How the TikTok algorithm works: Everything you need to know
We read TikTok’s creator guidelines and newsroom documentation, so you don’t have to. Learn the lowdown on TikTok and how brands can use it.
Since its initial release in 2016, TikTok has become the fastest-growing social media platform.
If you’re looking to learn more about the popular short-form video app and how your brand can use it, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’re sharing everything we learned – along with insights from the TikTokers well-versed in increasing views, engaging users and growing a following.
Find out how the TikTok algorithm works, what you need to do to create a winning video, and decide whether TikTok can benefit your brand.
In this article:
- What is the TikTok algorithm?
- What is the For You feed?
- How does the TikTok algorithm work?
- Keywords and the TikTok algorithm
- TikTok SEO and Google
- TikTok algorithm myths debunked
- What the algorithm won’t show
- 7 tips for working with the TikTok algorithm and going viral
- Why brands should care about TikTok
What is the TikTok algorithm?
The TikTok algorithm is a recommendation system that determines the videos you see on your app. Like any good algorithm, it works to bring relevant content that you enjoy based on your interests.
Recommendation systems are used all around us in the digital world and not new. Many platforms, including Netflix, use them to deliver you the content you like the most.
The purpose of a recommendation system is to share content that users like based on their preferences and those of people in similar demographics.
The TikTok recommendation system and algorithm centers around the “For You” page.
What is the For You feed?
The For You feed (a.k.a., For You page or FYP) is a curated stream of videos, a unique and tailored feed to the user’s interests.
Although TikTok users will see the same videos, your FYP is totally unique and curated only for you.
When you open the app, you land on this feed first. The great news is that you can curate your own FYP by interacting with the app.
When you first join TikTok, your FYP will likely be curated by the interests within your demographic based on the information you gave (i.e., age, gender and interests).
It’ll be a broad approach until you show TikTok what you want to see more of.
Let’s take a look at the actions that influence the algorithm.
How does the TikTok algorithm work?
TikTok documentation states three core factors that influence the algorithm:
- User interactions.
- Video information.
- Device and account settings.
1. Factor: User interactions
User interaction includes actions that users take on a particular video. These interactions can be negative or positive.
A positive interaction will cause the app to show you more of the same, and a negative interaction will do the opposite. More on negative actions and their impact on “What the algorithm won’t show.”
Positive interactions include engagements like:
- Posting a comment.
- Following an account.
- Liking a video.
- Video watch time.
As a creator, knowing how the TikTok algorithm works means that you know what to ask from your viewers to increase the right sort of engagement.
User interactions in practice
User engagements are certainly a factor in the algorithm, and TikTokers know it.
The TikTok algorithm got it right when it put the below viral video on my FYP a few weeks ago. I don’t engage with TikTok videos very often, but I did like the below video and left a comment about how wholesome the content was. I didn’t want to follow the creator, but I enjoyed the brief interaction.
The video amassed 785,200 links, 9060 comments, 76,900 saves and 5,579 shares. Most impressively, the video has 6,000,000 views.
Thanks to my like and comment, when the creator made a second, similar/follow-up video, it landed on my FYP.
The second video didn’t quite have the same magic, but the virality of video one certainly helped the creator’s second video land in the right places based on previous user interaction.
To TikTok’s credit, there seems to be a level of trust in the TikTok algorithm.
On some of the most engaging videos – or videos made in a series – you’ll often see comments like, “Trusting the algorithm to bring me back.”
TikTokers might comment something like this when they want to show the algorithm that they’re interested in the content but (perhaps) don’t want to follow the creator.
In the video below, a creator reminds viewers they can hit the follow instead of trusting the algorithm. A follow is a desirable action for creators as it almost guarantees the user will see more of their content.
@molzysketch its there for a reason guys 🤨 #tiktokartist #tiktokart #handsofthedsmp ♬ Luna, amore e no – Piero Piccioni
How to encourage user interactions
As a creator, you want to encourage user interactions. You can achieve this by creating great content, but you can inspire meaningful action from passive viewers with a call to action.
TikToker Tyla Brimblecombe from Styla Socials explains the importance of a call to action in her TikTok.
