How Does the TikTok Algorithm Work: The Definitive Explanation

How Does the TikTok Algorithm Work: The Definitive Explanation

Algorithms are often top of mind for marketers intent on reaching their target audience. Although learning Google search practices is often a simple matter of engaging standard SEO practices, other platforms are not quite as straightforward–including TikTok. Although there are some basics of search algorithms that remain evergreen, such as using relevant keywords, there are also differences embedded within TikTok that can significantly impact the types of video you create, and how you target your audience successfully. I have identified the most significant aspects of the TikTok algorithm to help you develop your profile in a way that supports discovery and engagement. 

The TikTok Algorithm Explained

TikTok, once considered primarily a young person’s game, has exploded, and currently claims over 1 billion active users each month. The short-form nature of TikTok makes it appealing to people of all ages and backgrounds, as the shorter videos capture attention, and make it easy to consume a large number of videos in a short period of time. Its popularity has persisted well past its initial explosion in 2018, with user activity continuing to climb or hold steady throughout its lifetime. 

The “for you” page of TikTok is where the app really shines; unlike most other apps, which initially open up to a homepage filled with the accounts you already follow, TikTok’s “For You” page (FYP) is filled with the shorter videos that are so well known in TikTok, but from creators that you are not already aware of, allowing those creators to reach a much larger audience than other social media platforms. Using TikTok’s algorithm, these accounts are curated for followers, making it vital to consider the FYP in your content strategy. 

Once you are familiar with the FYP, you can move on to developing a greater understanding of the TikTok algorithm, which is designed to reach a relevant audience on an ongoing basis. It is the driving force behind the “For You” page, and has a significant hand in developing your follower count, identifying previous high-performing videos and distributing them, and determining the types of content that will show up on the page. TikTok SEO is the object of plenty of conjecture, however, as the precise patterns and structure found within the algorithm are largely kept secret, though they are known to be extremely complex. 

If the algorithm is held as something of a “secret sauce” within the industry, then, how are you able to leverage the intricacies of the algorithm to work to your advantage? I have put together everything I know about the TikTok algorithm to help you take advantage of TikTok’s structure to make sure you are reaching your audience, experiencing growth, and using this social platform as effectively as possible. 

Demystifying the TikTok Algorithm: 4 Core Principles

Although there is a great deal of secrecy surrounding TikTok’s algorithm and practices, there are some important factors that I have identified as being part of the way TikTok promotes video content on the platform. 

1. Data is King

TikTok collects a truly enormous amount of data from their users, including watch time, likes, shares, comments, browsing history, and overall device information. While this has earned the ire of some users and even social media managers, it does mean that the video views coming from TikTok draw in a lot of information before selecting the individual videos being posted to the FYP. 

2. Machine Learning Magic

Machine learning is an AI concept, wherein a machine is used to essentially “learn” how to read different profiles, video formats, and more to generate the best possible video suggestions for users. AI-powered algorithms utilize deep learning to analyze all of the user data collected, from video likes to phone information, to more effectively market specific content creators on the “For You” page. This is one of the most significant factors in TikTok’s overall combination of factors that make it a powerful machine to deliver relevant content to its users. 

3. Beyond Likes

Many platforms rely on likes, comments, and similar forms of engagement to help identify which viral videos are more likely to appeal to a specific niche or audience segment. TikTok goes beyond these engagement metrics, and considers other things, including video completion rate, sound usage, and even facial expressions to accurately gauge user interest and deliver quality content to its users. This makes its algorithm both complex and one of the more accurate ones currently in use. 

4. The Feedback Loop

User interactions such as likes, shares, and comments can further help the social network identify the high-quality videos that will satisfy user preferences, which helps create a personalized feedback loop. The feedback loop is the algorithm step that most closely approximates the processes found on other social networks. 

Inside the Algorithm’s Toolbox: 3 Key Influencing Factors

From shuttering upsetting content to identifying trending sounds, there are 3 key influencing factors the TikTok algorithm takes into account when populating videos. The three influencing factors I have identified are user interactions, video information, and device and account settings. 

1. User Interactions

There are several important interactions that are considered when looking at the TikTok algorithm toolbox. These factors are video engagement, account following, hidden/reported content, and sound usage. Video engagement involves the likes, shares, comments, watch time, and completion rate enjoyed by each video, identifying these as being engaging videos worthy of sharing. 

Account following describes the creators you follow and interact with. This helps generate more relevant videos and identify the types of creators and relevant users you are most likely to actually enjoy and engage with. 

Hidden/reported content is also valuable, as it helps the algorithm learn which videos you are not interested in, or you are more likely to report. Users can certainly filter video keywords, but this is not necessarily one of the most important considerations, as the hidden/reported content will more thoroughly “teach” the algorithm how to sift through unwanted content. 

