Will TikTok revolutionise the search ad market?

TikTok is preparing to allow businesses to bid on specific keywords and phrases related to their products or services, and compete in the visual search space - what will this mean for the market?

Mohini Lakhani, Senior Digital Account Manager at independent media agency The Kite Factory, discusses whether TikTok poses a threat to the established search ad market, and how brands can make sure they’re ready for what comes next.

The search ad market is worth $112 billion, and has long been dominated by the likes of Google and Microsoft - but is this set to change?

After a year in Beta, the rumours are circulating of the launch of TikTok Search Ads which has the market not only talking, but wondering if strategies need to be reassessed in anticipation. 

It is no surprise that both global TikTok usage and content are currently at all-time highs. Whether you need restaurant recommendations for a new city you’re visiting, tips and tricks for the new product you’ve bought, or are looking for inspiration for your next dinner party, TikTok’s got it all - and soon, it’ll launch TikTok Search Ads set to rival Google and Microsoft. 

TikTok has been shaking up social media habits for the past few years. The platform has evolved into a place of discovery, fuelled by digestible short-form (and often unbiased) video content in a high-attention environment. Pre-covid, YouTube was the instinctive go-to platform for individuals seeking visual answers to their questions but Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube have been forced to adapt as they continue to lose market share to TikTok, introducing Reels, Watch, and Shorts, respectively in 2020/21. 

While these new features have seen mild success from their existing user bases, TikTok still remains the undefeated content creation platform, leading to advertisers shifting 25% of their paid social budgets (according to reported data from agencies VaynerMedia and Mekanism in recent Q4 figures). 

TikTok’s rise to dominance has recently hit yet another milestone. The announcement that search ads, which have been closed in Beta for the past year, will shortly be released to all advertisers has led to many questions from industry professionals as to whether TikTok now poses a threat to the existing search ad market.

How did TikTok get here? 

In the UK, TikTok is the fastest-growing news source, with 7% of all adults turning to the app to get their daily dose of news. This is even more prolific in the US, rising to 25% of all adults. Generation Z is undoubtedly the primary driver of usage changes, which Google has recognised. In a recent report, Google found that 40% of 18-24-year-olds are turning to TikTok over and above search engines to fuel their curiosity. Despite being over twenty-four and firmly a Millennial, I can also attest to this behaviour change, personally having moved away from seeking “Instagrammable” experiences to “TikTok-able” experiences. 

Visual search is on the rise. Pinterest spotted this trend long before TikTok became a global phenomenon. They developed the ‘visual discovery engine’ and facilitated visual search by allowing advertisers to bid on keywords and report back on performance metrics post-campaign. Google is also attempting to adapt to the TikTok generation in numerous ways.

Firstly, they introduced a multi-search functionality within their Lens product, allowing users to search via both text and images. They have also been increasingly pushing dynamic formats such as images, maps, and even YouTube videos or Shorts as the first organic results in the search engine results page (SERPs) in order to keep users within their realm of owned platforms. This has not been as successful as anticipated. 

TikTok is now readying itself to also compete in the visual search space, with a focus on SEO at the forefront. Last November, TikTok’s video description character limits increased from 300 to 2,200,  allowing more space for keywords and hashtags – more levers for SEO optimisation and for the algorithm to learn from. Taking this one step further, TikTok recently released its ‘Keyword Insights’ tool (a goldmine for SEO research), to be overlaid on top of its existing and seemingly robust targeting signals which include demographics, user-defined interests, and hashtags. While there hasn’t been any development towards keyword-level bidding or buying capabilities that advertisers are yet aware of – outside of being able to negative those irrelevant for their brand to appear against – we anticipate that it won’t be long before this is the case.

Will this really transform the search ad market?

Based on TikTok’s usage figures alone, the odds are likely. TikTok’s statistics suggest that the app is key for influencing conversion, with 61% of global users engaging in e-commerce behaviours, evident from hashtags such as #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt. It also plays a crucial role in discovery and inspiration; 56% of TikTok users say that an ad that they saw on the app led them to discover new products or brands. However, for many advertisers, TikTok drives engagement and they find it difficult to derive profitable returns on a last-click basis.

Google, on the other hand, plays a greater role in intent-led searches, often used by those looking for immediate answers to their questions, many of which do not necessarily require a visual explanation. Google and other search engines are more convenient when ‘on the go’, whereas TikTok requires active engagement and needs to be played in a sound-on environment.

Additionally, whilst TikTok usage might be rising exponentially amongst younger generations, those older generations looking for simplicity or familiarity in their platform choice may still divert to Google or YouTube first, depending on their needs.

With its triumphant market share and position in most media plans as a revenue driver, it doesn’t look like Google will be going away any time soon, with traditional search engines playing an integral part in answering curious minds. It is much more likely that TikTok will play a greater role in directing traffic to Google instead. Just look at the viral ‘Negroni Sbagliato’ TikTok sensation, which saw a seismic spike in Google searches on what it contained (and if you don’t have a clue what I’m referring to here, there is a strong chance you will Google it to find out). 

A larger concern for advertisers is around brand safety and regulatory issues on TikTok, which may be why many have yet to debut on the app. The US is eagerly awaiting the future of TikTok, as a newly formed bipartisan senate bill has threatened to ban it in app stores nationally, should the Biden administration see fit. This, in addition to India’s existing ban, could cause a significant shift in the global user base and the vast content available. Music to Google, Meta, and Microsoft’s ears.

For many other advertisers who are seeing incremental value from adding the platform to their media mixes, they are taking an “ignorance is bliss” approach, as alluded to by Managing Partner Digital, Ben Foster here. Regardless of whether global or not, brands should not dismiss the use of TikTok in their marketing strategies whilst the outcome is decided.

By Mohini Lakhani

Senior Digital Account Manager

The Kite Factory

Mohini Lakhani is an experienced Senior Digital Account Manager at The Kite Factory, specialising in planning, buying, and strategy in paid social, programmatic display, and paid search, across various charity and commercial clients. She holds accredited MIPA status and is a Media For All (MEFA) Member & Mentor.