibility with TikTok SEO now, or send us your details and we’ll get back to you.

Dave Colgate profile picture
Dave Colgate

Dave is head of SEO at Vertical Leap. He joined in 2010 as an SEO specialist and prior to that worked with international companies delivering successful search marketing campaigns. Dave works with many of our largest customers spanning many household names and global brands such as P&O Cruises and Harvester. Outside of work, Dave previously spent many years providing charity work as a Sergeant under the Royal Air Force Reserves in the Air Cadets sharing his passion for aviation with young minds. He can often be found in the skies above the south coast enjoying his private pilot licence.

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