@stylasocials 3 more quick points in the comments 🤌🏼 Send this to someone who would benefit from this 🤍 #tiktokcontentcreator #viraltips #growontiktok ♬ In a French Cafe – Relaxing Piano Waltz – Classical Piano Music Masters
- “We all know the most important metric on TikTok is watch time… someone is scrolling on the For You feed, they see your video, they like it, they make it all the way to the end. When they see your call to action, ‘take a look at my other videos,’ they click on your profile, they check out your other videos, which lets TikTok know your content is valuable and is going to push your content out to a wider audience.”
2. Factor: Video information
According to TikTok documentation, video information includes:
- Video descriptions
- Text overlays
Video information in practice
TikTok is well known for its association with trending sounds. With a trending sound, the TikTok algorithm can identify a group of people who are likely to engage with a video based on previous user interactions. If a user watches a video to the end each time a certain sound is used, they are likely enjoying the content and want to see more of it.
It’s important to note that trending sounds are not just viral dances. Brands can use sounds to get fast visibility to a wider audience.
Kristyn Higginson, Skinician’s TikTok creator, says:
- “Creating ‘viral’ content seemed challenging in the early days as a lot of the trending music wasn’t available for business accounts. The way around this was to opt for trending sounds when we wanted to create relatable, relevant content for the platform. This meant, as a brand, we leaned into trends without any copyright infringement. This might be a useful tactic for other small brands in the early stages of content creation on the platform.”
With early adoption of a trending sound, Skincian’s most viral video received 50,900 views, 2,142 likes, and 40 engaged comments. The video introduced the brand to their TikTok audience.
@skinician Get to know us! ☘️👏🏼 #skinician #skincare #localbrand #beautytok #skincaretok ♬ เสียงต้นฉบับ – [FS]ICHIGO_TH 🎗️🇰🇷 – 「 saijoutakato7 」°• ⚘
TikTok creators are finding that video information contributes significantly to video success.
Kate Smoothy from Web Hive Digital is a TikTok creator.
Smoothy shares that captions, hashtags, and video descriptions are a core part of her strategy. She says:
- “I can’t express enough how much you have to caption your videos. This is essential for those without hearing but for those who prefer to scroll through TikTok without the sound on. You’ll significantly reduce your audience size and reach without captions. There has never been a better time to include keywords in your TikTok descriptions. We’re seeing a huge shift with the platform where videos optimized for their search feature seem to perform better.”
Smoothy credits the inclusion of video information tactics with the success of her “super low effort marketing hack video.”
@webhivedigital Not enough people know about this super low effort marketing hack to get interactive video on your website. I’ve got it on mine 👀👀👀 #websitetips #websitetipsandtricks #digitalmarketing #marketingtips #websitesyouneedtoknow ♬ original sound – Kate Smoothy | Websites & SEO
The video has 92,400 views, and amassed 5,913 likes, 91 comments, and 740 shares.
The keywords used in the video description, within the text overlay and within the video description have communicated to TikTok what the video is about. This resulted in the video ‘ranking’ for the search term ‘marketing hack’ and ‘marketing tips’ within TikTok’s search feature.
How to use video information
The top tip from TikTok experts is to conduct keyword research using the TikTok app, then use keywords in your video, captions and hashtags.
@socialby.lu Take advantage of the search bar results to see what others are looking for and create content to attract the right audience, make your account relevant, get more views and more followers! This is the easiest way to create a TikTok strategy aligned with your niche and according to the platform’s enhanced SEO! #tiktokseo #tiktokcontentideas #contentcreatortips2022 #growyourtiktok #socialmediastrategist #ugccreator #socialmediatipsandtricks #greenscreen ♬ Hold Me Closer – Elton John & Britney Spears
3. Factor: Device and account settings
TikTok is clear that device and account settings receive lower weight in the algorithm.
Some of the more obvious factors include language preference and country setting. It makes sense that users want to see videos in the language they speak.
TikTok also includes device type in its algorithm. They may prefer to show you videos that your device can play seamlessly since this would lead to a positive user experience for people using older phones or smaller screens.
Keywords and the TikTok algorithm
In recent months there has been a lot of talk from TikTokers about a change in the TikTok algorithm and how TikTok now prioritizes keywords.
If you search “TikTok Algorithm Change,” you’ll find people saying a lot of the same thing – TikTok SEO is becoming more prevalent.