Sound usage. Sounds and songs used in the videos you watch are also used to determine the stream of videos coming into your feed. What an individual user prefers to listen to will also determine what types of videos are shown. 

2. Video Information

Video information is also used to get content to users. Captions and hashtags, audio and effects, and technical aspects are all possible means of reaching a wider audience on the social media app. Captions and hashtags are the most effective place for keywords, as popular hashtags can be searched and help users stumble upon accounts they may enjoy tuning in to. Audio and effects are also useful, as they can help attune the algorithm to user preferences. If, for instance, someone prefers specific clips or music, videos outside of their given niche may also be used. Finally, the technical aspects of a preferred set of videos can be used to influence TikTok’s social media algorithm. Video quality, editing style, and format (think portrait or landscape) are all technical aspects that may be taken into account. 

3. Device and Account Settings

Your device settings can also help you reach a wider audience. Your language preference, and geographical location or country setting can be used to determine where videos are distributed. Your phone model, operating system, and even network connection can also be used to determine which social media profiles will appear on the “For You” page. All of these can be taken into account to determine which of your fellow creators or accounts will be most likely to satisfy algorithm factors. Account demographics (think age, gender, and profile interests) will also influence ranking factors and help determine which accounts show up on your page. 

The Power of Niche: Hyper-Personalization and Content Discovery

Although entering your interests is one of the greatest ranking factors used to determine which accounts and videos show up on your “For You” page, the algorithm also uses your data to determine which specific interests and niche communities most thoroughly align with your habits and preferences. Using your data–including direct factors like the information you enter into your profile upon creation–you can come across content from creators that you may not follow, but who are considered relevant to your interests. This makes TikTok one of the best platforms for serendipitous discovery: large scale data mining makes discovery far more intuitive.

That being said, there can be some drawbacks to the echo chamber-like nature of the TikTok algorithm; hyper-personalization and tiny filter bubbles can  make it difficult to discover anything outside of a very narrow niche, or a series of hashtag campaigns. For those looking to branch out on their interests or the media they consume, the hyper personalization of the platform can be problematic. 

Further Reading: 17 TikTok Video Ideas That Will Skyrocket Your Engagement

Beyond the Surface: Advanced Algorithmic Techniques

Deep learning is a technique used by AI to more effectively learn how to take in and analyze vast quantities of data, in order to identify complex patterns and successfully predict user preferences. The neural networks found in deep learning techniques help categorize entire batches of people to consistently deliver preferred accounts and content.

In a process called collaborative filtering, TikTok also uses common search phrases and other user behavior to recommend content based on the viewing habits of users who are similar in terms of demographics and preferences. This community approach to filtering content is useful for both users and TikTok, as it groups like minded or similarly-behaved people together to simplify the filtering and recommending process. 

A/B testing and optimization are also features of the AI algorithm favored by TikTok. In these processes, TikTok engages in ongoing and constant testing, evaluating different versions of the algorithm, and refining its approach according to the real-time data collected during this auditing process. What this means, essentially, is that the algorithm is constantly refining its approach to recommendations and learning how to more effectively deliver a users’ preferences.

The Future of the Algorithm: Transparency, Ethics, and Control

Although there is no denying the efficacy of TikTok’s algorithm approach, there have been a growing number of concerns regarding TikTok’s absence of transparency regarding the algorithm, and the biases that are inherent in its approach. Personalized algorithms can be a great tool to deliver content consistently preferred by users, but it can also be manipulated and swerve in a potentially problematic direction. This could be the case if a misinformation campaign is liked by a user, and they are subsequently fed more of the same, or something similar. 

The lack of transparency and potential for manipulation is one of the prime concerns brought to the fore regarding TikTok, because the information and even entertainment being delivered to users can be swayed heavily in one direction or another. To mitigate some of these concerns, there is the possibility of user control mechanisms like “explainable AI,” or an AI process that is walked through and educated on for users to help build trust and safety. Personalizing algorithm processes can also deliver the same level of satisfaction with the algorithm, without sacrificing transparency and gathering unwanted data. 

Cracking the Code: 7 Tips to Master the TikTok Algorithm

Now that you have a greater understanding of how the TikTok algorithm works, and how it can be leveraged in your favor (and what may be counting against you), I have put together 7 tips to help you master the TikTok algorithm, and ensure that you are reaching your target audience. Remember: in any platform, consistency is vital. First, though: 

1. Know Your Niche and Audience

Rather than focusing on fleeting trends and constantly trying to remain top of mind with each daily dance, audio, or fad, find your focus and stick to it. When you have a clear focus, you can carve your own niche and consistently deliver valuable content to educate, inform, and entertain your audience, while building a solid sense of community. Part of doing this successfully is refining your persona; make sure you understand your ideal viewer’s demographics, interest, and pain points, not necessarily your current viewer’s stats. Tailor your content to resonate with your preferred audience, and create accordingly. 

