Google is reportedly in “code red” mode, deploying resources and calling in its cofounders to address perceived threats to its extremely dominant search engine. The threat du jour is ChatGPT—an AI-powered large language model that is also helping us write term papers and poetry, draft regulations, and make medical diagnoses. But there’s another car coming up the rear in the search race. That is TikTok.
TikTok for search? you might ask. How could a twitchy video app filled with dancing teens, cat memes, food hacks, and cringey stunts help you find a financial adviser or a train timetable, or even search results for yourself? It depends on what your interpretation of “search” is, but if you’re seeking less specific, more entertaining results—a search process more akin to social discovery—then TikTok is making a strong play. In 2021, content delivery network Cloudflare reported that Tiktok.com had overtaken Google as the world’s most visited web domain. And last year a senior vice president of search at Google noted that 40 percent of young internet users are regularly turning to TikTok or Instagram for search. (TikTok has not responded to inquiries about search trends.)
Further evidence: When I shared in a WIRED Slack channel that I would try using TikTok search for a week, two younger colleagues who are generationally distinct from me said, fwiw, they also search for nearly everything on TikTok. So on a recent Tuesday I opened up TikTok and began my experiment, with the quick touchscreen typing of mild desperation.
I’m not what you would call super active on TikTok. I follow a few dozen people, and I’ve posted one video (cat). At times I have been sucked into the vortex of the app’s For You page, which shows videos that TikTok’s algorithm has determined I might like. Part of the reason why I don’t use the app much is because of security concerns. TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, recently admitted that some of its workers had accessed the location data of American journalists to try to identify their sources (i.e. spied on them). Even with this knowledge, I still have a TikTok account, because I test a lot of apps.
My colleagues’ use of TikTok search intrigues me. It felt like there was a slight divide before because of age, but now it yawns loudly, and they are on the side of oxygen intake and I am on the tired side. Was my story already old? The facts that I was post-college when Google went public, or that I was in the room when Steve Ballmer shouted “Bing it!” and revealed Microsoft’s new search engine, give me absolutely no cred here.
The first thing I search for is how to pair an AirTag, a gift bestowed upon me because of my habit of losing my keys. TikTok delivers here. I am able to watch the top video in results, 31 seconds long, without ever having to scroll through the dozens of other videos in results. And because it’s a living thumbnail, I don’t even have to tap on the video to hear its audio. It’s quick and easy. This is going to be fun.
I wake up and remember I have a job that involves lots of thorough online searches. I open TikTok and search for specific information about Apple’s business, like the number of employees who work in Apple’s retail stores. I can’t seem to find the answer there, but I do discover a couple of helpful hacks (how to write off your $1,100 iPhone on your taxes so you’re paying only half) and parodies of Apple Store interactions (the “employee” apologizes for an hour-long wait time, six people are currently being helped, and there are only 90 employees).
My editor says, quite literally, “Let me Google that for you.” TikTok, it turns out, is not a portal to 10-K reports on SEC.gov. It’s a portal to more TikTok.
Later that day I open TikTok again, and it recommends an account called “oldloserinbrooklyn,” particularly this person’s 2023 predictions, the top of which was “more print magazines closing.” I am not making this up.