@coach.alexrob NEW algorithm changes for TikTok! If you are a business owner or content creator, in this video I break down all the new changes happening to TikTok, you definitely want to make sure you are using some of the key features such as SEO, improved analytics and making your content longer form. #tiktokforbusiness #tiktokforcreators #socialmediaforbusiness #tiktokseo ♬ Trap Sax – Nish
Interestingly, TikTok doesn’t seem to mention “keywords” in relation to their algorithm anywhere in their documentation.
But that doesn’t mean that keywords aren’t important.
It’s no coincidence that TikTok increased video descriptions to 2,200 characters. In their announcement via the app, TikTok did say:
“Increased characters gives creators a chance to ‘generate engagement while becoming more searchable and better recommended by TikTok to viewers.”
TikTok also mentions captions and hashtags, which both contribute to FYP.
Captions and hashtags are words that help contextualize videos. If captions are a contributing factor, it suggests that words – or keywords – contribute to the TikTok algorithm.
We also know that TikTok users can limit content based on keywords (more on that later).
TikTok SEO and Google
To further explore TikTok SEO and how this transpires on the world’s most loved search platform, Google. We ran some tests to explore Google’s indexation of TikTok videos.
When you search for “TikTok recipes” on Google, you’d expect to return TikTok videos. But what we found was the contrary.
Google prioritized websites sharing TikTok’s viral recipe trends. TikTok ranked with a tag page in the eighth search position. Considering the relevancy to the search term, this isn’t an overly strong rank.
In the Video results, TikTok ranked sixth below five YouTube videos. It makes sense that Google would prioritize its owned channel, YouTube, above TikTok.
It is worth noting that videos featured in the TikTok recipes tag all featured the hashtag #recipes in the caption. Captions help the TikTok algorithm sort videos by topic and could even boost visibility via Google search.
As shown in the screenshot, the caption includes the hashtag #recipes, suggesting that keywords are relevant to the TikTok algorithm.
So, what does this mean?
- Creators should use relevant keywords in their captions and hashtags.
- According to TikTok documentation, captions and hashtags are contributing to the TikTok algorithm.
- For increased visibility in Google, consider sharing your video on other platforms, like YouTube Shorts.
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TikTok algorithm myths debunked
Let's clear up some commonly held misconceptions about TikTok.
Myth: You need to post daily
Posting 1-3 TikTok videos daily is a common recommendation for new TikTokers. However, TikTok's guidelines make it clear that it's not required for growth.
That said, it may be useful to test different videos. TikTok's documentation advises that experimenting with videos you share and posting quality content is more useful to keep an audience engaged.
Myth: Creators in the TikTok Creator Fund get more discoverability
The good news is: you do not need to be in the creator fund to increase your chances of discoverability.
Those in the TikTok Creator Fund are more likely to earn increased engagement, but this is because these TikTokers know how to create great content that engages the community.
Myth: TikTok is only for short-form videos
Although TikTok started as an app with seven-second videos, the maximum video length has since increased.
Within the app, you can create videos that are 15 seconds, 60 seconds, or three minutes long.
Alternatively, you can create extended videos and upload them to the TikTok app.
TikTok doesn’t mention longer videos earning favor in the algorithm, but they do seem to be sharing reasons why longer videos are engaging with creators.
@rachforaday make longer videos to get more views - it's not me saying it - it's the algorithm ! #tiktoktips #socialmediatips #makelongertiktoks #tiktokhacks #getmoreviews ♬ longer TikToks getting more views - Rach • Social SEO Expert
What the algorithm won’t show
To give TikTok credit, it's taking action to safeguard and diversify recommendations in the FYP.
With a recommendation system, it would be easy for TikTok to become repetitive, showing only similar videos. Equally, it could be easy for TikTok to show unwanted content to its viewers.
TikTok is taking measures to make TikTok a better place for everyone. Here's what TikTok won't show in the FYP.
TikTok says that too much of anything can get tiresome.
For this reason, TikTok won’t show duplicate content in the FYP. Plus, diversifying the FYP keeps users exposed to a range of ideas and perspectives.
Potentially problematic clusters
The TikTok algorithm works to deliver the platform’s mission to inspire creativity and bring joy.
To achieve this, TikTok avoids recommending similar content around potentially problematic subjects such as extreme dieting or fitness, sadness, or breakups.
TikTok wants to protect its users from viewing content that may cause distress if viewed together but might be okay as a single video.
This type of restriction is positively compounded by the “not interested” and “keyword filtering” features.
Content marked ‘Not interested’
TikTok lets users control what they want or don't want to see on the platform.
