Can TikTok Beat YouTube at Its Own Game? A Look at TikTok’s SEO Strategy

Ryan Bednar

Ryan Bednar

09 / 23 / 2020

Can TikTok Beat YouTube at Its Own Game? A Look at TikTok’s SEO Strategy

Ryan Bednar

09 / 23 / 2020

TikTok’s presence has exploded on search engines. So why is it that when you search for TikTok influencer content, you find only YouTube videos and Instagram accounts at the top of the results?

App-first companies can learn from TikTok’s smart search engine optimization (SEO) tactics that open up the platform to web crawlers. The problem is, Google refuses to reward the efforts of content competitors.

In this breakdown of TikTok’s SEO wins and fails, we’re investigating the mystery of why TikTok content isn’t rising to the top of search engine result pages (SERPs). We’ll examine what TikTok is doing right and what they could be doing better, and we’ll consider a prime suspect responsible for the murder of TikTok’s chances of rising to the number one spot. (Hint: the suspect’s name rhymes with “schmoogle”.)

TikTok is getting (some) visibility on Google, thanks to indexing and backlinks

Google search for tiktok shows millions of results

If you do a quick site query on Google, TikTok now has 27.8 million pages indexed for search engine result pages. That wasn’t the case in 2018, when TikTok made its social video app for iOS and Android accessible to users outside of China.

Although the app boasted over 100 million users upon its release to global markets in August of 2018, TikTok’s search engine presence was fewer than 35,000 organic keyword results. That’s because TikTok was exclusively for mobile users, whose content was gated.

But all that changed when, in January of 2020, TikTok opened user accounts to search engine crawlers.

This Ahrefs overview shows that TikTok ranked within the top 100 for around 1.3 million organic search results in December of 2019. A respectable presence, to be sure, but not world-dominating (yet).

Ahrefs overview of organic keywords

Ahrefs shows that TikTok ranked as a top 100 organic result for over 6.2 million keyword searches by May 2020. That’s a 376% leap in search engine presence in fewer than six months.

Ahrefs overview of organic keywords for TikTok as of May 2020

Ahrefs also reveals that incoming links from other sites (aka backlinks) have also skyrocketed from 20 million in January of 2020 to over 265 million in September of 2020, with a historical high of 380 million backlinks.

Ahrefs report showing millions of backlinks for TikTok

Many of the backlinks are no doubt due to media attention over the standoff between Donald Trump and TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. As of this writing, Oracle beat out Walmart and Microsoft to strike a deal with ByteDance for its U.S. assets.

But the future of TikTok U.S. is far from certain. A ban on TikTok from app stores looms ever closer while President Trump essentially holds the company hostage. His latest (illegal) stipulations are based on donating money to the U.S. government to further his ideological agendas.

Backlinks for TikTok mostly lead to influencer pages
The highlighted backlinks are to TikTok influencers. Note: we at RankScience are old and have no idea who these people are.

Regardless of the headlines, Ahrefs reveals that the vast majority of TikTok backlinks and search results are URLs linked to user accounts. No surprise, since TikTok’s popularity is driven by influencers. 

The dramatic growth trajectory shows that TikTok has a lot to teach mobile apps about getting search engine traffic. But they also have a long way to go: SEO consultant Yvo Schaap, whose insightful tweetstorm inspired this post, observed: “Of the 4M keywords TikTok is ranking on, only 40K are in a top 3 spot. Spot checking influencers shows TikTok is not yet beating Instagram, Facebook, Youtube in Google.”

Let’s examine why TikTok’s presence on Google signals a major shift for mobile-first SEO, what SEO methods they’re using, and what they can improve to start beating out their biggest competitors for top-ranking positions.

