Now Reading
The TikTok Search Bar: How The Algorithm Starts Rumors in Pursuit of Virality

The TikTok Search Bar: How The Algorithm Starts Rumors in Pursuit of Virality

This article was originally published on March 7, 2023. Updated on February 27, 2024.  

Since the turn of the century, Google has been the gateway to the digital world. Despite attempts by other search engines to challenge Google’s dominance, none have truly posed a substantial threat. However, Google’s influence has seemingly waned in the past year, raising questions about its longevity in the social-first era.

Ever since the AI boom of 2022, ChatGPT has emerged as a formidable alternative to Google. Users now turn to the chatbot for just about anything, with ChatGPT able to answer detailed prompts in concise sentences and paragraphs.

There is no denying that this sort of technology has made internet users’ lives easier. But there is also room for improvement— especially as the chatbot continues to offer factually incorrect information and suffers from major glitches. Despite these challenges, the growing number of users opting for ChatGPT prompted Google to declare a “code red”—a move journalists Nico Grant and Cade Metz described as something “akin to pulling the fire alarm.” 

As Google works to build and improve Gemini— the company’s own suite of generative AI models and services— there has been a lot of conversation about how AI is the next major tech disruptor in the world of search engines. But another platform poses a prolific threat to Google: TikTok. 

While TikTok didn’t start as a search engine, it has powerful search capabilities.

On a base level, it has operated as a sort of music discovery tool—where trending audios are frequently used as a “hyperlink between different content on the app.” As the platform has evolved and developed its own class of influencers, users can now search the app for anything, ranging from dinner recommendations to travel itineraries.


We combed through hours of YT videos, reddit posts, and our friends’ travel itineraries. Here’s ours, we hope it’s useful! Link in bio. #japanitinerary #japantok #travelguide #fyp

♬ Tokyo Drift – Xavier Wulf

A recent report by Adobe revealed that 2 in 5 US TikTok users treat the platform as a search engine— a trend Gen Z has wholeheartedly embraced. After surveying 808 consumers, the data found that 64% of this demographic have used TikTok as a search engine at one point, with almost 1 in 10 preferring it over Google. 

“When asked about content preferences, most people (62%) liked TikTok’s video tutorials best, but they also appreciated product or service reviews (39%) and personal stories (38%),” the report reads. 

Rather than navigating through a seemingly endless list of links and articles on Google, Gen Z opts for crowdsourced recommendations through TikTok videos.

TikTok’s personalised and firsthand approach is part of the reason why the short-form video app is eclipsing Google as the preferred search engine. The nature of the FYP ensures that content resonates with users, where narrative-driven videos serve as a captivating method for presenting information. 

“More and more young people are using TikTok’s powerful algorithm — which personalises the videos shown to them based on their interactions with content — to find information uncannily catered to their tastes,” Kalley Huang writes for The New York Times. “That tailoring is coupled with a sense that real people on the app are synthesising and delivering information, rather than faceless websites.”

Screenshot via Adobe

Like any smart social media platform, TikTok has capitalised on how Gen Z uses the app, enhancing its search capabilities. Recent reports indicate that TikTok has introduced various links and functionalities on its search pages. 

Content creator and app researcher Radu Oncescu found that TikTok started displaying a shortcut to Google on its search pages. The Verge also reported that TikTok has introduced Wikipedia snippets into search results, a measure that may help curb the spread of misinformation on the app.

“The Wikipedia feature appears as users scroll down through in-app search results and is sandwiched between relevant videos,” explains Tech journalist Mia Sato. “Clicking on the snippet takes a user directly to Wikipedia; links at the bottom of the snippet jump to different sections of the Wikipedia entry,”

While these additions enhance the user experience, they haven’t made waves on the app— unlike the TikTok search bar. 

Found at the top of videos and throughout comment sections, TikTok’s automated search bar feature offers context for video content by identifying keywords in the comments, captions, and text. These keywords, hyperlinked with a blue magnifying glass, allow users to explore related videos in specifically curated discovery pages. 

While this feature has been around for years, it remains unclear exactly how these keywords are determined. From scrolling through the FYP, it appears that search suggestions are not linked to every video. They tend to be associated with videos posted by popular creators or content with high engagement rates. 

Still, many TikTok users enjoy the search bar, with marketers and brands testing different ways to use the function as a Search Engine Optimisation tool. 