Viewers can press and hold the screen on any TikTok video and select any of the following options:
- Save video: A positive video engagement indicator for the algorithm.
- Clear mode: View videos without usernames and captions, etc.
- Report: This action indicates that a video goes against TikTok's Community Guidelines and must be addressed.
- Not interested: This tells the TikTok algorithm that you, as a viewer, don't like a particular piece of content. In return, you will see less of it.
If a viewer clicks "Not interested," you can expect this to influence the algorithm and their FYP.
Content including filtered keywords
Users can tell TikTok what they don't want to see by heading to the menu in the top right and navigating to Settings and privacy > Content preferences > Filter video keywords.
Here, you can add keywords and filter videos from users you're following and/or the FYP.
Content created by those under 18
In its commitment to keeping the app a safe place for all, TikTok introduced measures to protect its younger users.
Children or teenagers under 18 can't feature content on the Explore feed – meaning their content and profiles are not so easy for other TikTok users to come across.
7 tips for working with the TikTok algorithm and going viral
Some top TikTok creators provide some best practices for creating video content that might gain the algorithm's favor.
Tip 1: Switch to a TikTok Pro account
TikTok Pro Accounts provide more detailed analytics to creators.
By creating one, you'll be able to see insights on:
- Weekly and monthly views.
- Follower growth.
- Trending videos.
If you're a lover of in-depth analytics, this might be for you.
But it's important to note that TikTok's guidance advises against creating content primarily around analytics. Instead, think of the bigger picture when creating content.
Tip 2: Find your niche
Finding a niche on TikTok gives you a greater understanding of the bigger picture.
If you know what niche you fall into, you can explore topics using the search bar and see exactly which videos perform well, so you can recreate something like them.
@secretsocialari You Just Need To Learn The Right Way! #tiktokgrowth #tiktokgrowthtips #socialmediatips #viraltiktok ♬ Lookmeinmyeyes - Iloveslowedmusic🧸
Tip 3: Use the right hashtags, add captions and write video descriptions
Keywords clearly have advantages, as shared above.
Remember to opt for hashtags highly relevant to your video or niche for a chance to feature in the top lists for keywords.
@brooklynsocial.co How to find trending hashtags for your niche @Brooklyn Social | TikTok Coach @Brooklyn Social | TikTok Coach #trendinghashtags #socialmediacoaching #marketingtips ♬ original sound - Brooklyn Social | TikTok Coach
Tip 4: Use trending sounds and music
No matter how much the algorithm changes, music and trending sounds are likely to have a place on the TikTok platform.
Remember, trending sounds and music aren't always about voiceovers and viral dance moves.
You can use them to introduce your brand, make them relatable in your niche and stand out.
Tip 5: Create high-quality videos
TikTok’s editing tools allow users to create and edit eye-catching, high-quality videos within the app.
TikTok creators express the importance of creating engagement early on, so try to edit your videos in a way that captures the user's attention in the first three seconds.
@jimmy_talbert 9 video hook templates. #marketing #socialmediamarketing #videomarketingtips #tiktokmarketing ♬ Shout Out (No Vox) - Chris Alan Lee
Tip 6: Engage with other TikTok users
Your comment section is a trove of video ideas! And you can reply to comments with a video.
This feature puts your reply in the comment section in video format.
You can bet other commenters have the same questions, so they're likely to click through and join you in your next video.
Tip 7: Publish a series
Somewhat contrary to the long-form video format, shorter videos in series can still be effective.
Henry Purchase from A Couple Things To Do has grown a TikTok following to 193,000 followers. Purchase shares destination and activities for couples. He says:
- “We post several videos of the same activity, uncovering more information each time - this keeps people coming back for more. For example, at first, we didn’t post the location of our most popular video. Once it had gained popularity we used comments we got to create more content. Therefore reusing content and engaging with our audience.”
@acouplethingstodo Replying to @metaltirana_al our most popular question answered! Have you guys been? ✌🏻 #milan #fyp #italy #qctermemilano #stormroom #travelcouple #acouplethingstodo #traveltips ♬ original sound - Ian Asher
Why brands should care about TikTok
Love it or hate it, TikTok is standing the test of time as its generous algorithm lends itself well to fast growth.
With a little commitment, brands can reach thousands of people in no time.
Although high-quality videos are preferred, simple to-the-camera videos can earn just as much visibility.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.