Why TikTok’s search engine presence is important

If you’re marketing a mobile app, adopting an SEO strategy like TikTok’s early on could mean the difference between fading into the app-store background and rising to popularity:

chart showing top methods of being discovered in the app store
Source
  1. Search engines provide a major traffic source for mobile apps. With 21% of people looking for mobile apps on search engines and 32% discovering them through backlinks in articles, SEO is essential to mobile-app marketing.
  2. Google loves mobile. If you’re already publishing mobile-first content, Google wants to find and prioritize you. Google announced that they’re now ranking mobile-optimized content ahead of desktop-only content. That’s because most Google searches are happening on mobile devices.
  3. Most mobile apps are slow/reluctant to adopt SEO marketing tactics. Despite the shift of search engine usage from desktop to mobile, many native smartphone apps still don’t optimize user-generated content for web searches. Instagram, for example, blocks search engines from indexing images — much to the chagrin of marketers everywhere.
  4. User-generated content (UGC) boosts SEO. The Google algorithm is focused on matching results to user intent. While keywords and backlinks are still a major part of its ranking system, Google’s crawlers crave new, relevant content to index. The more your users create and share content, the more attractive your site will be to web crawlers. But at least some of that content needs to be visible.

All of these factors are like a neon sign pointing to a huge opportunity for native social apps like TikTok: take advantage of Google’s hunger for mobile content and Instagrams’s disdain for indexable images. If your users are generating their own content, give them privacy-setting options, and open your platform to web crawlers.

If TikTok plays its cards right, their SEO tactics can lead the way for more mobile-app companies to explode into the search engine rankings.

But TikTok’s video content is still invisible to Google. Why?

Here’s a mystery to solve: The Case of the Missing Makeup Tutorial.

Meet Brazilian makeup artist Letícia Gomes. With 5.4 million TikTok followers, Gomes is a TikTok superstar.

@leticiafgomes

Me transformei no Superman (Henry Calvin) 🦸🏻‍♂️ #superman #dc #dcfandome @sky_brasil

♬ som original – Letícia Gomes

The TikTok above is just one of the hundreds of makeup transformations that have captivated her followers. This one features Gomes using makeup to become Henry Cavill as Superman.

And if you look for this video on Google, you won’t see it anywhere. (Cue Law and Order music)

That isn’t to say you won’t find Letícia on Google. When you search for “Letícia Gomes,” here’s what you’ll find on the first page of results on mobile:

google search of leticia gomes

A carousel of YouTube videos appear at the top of the page, followed by an image carousel, and . . . what’s this? Her YouTube channel? Where she has 380K subscribers? Interesting. You’d think her TikTok channel, with over 5 million followers, would be a more relevant result.

Frankly, the prevalence of the YouTube content on this SERP is redundant. It undermines the user experience by pushing content from one source instead of offering a variety of sources.
screenshot of leticia gomes' youtube account on a google search results page

In the web page results, the link to her TikTok account ranks at number 2. The first result is her Instagram account, where she has 3.1 million followers. Not bad. But it’s lost under the overwhelming presence of YouTube snippets at the top of the SERP.

screenshot of leticia gomes' instagram account on a Google search results page

When you search for “Letícia Gomes TikTok Superman makeup” — a long-tail keyword phrase indicating specific user intent — here’s what you see in the mobile results:

google results for leticia gomes tikok superman makeup

  • Several irrelevant YouTube videos
  • A link to Gomes’s TikTok user account (but no direct link to the Superman makeup video)
  • An image search (the first image of Gomes and Henry Cavill links to an article on a blog)
  • A blog post on a clickbait site with a bunch of spammy ads

Despite the clear user intent of the query, there’s no direct link from the first SERP to her Superman video on TikTok. Nor is it on the first page of video search results.

Whodunit? TikTok or Google?

Considering Google’s emphasis on matching search results to user intent, this appears to be a big fail on Google’s part. Monopolizing video search real estate with irrelevant YouTube content is antithetical to its own user-experience-first policies.

Since Google is notoriously opaque about how it prioritizes video content, there are two possible explanations for the lack of direct links to TikTok content from SERPs:

  • Hypothesis 1: Google is purposely suppressing video content that isn’t YouTube. Not out of the realm of possibilities. A June 2020 Wall Street Journal report showed that Google puts YouTube content ahead of identical, more popular videos from Facebook and other video platforms.
  • Hypothesis 2: TikTok’s SEO tactics fall short in making user-generated content accessible to web crawlers.While we can’t prove or disprove the former explanation, we can analyze TikTok’s SEO tactics to see whether the latter explanation is valid.

