10.2 C
New York
Sunday, April 14, 2024

I Spent a Week Using Only TikTok for Search

Google is reportedly in “code red” mode, deploying resources and calling in its cofounders to address perceived threats to its extremely dominant search engine. The threat du jour is ChatGPT—an AI-powered large language model that is also helping us write term papers and poetry, draft regulations, and make medical diagnoses. But there’s another car coming up the rear in the search race. That is TikTok.

TikTok for search? you might ask. How could a twitchy video app filled with dancing teens, cat memes, food hacks, and cringey stunts help you find a financial adviser or a train timetable, or even search results for yourself? It depends on what your interpretation of “search” is, but if you’re seeking less specific, more entertaining results—a search process more akin to social discovery—then TikTok is making a strong play. In 2021, content delivery network Cloudflare reported that Tiktok.com had overtaken Google as the world’s most visited web domain. And last year a senior vice president of search at Google noted that 40 percent of young internet users are regularly turning to TikTok or Instagram for search. (TikTok has not responded to inquiries about search trends.) 

Further evidence: When I shared in a WIRED Slack channel that I would try using TikTok search for a week, two younger colleagues who are generationally distinct from me said, fwiw, they also search for nearly everything on TikTok. So on a recent Tuesday I opened up TikTok and began my experiment, with the quick touchscreen typing of mild desperation.

Day One

I’m not what you would call super active on TikTok. I follow a few dozen people, and I’ve posted one video (cat). At times I have been sucked into the vortex of the app’s For You page, which shows videos that TikTok’s algorithm has determined I might like. Part of the reason why I don’t use the app much is due to security and privacy concerns. TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, recently admitted that some of its workers had accessed the location data of American journalists to try to identify their sources (i.e. spied on them). Even with this knowledge, I still have a TikTok account, because I test a lot of apps. 

My colleagues’ use of TikTok search intrigues me. It felt like there was a slight divide before because of age, but now it is a wide yawn, and they are on the side of oxygen intake and I am on the tired side. Was my story already old? The facts that I was post-college when Google went public, or that I was in the room when Steve Ballmer shouted “Bing it!” and revealed Microsoft’s new search engine, give me absolutely no cred here.

The first thing I search for is how to pair an AirTag, a gift bestowed upon me because of my habit of losing my keys. TikTok delivers here. I am able to watch the top video in results, 31 seconds long, without ever having to scroll through the dozens of other videos in results. And because it’s a living thumbnail, I don’t even have to tap on the video to hear its audio. It’s quick and easy. This is going to be fun.

Day Two

I wake up and remember I have a job that involves lots of thorough online searches. I open TikTok and search for specific information about Apple’s business, like the number of employees who work in Apple’s retail stores. I can’t seem to find the answer there, but I do discover a couple of helpful hacks (how to write off your $1,100 iPhone on your taxes so you’re paying only half) and parodies of Apple Store interactions (the “employee” apologizes for an hour-long wait time, six people are currently being helped, and there are only 90 employees).

My editor says, quite literally, “Let me Google that for you.” TikTok, it turns out, is not a portal to 10-K reports on SEC.gov. It’s a portal to more TikTok. 

Later that day I open TikTok again, and it recommends an account called “oldloserinbrooklyn,” particularly this person’s 2023 predictions, the top of which is “more print magazines closing.” I am not making this up. 

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

Before bed, I browse lazily on TikTok for things that I suspect, with no real evidence, might make life better. Things like running, or hair serums, or SSRIs. I’m aware at this point that I’m participating in a massive mind-meld experiment, and have been for a decade or more: I am searching for these topics on a social media app because my psyche was rinsed with them, somewhere along the way, on a social media app. Now my searches are putting it all through another rinse cycle. I watch a few TikToks in which people describe their “brain zaps.” I’ve never heard of this and am tempted to Google it, but instead I go to sleep.

Day Three

I want to give up on this stupid experiment. Instead I vow to try using it as an actual utility and search for things like “how to get a tea stain out” or “how to cook zucchini noodles.” The noodles are awful, but that’s because they’re zucchini noodles, not because of TikTok. 

Day Four

I write again to a TikTok public relations person hoping they’ll answer some questions I have about search. They are slow to respond. I must admit that by now I’m using Google again. I am poly-searcherous.

Day Five

It’s Saturday, and I decide to use TikTok search to find a local restaurant for a friend’s birthday dinner. This is a true test: to see if TikTok could possibly replace Google Maps or even Yelp. Another time, I had searched for “best coffee near me” and TikTok showed me a video of a coffee shop in Koreatown, Los Angeles, which is not near me.

My friend is vegan, so I search for “vegan San Francisco restaurants.” I’m surprised by the robustness of the results, but in this instance it’s more annoying to watch a videoclip about a restaurant than it is to skim some reviews. Some are ads. I also don’t entirely trust some of the reviewers-slash-wannabe-influencers. 

We decide on pizza, but fancy pizza, at a restaurant with a name that sounds like a venture capital firm. During dinner, I use TikTok to search for “caciocavallo” and learn that it’s a type of cheese, though I don’t bother to watch a video to learn more about its properties. My friend orders a pesce-vegan pie, while I order one with caciocavallo and mushroom, and it’s delicious. I realize my TikTok search journey is morphing into a Grub Street diary, and I’m fine with this. 

Day Six

Today I try to stay off TikTok. I run a short road race in the morning. I read a book in the evening. I am free. 

In between the road race and the dead-tree book, I grab breakfast with friends, one of whom has written a story about Google search. Google has been adding more visual features—and an infinite scroll effect—to search, an obvious ploy to pull in more users from Generation TikTok. One might argue that Google should first tweak its search results so that the top several entries aren’t ads, but I digress.

Day Seven

TikTok’s search prowess hits its limits for me today. I search for a breaking news event and am shown breaking news reports repurposed as TikTok videos with some text over them, but I’m left wanting more. I don’t trust the veracity of some of them. I search for a vocabulary word: haecceity. I am not actually expecting to find the definition. Someone on TikTok has an account with that name, but I’m no closer to understanding what it means. 

I turn to Google. Haecceity is “thisness,” or according to FreeDictionary.com, the essence that makes something the kind of thing it is and makes it different from any other. 

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

Search tools each have their own particular haecceity. There is the underlying function of search, but any individual app might be coated in ads, or experiences, or cheeky videos, or social connections, or linguistics, or personalization, or the relatively new promises of automation. These individualities, though, are becoming interlinked, not only because they’re “borrowing” design features from each other but because under the hood they’re all being powered by an increasingly ferocious AI machine. If the first two decades of search were supposed to serve you, this next era of search is supposed to understand you. It’s writing for you.

I ask TikTok for more information about its search operations, such as how personalized its search results are supposed to be and where exactly user search data is being stored, and for how long. I don’t hear back. 

By day seven, I’m obviously ready to give up TikTok as my primary search tool. But I’ve also discovered some surprising utility in the app, enough that I’ll probably turn to it again. As I write this, I open TikTok to the all-knowing FYP, the For You page. It’s showing me a video of a cat that wakes its owner too early in the morning, exactly the way mine does.

Related Articles

Latest Articles