Over the past few months, we’ve been immersing ourselves in the rapidly developing search landscape. Here’s Rosie Hopes, our Head of Insight and Strategy, with the first instalment of our Future of Search series: the rise of social search.
How Search Habits Are Changing
If you ask anyone under the age of 25 how they find information online, you might be surprised that their default answer isn’t search engines. Google has been such a dominant force in the search landscape since the early 2000s that anyone who started using the internet at that time sees it as a vital function of how online search works. But for those who grew up as true digital natives, there are easier ways to find the information they need online.
If we consider online brand research, we can see a clear generational shift in behaviour. Boomers and Gen X markedly favour search engines over social networks, but this gap closes for Millennials. Gen Z are the first generation who use social networks more than search engines for online brand research.
This is not a close-kept secret. Google’s Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan said as much at the FORTUNE Brainstorm Tech Conference in July 2022:
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.Google USA research among 18-24 year olds
For these younger age groups, the key reason for this change is that social media is a better provider of the type of content that they want to find. For them, short, fast-moving video content with in-built social proof is easier to consume than long, text-heavy pages on brand websites or online publications.
Zoë Jenkin’s viral LinkedIn post in August 2022 illustrated the disconnect between how marketers understand channel strategy and how young people use those channels. Jenkin asked her 14-year-old niece what she thought of different social media platforms and the answers were enlightening. For example:
It’s just tv, and better than using Google like dad does, I can find anything on there faster and easier than reading an entire articleYOUTUBE
We’re mostly there to watch videos, not to create ourselves. Again better than Google, can find anything with a quick search and plus be entertained for hours.TIKTOK
Social Search and the Rise of TikTok
The social media channel that has seen the biggest shift in recent years is TikTok. The short-form native video platform may have started as a lip syncing app in 2014 (originally named Musical.ly) but since it saw supercharged global growth during the COVID-19 pandemic it has become a mainstream social media player. As of January 2023 TikTok had 1 billion monthly active users.
Why should you care about TikTok?
Firstly, it is Gen Z’s most used social platform by some margin (in terms of minutes spent per day)
Secondly, engagements with brands on TikTok is much higher than it is on other social media
But most importantly for the topic of this blog post, TikTok is a big part of the reason why younger generations are going to social media when seeking information rather than search engines.
Why are people turning to TikTok for answers?
In May 2022 a tweet by KA went viral when she said that TikTok was a better search engine than Google. The responses give an insight into why users prefer it.
TikTok is becoming an important first step in the online search journey because it offers:
- Short, fast-moving video content that is easy to consume
- Social proof – recommendations are largely driven by creators, who are more trusted than brands and publishers
- A powerful algorithm that serves curated content for you
- Time sensitivity
- An addictive and infinite scrollable format
Until very recently, TikTok has been reluctant to see itself as a search engine (or direct competitor of Google). It doesn’t make search data for its platform public and it hadn’t officially acknowledged the use of TikTok as a place for ‘active discovery’ rather than traditional ‘passive discovery’ through scrolling. In December 2022 it released its ‘Do it with TikTok’ campaign, which says:
TikTok has become the go-to place for everyday tips and tricks. Whether you’re after #diyonabudget tips for a new home, #BookTok inspo for an uplifting read, or just #budgetmeals inspo for a dinner that’s affordable without compromising on taste, our community has the answer. So you never have to struggle and do it alone.
Although it doesn’t explicitly say that TikTok is a vehicle for search, it is clearly edging into the world of information discovery as well as entertainment.
What is Google doing to combat the rise of TikTok?
TikTok may not publicly acknowledge that it is going head to head with Google, but Google – which owns YouTube – is fighting back with YouTube Shorts. They satisfy the desire for easily snackable short-form video content, served in a familiar UI (full screen, vertical scrolling). In 2022 there was a huge cash injection from YouTube via the Shorts Fund to tempt creators over from TikTok and traditional YouTube.
Will YouTube Shorts ever eclipse TikTok? It’s unlikely, but clearly Google is recognising the shift in users’ desire for short-form video content for more than just entertainment – for active discovery too.
