The internet is haunted by the ghosts of search engines past—AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Excite, and Lycos come to mind. Yahoo became the early king of the search hill, and Microsoft made its play with Bing.
However, we all know who rules the sector. To “Google” has become synonymous with online searches, much as “Coke” did with soft drinks and “Band-Aid” with bandages.
While Google is in no danger of following the search engines mentioned above on a slippery downward slope to irrelevance or obscurity, searching via social platforms is causing some significant dents in its armor.
Using search engines like Google and searching via social platforms are becoming more and more alike, although each still has a unique role to play. Search engines are more suited to specific questions, while searching via social media is more ideal for sparking new ideas and matching users with creators and content related to those ideas.
“As TikTok rises as a leading search engine (even taking the place of Google for some), social SEO has become incredibly relevant for brands,” Open Influence Senior Account Manager Daniella Corredor said. “Users are looking to social media for short-form entertainment and specifically using the platforms’ search capabilities to uncover genuine testimonials in order to gain insight on what products are truly worth buying versus those they can live without.”
The rise of searching via social platforms has been particularly striking among shoppers, as Insider Intelligence, via a Jungle Scout survey, found that Generation Z adults in the U.S. were “significantly more likely” to begin online product searches on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.
More research from Insider Intelligence indicated that the percentage of U.S. adults 18 through 64 using traditional search engines such as Google to research potential purchases fell from 69% in August 2019 to 54% in December 2022, while those using social media for that purpose climbed from 20% to 24% over that same period.
Even Google Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan admitted that his company was losing ground, saying at an industry event last year, “In our 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.”
Why Is This Shift Occurring?
Content discovery and consumption by users is what drives social platforms, so all the major ones have introduced and refined search capabilities, enabling those users to look for content, hashtags, profiles, and trending topics, without leaving the application.
Those social platforms also run on algorithms that analyze user behavior and preferences to deliver results that are far more personalized than what search engines can deliver.
The human element is another major advantage for social platforms over search engines, as people are more likely to trust recommendations from creators, family, or friends than from a faceless Google results page, and the connections created by interacting on those platforms stand the test of time.
While results pages on search engines like Google offer some images and videos, social networks are much more visual in nature and often better optimized for the mobile devices people are using to access them.
Content on social networks also reflects real-time updates related to events, news, and trends more quickly than search engines.
What Is Social SEO?
“Social SEO is a response to the shift in consumer behavior to rely on social platforms (primarily TikTok) as a search engine for news and current events, mental health services, tips and tricks, recipes, you name it,” Open Influence Senior Director, Client Success Diana Perlov said.
Social SEO refers to methods used to make content easier to discover by users of social platforms, as while those platforms offer search features, they are not search engines.
Those methods include alt text, captions for images, and closed captions for videos, and they are used to attract the attention of people who are actively searching for content on the platform, and not merely relying on the algorithms populating its feed.
And creators can tap these techniques to enhance their efforts on behalf of brands, bolstering those relationships by optimizing their campaigns and boosting return on investment.
Why brands should be paying attention to social SEO is simple: It allows them to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves how well they know how people on social are speaking about their brand or product and what steps they’re taking to either uphold that strong reputation or overturn negative sentiment.,” Corredor said.
Which Platforms Are Doing It Well?
According to research from Insider Intelligence, the top three platforms for social search by Gen Z users are:
- TikTok, 43% of U.S. Gen Z users and 19% of total adults start searches on it.
- YouTube, 42% and 25%, respectively.
- Instagram, 36% and 19%, respectively.
“While there are several social listening tools out there, all brands would benefit from a quick TikTok search of their brand name and product, which takes less than five minutes,” Corredor said. “Once you do this, take note of the type of content that tends to float to the top. Is the sentiment generally positive or negative? Are there common questions or concerns that consumers are posing that the brand should address head on? Having all this information at your fingertips puts you in the position of power to develop a strategy that uniquely fills these gaps.”
Insider Intelligence said the number of searches by a typical U.S. TikTok user with an iPhone skyrocketed by over 455% between August 2022 and January 2023, from 18 to more than 100, and 74% of people on the platform use its search functionality, citing a report from app data firm Measure Protocol.
And it makes sense: TikTok delivers highly visual, location-based, personalized search results, with snackable short-form video content that is much easier to consume than longer-form fare on YouTube, from creators and real people sharing their opinions on the location, product, or service.
YouTube is the second most popular search engine on the internet, trailing only parent company Google and generating more searches per month than AOL, Ask.com, Bing, and Yahoo combined.
The search expertise of its parent company is a key factor, as is its mobile-friendly app and visual nature. While TikTok has become the go-to for short-form content, people looking for more detailed demonstrations, recommendations, and reviews of products and services gravitate toward the longer-form nature of YouTube.