Creators, however, have found fault with the search bar feature, questioning its accuracy, utility, and reliability. 

They have reported that the search suggestions auto-populating under their videos stir controversy and are simply inaccurate. TikTok has “acknowledged the problem,” writes Taylor Lorenz for The Washington Post. However, the company also “declined to comment on the record.”

One creator who has suffered at the hands of the TikTok search bar is Elyse Myers. 

Boasting over 7.1 million followers, she has become one of the most popular content creators on the app. She initially went viral after telling a disastrous first date story, in which she had to pay for 100 hard-shell tacos (Yes, it is as wild as it sounds). 

In February last year, Elyse took to the platform to share that she is expecting her second child in a pregnancy announcement fashioned after “The Office.” While viewers quickly flooded her comment section with support, well wishes, and excitement, the TikTok search function soon turned things into something sinister.


Never before seen footage of “The Local Ad” from The Office: Team Myers Edition 🤍

♬ Chariots Of Fire – Vangelis

About one week later, TikTok user @_jen_hamilton_  posted a seemingly unrelated video to Elyse’s pregnancy announcement. The TikTok shows Jen sitting in her car on the edge of tears after a day on the job as a nurse.

While Jen didn’t share why she was upset, TikTok’s automated search bar function under the video read, “Elyse Myers Pregnancy Loss.” Viewers were immediately concerned and confused, with many worried that Elyse had a miscarriage. 

Jen soon took to TikTok to clarify her original video, noting that it had nothing to do with Elyse’s pregnancy. 

“I am a labour and delivery nurse, and that was after the worst shift of my life, and unfortunately, someone got pulled into it and had nothing to do with it”, she begins. “This app now has people thinking that Elyse Myers has lost her baby, and that is because, on my video in the suggested search, it said ‘Elyse Myers pregnancy loss’… how does that happen?”

Upon Jen’s clarification, many social media users called on TikTok to do better and adjust how these keywords are decided. 

See Also

One TikTok user, @garbagegirl_, made a video noting how the automated search bar often starts rumours about creators. That said, this function becomes especially harmful when dealing with videos covering sensitive matters like pregnancy.  

“The search bar literally starts rumours about people… this is like too far,” she says. “This mum [Elyse] is going to see this, like anyone that has experienced a loss or infertility or anything… knows how being pregnant is sometimes just traumatising and scary… If I was a large creator and this rumour was being spread around by a TikTok search bar, I can’t imagine the anxiety I would feel.”


#greenscreen @tiktok @tiktokcreators @tiktoktrends #elysemyers Hey TIKTOK can we get rid of the search bar and bring back pinned comments?

♬ original sound – Sara

Unfortunately, Elyse wasn’t the first influencer to have had the automated search bar spread false narratives about her personal life— and she definitely isn’t the last. 

More recently, Viner-turned-TikToker Landon Romano found the phrase “Landon Romano HIV” auto-populating beneath his videos. It remains unclear why this term was linked to his content— he does not have HIV, nor has he ever suspected himself of having the disease.

Upon becoming aware of the search bar terms, he addressed the issue in a TikTok video, urging the platform to explain why this happened. 

“[TikTok] continue[s] to add insinuations that I have HIV under several of my videos,” Landon said. “This is defamatory, and it’s discrimination. I’m a gay male. Do you know the implications behind that?”

He also mentioned that TikTok has not addressed his concerns despite reaching out through Instagram and followers reporting the search term.


@TikTok care to explain???????? What the actual fk

♬ original sound – Landon Romano

Other creators like Anna Paul and Eden Harvey have also come forward to explain the keywords allocated to their videos, attempting to quell the spread of rumours. Anna, for instance, posted a video after the search bar said, “anna paul being rude to fans.”

“There was a nice TikTok about me, and then the search suggestion is ‘Anna Paul being rude to fans,’ I was so confused,” Anna explains. “I have never been rude to a fan in my life; I’ve never said no to a photo with anyone in my life.”  

All in all, there is no denying that misinformation is a concerning part of today’s social media landscape, and the problems with TikTok’s search function remind us just how quickly these false narratives can spread.

As TikTok competes with Google, it seems that accuracy comes second to engagement. While TikTok continues to expand its search capabilities, we must remember to constantly question the stories and information we come across— even if the app’s all-powerful algorithm recommends it. 

Scroll To Top