Where TikTok's SEO strategy fails

Tik Tok is not a social network but competes with Instagram, Snap, Facebook, & Co for attention. Besides their speedy growth, their SEO strategy fails. In this post, I explain why.

Tik Tok is the Facebook competitor nobody saw coming. Well, kind of...

In Weekly Finds from week 38, I wrote "we officially arrived in the age of sticky algorithms. Tik Tok is not a social network. It doesn’t rely on a people graph to create stickiness. Instead, the algorithm understands users so well that it knows exactly what they want (even more than Youtube)."

In Weekly Finds from week 40, I wrote "Tik Tok’s success is in part rooted in its frictionless loop of content creation, consumption, and sharing. The line between creators is blurred. #prosumer".

Tiktok is an entertainment app - not a social network - and technically a better competitor to Netflix than Instagram (in Weekly Finds #40 I explain why).

However,  social networks and entertainment apps both compete for attention. Reed Hastings from Netflix famously said that sleep is one of their main competitors and he has a point. Attention is where the Netflixes, Spotifies, Facebooks, Snaps, Instagrams, NY Times, Morning Brews and Tik Toks of the world meet.

To learn how Tik Tok approaches organic search as a growth channel, I took a look at Tik Toks SEO performance. I was ... disappointed.

To be fair, Tik Tok's organic traffic is growing.

But it's not even close to Instagram's. The Gram doesn't just have more organic traffic, it also grows faster, which is hard at that scale.

Keep in mind Tik Tok has over 800m worldwide users. Instagram has a billion, so not much more. What's going on here?

To understand, we need to step back and look at what Instagram is doing right.

Instagram's SEO strategy

Instagram understands the SEO challenges of social networks: a massive amount of pages. How do you get those crawled and indexed?

With directories.

Instagram's Homepage links to 3 big directories: locations, top accounts, and hashtags. These directories lead to thousands of subdirectories, each with their own links.Those directories are crawler entry points to help Google find and index (new) content. There is not much user value, it's purely for search engines. However, I'd argue it's a good thing. Google might never find these pages otherwise.

Instagram even has directories for countries and cities. At first, it seems a bit counter-intuitive, but posts and stories have a local component to it. As taxonomy, meaning as a way to catalogue and group information, countries and cities help index a lot more content than just accounts and hashtags.

Good internal linking structures slice and dice available information from many angles. The more inventory (accounts, posts, etc.) you have, the better your taxonomy has to be. Think about it in analytics terms: good taxonomies are like segments or dimensions.

Tik Tok's failure

TikTok has none of that. They have a discover page that's linked in their hamburger menu.

BUT, guess what happens when you disable Javascript. Right. Blank screen.

Google can't crawl and index Tik Tok's content. That's why their organic traffic pales in comparison against Instagram.

What TikTok should do is create static URLs for explore pages by topics, hashtags, accounts, and other taxonomies.

Facebook's dominance

All that being said, nobody beats Facebook.

The social giant is still one of the largest sites in the world, from a total and from an organic traffic perspective. What makes facebook.com so powerful in search is rankings for brands, businesses, and people's names. Everybody has a Facebook page. Let's see if Tik Tok finds a way to replicate that.

Aggregator growth

Aggregators provide a unique value to consumers and/or businesses, which allows them to bundle the demand side of a market and create leverage over the offer side.

The conclusion here is that aggregators need to employ a set of specific growth strategies. One of them is to optimize discovery for users and search engines. By definition, aggregators bundle a ton of information, which is often hard for search engines to crawl and index. Aggregators need good internal linking structures and taxonomies to rank in organic search.