Tik Tok | The new Gen Z search engine

When Ja’Kobi Moore decided to enroll in a private high school in her hometown of New Orleans this year, she learned that she needed at least one letter of recommendation from a teacher. She had never asked for it, so she sought help.

Posted yesterday at 11:00 a.m.

Kalley Huang
The New York Times

“Letter of recommendation from a professor,” she typed into TikTok’s search bar.

Moore, 15, scrolled through the TikTok app until she found two videos: one explaining how to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation and the other showing a sample letter. Both videos were made by teachers and were easier to understand than a Google search result or a YouTube video, said Ja’Kobi Moore, who plans to talk to his teachers this month.

TikTok is known for its viral dance videos and pop music. But for Gen Z, the video app is also increasingly a search engine.

More young people are using TikTok’s powerful algorithm — which personalizes the videos shown to them based on their interactions with the content — to find information that oddly matches their tastes. With this personalization comes the feeling that real people are synthesizing and disseminating information on the app, not faceless websites.

On TikTok, “you see how the person felt about where they ate,” says Nailah Roberts, 25, who uses the app to look up restaurants in Los Angeles, where she lives.

A long, written review of a restaurant can’t capture its vibe, food and drink the way a short clip does, she says.

Transformation

The rise of TikTok as a discovery tool is part of a broader transformation of digital search. While Google remains the dominant search engine globally, people turn to Amazon to search for products, Instagram to stay up to date on trends, and Snapchat’s Snap Maps to find local businesses. As the digital world continues to expand, the universe of ways to find information in it expands.

Google has noticed that TikTok is encroaching on its domain. Although the Silicon Valley company has disputed that young people are using TikTok to replace its search engine, at least one Google executive has publicly pointed out the rival video app’s search capabilities.

In our studies, something like nearly 40% of young people, when looking for a place to dine, don’t go to Google Maps or Search. They go on TikTok or Instagram.

Prabhakar Raghavan, senior vice president of Google, at a technology conference in July

Google has integrated images and videos into its search engine in recent years. Since 2019, some of its search results feature TikTok videos. In 2020, Google launched YouTube Shorts, which shares vertical videos under one minute and began including its content in search results.

TikTok, which is owned by Chinese internet company ByteDance, declined to comment on its search function and which products might be in testing. The company said it was “always thinking of new ways to add value to the community and enrich the TikTok experience.”

Searching TikTok is often more interactive than typing a query on Google. Instead of browsing through walls of text, Gen Zers rely on TikTok video recommendations to find what they’re looking for, watching video after video to sort through content. They then ensure the veracity of a suggestion based on the comments posted in response to the videos.

This mode of research is explained by the fact that young people use TikTok not only to search for products and companies, but also to ask questions about how to do things and find explanations of their meaning. With videos that are often less than 60 seconds long, TikTok returns what appear to be more relevant responses, according to many.

Content moderation

TikTok’s rise as a search engine may mean more people come across misinformation and misinformation about the app, which could then be amplified and spread further, said information science professor Francesca Tripodi. and libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The platform struggled to moderate misleading content about elections, the war in Ukraine and abortion.

TikTok’s algorithm tends to keep people on the app, so it’s harder for them to turn to other sources for fact-checking, Ms.me Tripod.

“You don’t really click on anything that can get you out of the app,” she explained. “So it’s even more difficult to verify the accuracy of the information you get. »

TikTok has strived to become a place to search for information. The app is currently testing a feature that identifies keywords in comments and links to matching search results. In Southeast Asia, it is also testing a feed with local content, so people can find businesses and events near them.

The implementation of search and location functions should allow TikTok – which is already the most downloaded application in the world for 18-24 year olds, according to Sensor Tower – to establish itself more with young users.

TikTok “is becoming a one-stop-shop for content like it wasn’t in its early days,” said Lee Rainie, who leads internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center.

The original version of this text was first published in the New York Times.

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