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August 30, 2022

How TikTok is the Newest Local Search Engine // Local Marketing Insider #041

How TikTok is the newest local search engine. It's entirely visual, and quite possibly better than Google.

It's entirely visual, and quite possibly better than Google.

Last week (8/22/22) news broke that TikTok is testing a new “Nearby” feature in Southeast Asia.

cc @brendangahan @mattnavarra

This closely follows a report by Mashable asserting that for people ages 16-24, TikTok is used as a search engine, and in many cases, it is even the preferred search engine of this demographic.

Last month, Hubspot released its yearly 2022 State of Marketing Report, noting in its 2023 predictions that “the short-form video boom will continue.”

Google itself has acknowledged this trend. TechCrunch reports, “Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan, who runs Google’s Knowledge & Information organization, recently noted that younger users are often turning to apps like Instagram and TikTok instead of Google Search or Maps for discovery purposes. Raghavan noted that nearly 40% of young users go to TikTok or Instagram when looking for a place to eat, as opposed to Google Maps or Search.

And this estimation is without TikTok fully flexing its recommendation algorithm in local markets. We anticipate conversations and articles around TikTok SEO will increase, fast and furiously. 

TikTok isn’t the first social network to make a run at the search engine market. Social aggregate sites like Delicious for recipes, Reddit, YouTube, and now TikTok have all taken on new meaning as search tools.

In my mind, what makes TikTok unique for the local marketer is its local relevance and completely visual experience.

A Visual Search Experience

When you search for “restaurants in Burlington” you are immediately immersed in the experience. You don’t have to click through a link or find a pin on a map. Right away you see the color of the wood and the amber of the lights.

See what I mean:


Here is the link to watch the video directly on TikTok.

For certain industries, visual search is a compelling way for people to find new things.

Why People Use TikTok as a Search Engine

According to SearchEngineJournal, people use TikTok as a search engine because:

  • People are visual learners
  • Google results are unsatisfactory
  • Users have short attention spans

TikTok, an entirely short-form video platform was designed and developed for the digitally native. Nothing about the experience relies upon concepts more than a handful of years old.

Think about Google Maps. While digital, the fundamental design is derived from a physical object - the paper map. The average 16-year-old TikTok user, born in 2006, has likely never used a paper map before.

According to the concept of skeuomorphism, many digital objects (think desktop, trash bin, folders) are based on real-life things. As technology further weaves its way into the corners of our lives it's more and more likely these analog objects that will never be used by young people. 

To my 2 y/o son, a phone is a flat rectangle with a big screen, not a curved object with an ear and mouthpiece. 

So while those of us 30+ grew up getting most information text-first, Gen Z has adapted to an information environment dominated by video, made possible by video streaming technology wasn’t widely available until the last 10 years or so (not to mention the explosive growth in use and quality of phone cameras).

With this in mind, younger buyers preferring local search in a visual format makes complete sense.

Where Visual Search Excels

Today, fashion, food, travel and culture stand out on TikTok.

For those running entertainment, retail, restaurant and hospitality organizations, the market fit is already there.

Examples searches: “restaurants in Lisbon,” “shopping in Paris,” “hotels in Miami,” “trip recommendations in LA,” “coffee in Venice.”

According to one article, discovery on TikTok is described as “maximum vibe reconnaissance,” meaning you actually get to see what the business looks like and the person recommending it. 

TikTok, a channel younger buyers already use to search for recommendations, provides local businesses the opportunity to show what look and feel their business has to offer to a younger audience.

Google is fundamentally a recommendation engine. At this point, so is TikTok.

Why is TikTok’s Recommendation Engine So Good?

The “For You” channel is very purposefully designed to be filled with content from anyone, curated by your interests. TikTok’s approximation of your interests is based on your actions on the platform (likes, comments, follows). 

Unlike Instagram and Facebook, on TikTok, relationships are secondary, if not completely irrelevant.

Up until this point, every major social network focuses on the “relationship” as a central influence on what you see in your feed. You see content from friends, creatives or brands that you chose to follow. Recommendations of new people to follow are based on your shared connections, not your specific interests. The people are familiar.

TikTok turns that upside down. 

In the “For You” feed, the people are usually unfamiliar.

Familiarity is driven largely by trending sounds, music, memes, challenges and dances. This makes it more palatable or comfortable for viewers to see content from random people.

See how this Porsche dealer went viral with trending audio.

This is why it can be so valuable for a local business to piggyback off a trend. You are unfamiliar, but the latest trends are familiar.

Instagram is Trying to Get into the Mix

Last month Instagram announced a new searchable map feature.

IG users can discover popular local businesses and filter by categories by searching for a city and navigating to the “Places” tab.

To me, this is like a hybrid between Google Maps and TikTok, with both the visual content related to each business and the map experience as the entry point.

I’ll admit, this page was a bit hard to find–I was purposefully searching for it for this article. Further, it does not get you into the experience of the business in quite the same way, not utilizing full-screen video. It feels very similar to Google.

What Does This Mean for Local Businesses

To put this all in context, we’re talking about ~40% of 16-24-year-olds heavily using visual search engines to discover local businesses. A minority percentage of an age group with comparatively low buying power.

No, Google is not going anywhere.

But, we haven’t had a true shakeup in the search market in a while now, and you should be aware of TikTok, short-form video and visual search.

As we know, trendy technology usually starts with the young and is adopted by older users further along the curve.

And given TikTok’s recommendation engine is based on interests and location, it does not require months (if not years) of work to gain momentum like in Google search. It’s the marketing north star - low effort, high impact.

The platform's less crowded too.

So, I just wanted to get this on your radar. It seems unanimous at this point: TikTok has legs as a marketing platform. I’m struck by its unique relevance for local businesses. 

As always, go where your customers hang out. 

If the Nearby feature sticks, more than likely a local ads product will be in the mix as well, potentially expanding the strategic options further.

Thanks for reading. We’re working on an in-depth guide on TikTok and visual search for local businesses. Keep an eye out for that next month. Also, I just finished editing a huge rework to our Review Response Examples guide. 56 examples, up from 19, some new strategies we’ve tested out and some other bonus goodies. That’s also coming out next month.

See you in 2 weeks - Jake, Marketing @Widewail

Jake Hughes

I’m the Director of Marketing here at Widewail, as well as a husband and new dad outside the office. I'm in Vermont by way of Boston, where I grew the CarGurus YouTube channel from 0 to 100k subscribers. I love the outdoors and hate to be hot, so I’m doing just fine in the arctic Vermont we call home. Fun fact: I met my wife on the shuttle bus at Baltimore airport. Thanks for reading Widewail’s content!

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