Battle Royale: Google vs. Social Search

January 30, 2023

By Amit Wadehra, Executive Vice President, Digital 

A New Search Giant Rises 

Last year, reports from Google began circulating suggesting new patterns in search behavior from Gen Z.    

Prabhakar Raghavan, SVP of Knowledge and Information at Google, said that the future of search is starting to look different than the past. The biggest difference Raghavan alluded to is where young people start their search journey. Internal research conducted by Google showed that close to 40 percent of young people (18-24) start their search journey on a social platform like TikTok, Instagram or Reddit. The reason? To discover content in “new, more immersive ways.” But it’s not a Google goodbye for every type of query.  

To understand the important – yet different – role social search now plays in exploration, consider this example.   

When someone queries Google, they’re usually expecting an exact answer. For example, “Did Argentina win the World Cup?” 

image of a google search for argentina winning the world cup 

The result is specific and immediate. Yes, Argentina won. Google remains focused on delivering the fastest, most factual answer to any question you have.      

But what happens when you pose this same question on TikTok? The in-platform search engine delivers very different results.  

image of a tiktok search for argentina winning the world cup 

By posing the exact same question in a social platform, searchers experience the emotions of people reacting to Argentina winning the World Cup.  This is the key difference: searching on TikTok – and social platforms more broadly – is about discovery through social influence.    

Imagine you’re looking for the next amazing kitchen hack. By searching on TikTok, you can see exactly what hacks are cool, what hacks other people gravitate to, and beloved products associated with them.  Social search like this starts without an expectation in mind, which may lead someone to later search for something more specific on Google, too. Social search and traditional search work together.   

What to Expect 

In 2023, we expect TikTok and (Golin-client) Reddit to be the dominant initial discovery search engines but still leaving room for a trusted player like Google to get people to their final destination. TikTok, Instagram and YouTube will serve as primary discovery engines when people’s mindsets are open for exploration. When people are looking for the specific answer, Google will still reign supreme. 

How Brands Can Win 

If your brand creates TikToks or content on other popular social networks, aligning your content to search trends on the platform is key. The first step is to understand keywords, categories, and phrases that your audience is consuming content around, across all major search engines and social platforms. Once you understand the particulars of search behavior patterns, develop a content plan that can address the search needs of your audience when they are in discovery mode versus when they’re looking for a specific answer. Here’s a quick social SEO checklist to ensure your content appears prominently in social search results: 

  • Audit social-specific keywords. Google Trends investigation or listening via tools like Sprinklr or Talkwalker are easy ways to get started but searching natively on each social platform will be more fruitful until third party tools improve. If your content pertains to soccer, for example, use TikTok, Instagram, Reddit or YouTube’s built-in search tool to discover keywords related to soccer people are searching for inside those platforms.  
  • Add text as headlines throughout video content to connect to keywords. Be sure to use the native text features of TikTok and Instagram! 
  • When applicable, verbally callout keywords in audio – word for word – for your videos. TikTok, for example, automatically generates captions based on spoken words in content and uses that data to rank your content. Be sure to mention the keywords you want to rank for in the first three seconds of your video. 
  • Include relevant keywords in captions within the first two lines of copy, too. Write them as phrases with appropriate hashtags. 
  • Don’t forget captivating thumbnails including keywords via on-screen text. For example, “5 holiday gift ideas” or “meals on a budget.”  

Why it Matters 

People are searching in social platforms – especially TikTok and Instagram for Gen Z – to quickly see the unfiltered opinions of real people, retaining ultimate control over who and what they listen to. While the opinions served up can sometimes lead to misinformation, Gen Z seeks diverse perspectives so social search is growing in importance. Brands should adapt their content strategy to craft content that plays into these emerging behaviors and marry owned content with partner content from other creators for maximum impact. And if you find that you’re in a competitive search environment, take advantage of paid search options like TikTok Search Ads to ensure your content reaches your audience when they’re seeking it out. 

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