Unsiloing Search and Social
The preference for social search – with a spotlight on TikTok, but not forgetting YouTube and Pinterest – may seem like a massive shift in user behaviour, but from a marketing perspective I would argue that we can adapt pretty easily.
The search landscape may have shifted into social, but the psychology of how we seek information online hasn’t changed.
Understanding user intent
A huge part of SEO has always been understanding what people are searching for. It is common to use a search intent model like this one as a way of categorising keyword data:
Informational search queries at the top of the funnel show an intent to find out information on a topic; they tend to be more long-tail and often include questions
Navigational search queries show an intent to visit a specific website
Commercial investigation search queries sit further down the funnel at a point when a searcher does seem to be interested in buying something but they’re not sure what to choose yet; often modifiers like ‘best’, ‘top’ or ‘reviews’ are used
Transactional key phrases at the bottom of the funnel show an intent to buy
Search marketers are used to serving these intents with different tactics per channel. Traditionally informational key phrases are served by text-based blog posts. SEO and PPC can be used to target specific key phrases further down the funnel.
And this is still true – but now we have more platforms than ever that can be used to serve those different intents aside from Google. Here’s how you can roll out your search strategy on Pinterest, YouTube and TikTok too.
Serving user intent on more platforms
The process is very similar: carry out keyword research and categorise the data based on search intent, but then consider where your audience is most likely to be entering those queries online.
In all likelihood, your website will still be important for navigational and transactional phrases. Traditional SEO techniques such as onsite optimisation, link building and the optimisation of your Google My Business profile and Google Shopping feed are all extremely important for ensuring visibility online. If you are an e-commerce brand, Amazon is also an extremely important player when it comes to taking advantage of transactional searches happening outside of the Google ecosystem.
For your informational and commercial investigation phrases, however, you might want to think about providing content in a more visual format on TikTok, YouTube or Pinterest. These platforms are great for an intent to learn, get inspiration, discern between products or be reassured by social proof.
TikTok, YouTube or Pinterest?
How to Optimise for Social Search
While it might seem an intimidating task to go about optimising all of your content across multiple platforms, the reality is actually pretty simple. The social algorithms for search are much less sophisticated than Google’s. Keyword stuffing is not a danger and link building is not necessary. You can increase your visibility by using some basic optimisation techniques.
In essence, social optimisation for search is about helping the crawler to make sense of your content and understand if it’s related to a specific search topic.
There are two golden rules for social search optimisation:
- Wherever a crawler (or reader) may come across text in your post, add a key phrase
Add your key phrase to the video or pin title and description, in any on-image text (the crawler can recognise text over graphics) and in hashtags.
- Structure your content thematically on your profile
This is important for YouTube and Pinterest, which allow you to group content together in playlists (YouTube) and boards (Pinterest). Make sure that their titles use a relevant key phrase and select any relevant categories to give the crawler as much context for your content as possible.
While optimising for social search can help you reach users when they’re in the mindset for active discovery, it’s important that this search-led content supplements your current activity on the platform and doesn’t replace it. The other pillars of your social content strategy are still important:
- Seasonal content, to be sensitive to the ebbs and flows of user interest
- Topical or reactive content, to keep on top of trends
- Brand building posts, to establish your identity online
- User generated content, to interact with your audience and maintain a two-way relationship
Look at this as an opportunity to build out your brand presence in more places. Test new topics and formats, measure what works and what doesn’t and above all, always keep your audience’s needs front and centre.
Key Takeaways on Social Search
- The shift away from search engines for online discovery has been driven by younger demographics, with over half of 16-24 year olds preferring to search in social platforms
- Top reasons for preferring social search include shorter, more visual content, built-in social proof from authentic creators and a dislike of information overload in Google
- Marketers don’t have to fear this: social media could offer another avenue for hosting and amplifying content with an informational or commercial investigation intent
Social search isn’t the end of the story! To find out more about developments in visual search, chatbot search and how marketers can grapple with these leaps forward in technology, download our whitepaper on the Future of Search. And, of course, you can always get in touch to pick the brain of one of our search experts!