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
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 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 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
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.