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Marketers are going to have to wait for search advertising on TikTok

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editor’s note: this story has been updated after TikTok incorrectly told Digiday it did not have an ad format to sell search against. In fact, there are several that it is currently testing. The article has been changed accordingly. 

The long wait for search advertising on TikTok looks set to continue indefinitely. 

When those search ads materialize remains to be seen. They’re being tested, but it doesn’t sound like TikTok is completely happy with what it has so far — at least not enough to build any bonafide ad products.

“It’s really interesting that people are coming to TikTok and searching for information, but we are currently in the testing stages for ad format to sell against search,” Kris Boger, general manager, U.K., global business solutions at TikTok told Digiday, who added that search isn’t a focus for the platform at the moment.

Advertisers can buy ad inventory that appears alongside searches, but it’s not like Google where marketers can bid on specific keywords and phrases related to their products or services. Instead, marketers can only create a blocklist of keywords that they want to avoid, letting the algorithm, video descriptions and content match ads with audience searches.

Simply put, search advertising on TikTok is an abstract concept — one that has almost come as an afterthought to a natural evolution in the way people use the app. Sure, TikTok is known for entertaining the masses with its viral dance videos and comedy skits. But for younger people, the video app is increasingly a search engine too. They’re using the algorithm, which personalizes the videos they see based on what they watch, to source information attuned to their tastes.

In fact, last year at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech event, Prabhakar Raghavan, senior vice president at Google said that the tech giant’s internal data found that about 40% of young people use TikTok and Instagram for search, rather than Google.

Moreover, 14% of Gen Z said they use TikTok to research a major news event, compared to just 1% of other generations, according to data published in February 2023 from Morning Consult

Selling ads on the back of those searches can be a profitable game — as Google has shown over the years. It’s only natural that TikTok would want to try its hand at it. In fact, search ads are still listed as part of its “2023 Platform Priorities” in TikTok’s recent pitch deck. And given it’s already five months into the year, perhaps it’s something that’s coming in the second half of 2023. Though Boger didn’t specify a specific timeline as to when it will come to fruition.

“There are so many things around it [search] that are interesting, which we haven’t yet built ad products against,” he continued.

But it looks like TikTok has some time to finesse its search product to win those ad dollars. For now, marketers are still divided on using the platform for search in its current form. 

Will Jennings, head of paid media at media and performance agency ROAST said while he has seen clients’ interest in TikTok grow in terms of reaching engaged audiences, there is yet to be huge demand for a search product.

At the same time, Jim Hawker, co-founder, sales and marketing director at Threepipe Reply said some of his clients are looking at how they own ‘search’. “[They’re] looking into the types of searches users are looking for on and off traditional search platforms,” he said. 

But Hawker noted that TikTok search is still too nascent and unsophisticated in its construction of data and formats to be a sensible discussion right now. 

“It may well have a significantly growing role in brand and product discovery once it can drive commercial outcomes at scale, but that’s still some way off,” he added.

Nevertheless, performance advertisers, normally among the largest buyers of search ads, can rest easy in their absence on TikTok. 

Until that changes, what has been gaining traction is TikTok’s Smart Performance Campaign (SPC), which is being geared toward those marketers with a tunnel-vision focus on (wait for it) performance. No it’s not the only selling point, but it is the main. In fact, in many ways, TikTok’s SPCs are similar to Meta’s Advantage+ Shopping Campaigns and Google’s Performance MAX tools.

With SPCs, marketers feed the platform with tracking information, targeting requirements, all the campaign’s creative assets and the bidding strategy. It then takes all that information, delivers the campaign and reports back the results. In other words, the SPC takes out the manual work from traditional campaign management.

According to TikTok’s own ads manager, not only does the SPC offer more availability, meaning all campaign types are supported, the campaign type will save time, and it boosts performance. In fact, TikTok claims that smart performance campaigns outperform traditional campaigns up to 80% of the time.

Whether it’s SPCs or search ads, it’s clear that TikTok is trying to build an ads business that appeals to all marketers wherever they are in the marketing funnel. Without all those dollars, it will hit a ceiling in terms of growth and subsequently fail to reach platform status. That’s what makes the likes of Google, Meta and Amazon so all encompassing in terms of ad dollars — they’ve built ads businesses that cater to everyone. TikTok hasn’t — not yet anyways.

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