And Instagram delivers a combination of static images, short-form videos (Reels), and longer-form videos to a massive user base—more than 2.35 billion monthly active users globally.
How Creators Can Help
Creators can work with brands to develop high-quality content that aligns with their messaging and incorporates their target keywords in captions, posts, and video descriptions, sharing that content across multiple social platforms, adding hashtags, and linking back to destinations such as the brand’s website.
The incorporation of keywords helps boost the discoverability of the content, while adding backlinks aids brands’ SEO efforts.
Creators can also help sway search engine algorithms by generating engagement with their content—comments, likes, shares—and maintaining a consistent posting schedule.
Brands and creators can encourage the creation of user-generated content by fans and followers, resulting in authentic content featuring the brands’ products and services.
“Awareness and education are equally important whether you’re showcasing a service or honest product testimonials,” Perlov said. “Brands should pay attention to the search results that populate when searching their brand on TikTok and the other platforms. This is especially true for new product launches or those products battling with negative and inconsistent sentiment.”
For brands that feature brick-and-mortar locations or serve specific areas, creators can take a local approach by tagging those locations in their posts, using location-specific keywords, and taking part in local events and promotions for the brand.
“We’re pitching social SEO to clients as a way to give them control over search results, allowing us to populate the results with relevant and accurate content,” Perlov added. “Ensuring that there is an always-on approach is important so that the brand is constantly flooding search results and isn’t allowing new videos to take the place of our sponsored content over time.”
While traditional search engines like Google are dominated by text and image ads, video ads appear in the search results on social platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, and YouTube.
- Ensure that those videos’ content matches their descriptions to avoid accusations of deceptive content or misinformation.
- Create authentic, helpful content, such as how-tos and tutorials, bearing in mind that most people are not searching for a specific brand, often asking broad questions on how to do or find things.
- Brands’ keyword strategies for their creator-led social content should match those for their website and other points of presence. Incorporate relevant keywords across areas such as image tags, text, and video descriptions. Creators saying the keyword during videos will ensure that it is included in auto-generated captions and in file names, where applicable, also helping discoverability.
- Use alt text, both to make visual content more accessible for impaired users, and to inform platforms’ algorithms on exactly what the content is.
- Subtitles can help ensure that relevant keywords appear on-screen during videos.
- Tagging locations helps content appear in platforms’ location-based features such as Instagram Maps and Snapchat’s Snap Map.
- Brands should ensure that social sharing buttons are present on surfaces such as their blogs and websites.
- Links should be included with content on platforms that facilitate sharing, such as LinkedIn, SlideShare, and YouTube.
- When applicable, ensure that the brand’s business address is included in social profiles, for local search purposes.
- Keep Pinterest in mind, as its users are more search-heavy than those of other platforms.
Corredor said, “It is quite simple to recognize that content that surfaces at the top of the search page tends to come from nano-creators who develop raw, scrappy, ‘shot in your living room’ type content. Think about what you love about TikTok and what the algorithm prioritizes—authentic, green-screen, not overly polished (opposite of sponsored). The last piece is implementing SEO tactics, which will give the content the legs it needs to be recognized in search, such as including relevant text overlays created within the app featuring the product name and keywords. Our pitch to clients is just that: A high volume of nano-creators and raw, testimonial content that is geared to trump audience’s concerns, with clear reasons to buy, optimizing copy and text overlay to boost searchability.”
Boosting Uber’s Rating
Open Influence worked with Uber on a campaign to help change the narrative in sentiment when people searched for Uber One, a $9.99-per-month subscription option for delivery service Uber Eats.
@jvtechtea #ubereatspartner What would you use @uber One for most? An easy order on Uber Eats really helps when I’m super busy! #ubereats #uberone ♬ original sound – Joshua Vergara
“A handful of our clients are extremely savvy and have come to us with the task of helping them mediate the not-so-great sentiment they’re receiving on social,” Corredor said. “By this point, there is typically a strong perception around the product, given multiple people have shared a similar opinion on it, so part of pitching our strategy is employing a high-volume approach, which will help up the chances of blending our efforts into the pool of content that exists on the platform.”
“When we saw inconsistent sentiment around Uber One, we developed a strategy to forge accurate and relevant content to populate when users search, ‘what is Uber One,’ or, ‘Uber One,’ Perlov said. “We activated a high volume of nano-creators to develop authentic testimonials, organically showcasing how Uber One helped them save in their everyday lives.”
Perlov added, “These videos were intentionally less polished—mostly green screen creative purposely meant to have a UGC feel. Consumers loved it, and the search results were repopulated with our content within 24 hours of launch.”
Explore how Open Influence, a leading creator marketing agency, can assist you in harnessing the potential of social search and optimizing your social SEO strategy.