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Are TikTok and Instagram really going to usurp Google for search?

Nick Hayhoe

August 1, 2022   SEO, Strategy, Thoughts

An article appeared on Business Insider recently with the headline Nearly half of Gen Z is using TikTok and Instagram for search instead of Google, according to Google’s own data”, stating that:

“Google senior vice president Prabhakar Raghavan told the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference that according to Google’s internal 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.”

Now this is, initially, a slightly startling thing to say. Is there an entire generation of users giving up on traditional search completely? What does this mean for the industry as a whole? Should we be getting ahead of the curve? What does it mean when it comes to marketing budgets for 2023, 2024 and beyond?

Whoa, let’s hold up there for a second. Before diving into these questions, let’s look into what this headline, the statement from Raghavan and what the article are actually saying.

Occasionally, as SEOs, we see these sorts of news articles crop up where Google’s domination is supposedly under threat by an upstart and, quite often, it is Google themselves who make these claims – usually as a simple observation from an employee that’s taken out of proportion by click-hungry media, or as a way of showing that they are on the case of whatever it is that’s “threatening search”. (Indeed, a heavy cynic could even suggest that Google is making public statements such as this to placate shareholders who may well think that they are not aware of the “growing threat from the likes of TikTok” by showing they are investing in ways of combating it).

There is a certain irony to these claims in that, for several years, an oft-regurgitated statistic was that YouTube “is the world’s second largest search engine”. Considering that YouTube is owned by… Google, and that YouTube is… not a search engine, this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny as a claim – from a pedant’s view or otherwise.

Such headlines can initially look convincing on paper and are taken to TEDx Talks and client meetings as nice soundbites – but are doing a similar “truth-bending” job to that fact about Lego being the world’s largest producer of rubber tyres. Lego may well make the most rubber tyres, but they aren’t going to make their way on to your Ford Fiesta any time soon, and Dunlop and Michelin are unlikely to be basing their marketing strategies on the fact that Lego are producing and selling more tyres than them – notwithstanding the fact that buyers of Lego tyres have quite different intentions to those who are buying them from Michelin, even if they are – ostensibly – still buying tyres.

The intentions are entirely different – just as the case is when people start comparing TikTok/Instagram (or, indeed, YouTube) with Google Search. The simple fact is that TikTok/Instagram are not search engines. They do not crawl the entire internet to try and return relevant content to you, they do not provide what is still considered an “internet public service”, and do not hold a vice-like grip on how a large majority of the internet must be constructed and crafted. There’s not going to be a mass exodus away from Google search towards TikTok any time soon because they do different things.

This is no shade towards Business Insider who are, of course, only reporting what they have seen, and then wanting to tilt the headlines towards attracting clicks (a challenge all SEOs will know only too well). But what makes these headlines a bit dangerous is that, in our snippet-heavy, black-and-white soundbite world, people will and do make entire multi-million-pound decisions based on them. So, be careful when drawing snap conclusions from them. It is interesting to hear that a lot of Gen Z’ers are getting certain kinds of info from certain platforms, but it does not mean that Google will be killed off, or even that you should shut down your SEO budget and move everything into TikTok.

It’s worth remembering that obituaries for Facebook’s death have been written as far back as 2014, and despite Meta themselves seemingly abandoning the platform in favour of Instagram, it isn’t going to be going anywhere anytime soon. Brands have and do still have highly successful marketing campaigns with it, and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable – there are still nearly three billion users on it after all.

As always, in marketing, as contrary as it sounds, a little bit of scepticism can always be a positive addition to the decisions that we are all making.

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