TikTok’s SEO tactics (aka “TakTiks”?): what’s working and what needs work

Regardless of Google’s reported roadblocks to video content visibility, TikTok has proved to be up to the challenge by optimizing the shareability of videos and discoverability of user accounts.

TikTok’s SEO strategy can be broken down into two main goals:

  • Make it easy for people to share content.
  • Make it easy for web crawlers to find user accounts.

Here are some tactics TikTok is using to accomplish these goals (plus a tactic they can adopt to take their SEO even further).

Embeddable widgets for easy sharing

TikTok uses embeddable widgets to drive backlinks, similar to how Airbnb drives traffic with embeddable listings.

screenshot of tiktok's widget for embedding video

Source

This is a risky move because Google has taken a stance against keyword-rich, hidden, or low-quality links embedded in widgets. But as long as it’s not too spammy, this can be a scalable way to grow links.

Links optimized for easy indexing

TikTok’s link attributes (title and language tags) are optimized for maximum indexability.

https://www.tiktok.com/@leticiafgomes/video/6842419729706028293?lang=en

The link above leads to another Letícia Gomes video (in this one, she transforms into Olaf from Frozen). Notice that it’s a simple URL with a language tag (hreflang=en) optimized for English.

screenshot of leticia gomes' frozen video on Instagram

Changing the language attribute to Spanish (hreflang=es) sends you to the Spanish version of the page.

https://www.tiktok.com/@leticiafgomes/video/6842419729706028293?lang=es

screenshot of leticia gomes' tiktok video based on Frozen

“Every single username and video, individual song and UG tag is indexable in Google,” Yvo Schaap tweeted. “And for each url, they provide 16 (!) hreflang language/country variations.”

TikTok is clearly signaling to Google that it (TikTok) not only wants its user content to show up in search results but also wants users to easily find TikTok content no matter which language they search with or country they’re searching from.

Oh, and, by the way? If you search for the Spanish-language version of the Leticia Gomes TikTok account in Google, look what you see in the search results:

Screenshot of a google search for leticia gomes in spanish

A search result page blissfully free of YouTube clutter and direct video preview links to her TikTok content.

This tells us that prioritizing YouTube results in English-language searches is a deliberate choice on Google’s part.

Mystery solved?

Dynamic rendering to make indexing even easier

If Google’s not playing fair, TikTok needs to make their content irresistible to web crawlers so they know relevant content when they see it, and then rank it accordingly.

One problem: like many social platforms where content changes rapidly, TikTok is built with JavaScript, which is difficult for Google’s web crawlers to process.

Dynamic rendering essentially publishes a more palatable, non-JavaScript version of your content for web crawlers so they can more quickly and easily index your site. The easier your content is to digest, the more likely web crawlers will come back for more and push your content higher in the results. Google has gotten a lot better at indexing pages with JavaScript-generated HTML content, but if your page takes longer than 5 seconds to load (which it never should!), this can cause issues.

Yvo Schaap thinks dynamic rendering may be the key to TikTok achieving more top 10 and top 3 spots on SERP.

“[T]o discover any relevant content links, Google must render the page first,” he tweeted. “Seems like a quick win to add dynamic-rendering . . .”

Twitter uses dynamic rendering for user-generated content like tweets. Relevant posts appear at the top of SERPs within days of tweets going live. Here’s what happens when you search for Yvo Schaap’s tweet about TikTok’s SEO:

screenshot of google search for yvo schaap tiktok

The tweet, which was published a little over a month before this writing, sits proudly at the number two spot.

Can TikTok’s content reach the top position?

We’ll have to see if Google cracks down on TikTok’s SEO tactics in an attempt to protect their own property monopoly on SERPs. Regardless of Google dominating video content, if you have a mobile-first app, take a cue from TikTok, and optimize your in-app content to drive traffic and boost app downloads.

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