2. Engage, Engage, Engage

Engagement is absolutely essential to find success on TikTok, so do not ignore comments and messages. Foster a two-way dialogue, and build a community around your content. Mediate where necessary, respond to questions, comments, and messages, and make sure that your space is an enjoyable one to be in. 

To further encourage engagement, participate in challenges and trends in addition to your standard content. Rather than relying on these as your sole form of content creation, leverage trending hashtags and sounds to increase discoverability, without sacrificing your standard content. This way, you can encourage growth and support longevity. Collaborating with other creators can help with this goal, as well, as cross-promotion can help increase exposure, expand your reach, and create an in with new audiences. 

3. Content is King (and Queen)

The quality of your content should be prioritized over the quantity. While it might be a good idea to put out more content at the very beginning of your account start up, over time, your focus needs to be on quality over putting out new videos every single day or multiple times each day. Invest in good lighting, editing programs and materials, and compelling storytelling to both capture and maintain attention. Creating a hook is great for grabbing the attention of users in the first few seconds (by using a strong intro or an intriguing question), but make sure you back it up with a strong effort in the remainder of the video, as well. 

Content is also important to consider when you look at video length. TikTok is primarily designed to capture attention in a brief clip, rather than expecting a longer attention span. Optimize video length by aiming for concise and impactful videos that remain at or under 60 seconds. 

Further Reading: 15 Powerful AI TikTok Video Generators to Simplify Video Creation

4. Master the Power of Sound

@im_mmxvii

Replying to @lazar_pecaros how to actually use trending tiktok sounds to boost you videos #tiktoktrending #tiktoksounds #popularsong

♬ Aesthetic – Tollan Kim

Using trendy sounds or creating your own catchy audio is another important way to grab attention and set yourself apart. Music and sound effects are a crucial aspect of grabbing attention and setting the tone on TikTok, so make sure you are putting thought and effort into your audio. That being said, even with a catchy sound or audio, if your videos are not evenly paced with that audio, the impact will be lost. Make sure your videos are synced to the beat or rhythm, ensuring smooth and visually satisfying transitions. 

Captions and voiceovers are also important to consider, as they can help you provide context and any additional information needed to supplement the visuals of the video. This is especially true of using popular or trending videos to relate back to something within your niche, if that niche is technically unrelated to the audio.

Further Reading: 13 Cool TikTok Voice Generators 

5. Hashtag Like a Pro

To hashtag like a pro, follow three basic rules: research relevant hashtags, don’t overdo hashtag use, and utilize brand hashtags. To research relevant hashtags, make sure you are analyzing your specific niche and looking into your competitors to identify the most popular and targeted hashtags for your audience. Once you have discovered those hashtags, select 3-5 hashtags that are relevant to your content and accurately describe it. A large block of hashtags is going to be more cumbersome and visually unappealing than it will be helpful. Brand hashtags can also encourage user-generated content and build recognition, so make sure you have a handful of branded hashtags at your disposal. 

Further Reading: TikTok Hashtags: Where to Find and How to Use to Grow Your TikTok

6. Post Strategically

@viralnationinc

4 misconceptions about posting on tiktok that you need to know in order to improve your tiktok growth strategy and build an audience 🤳⚡️ #tiktokstrategy #socialmedia #tiktokmarketingtips #marketingtips #tiktokgrowthtips #socialmediagrowth2022 #socialmediatips

♬ Sirtaki (Zorba the Geek) – LucasGitanoFamily

Posting strategically requires you to take a closer look at your analytics and determine what your peak engagement times are, and follow through on that. Research your audience’s activity patterns to help develop a posting schedule that aligns with those periods of activity. This way, you will encourage engagement and increase the likelihood of remaining visible to your audience. 

In a similar vein, take a close look at the frequency of your target audience’s use, and develop a regular uploading schedule that will align with your audience and satisfy the algorithm. If your audience is on daily and you are able, consider a daily posting schedule. If a weekly posting schedule is more in line with what you are able to do, strive to post the same day of the week, around the same time. 

Before developing a hard and fast schedule, make sure you are gathering data of your own. At the outset, experiment with different days and times, and take a close look at your analytics. Do specific days or times see further reach and higher engagement? By differentiating your posting habits in the beginning, and again at strategic points throughout your marketing schedule, you can continually adapt to user preferences. 

7. Analyze and Adapt

@creatorsbycass

TikTok Analytics 101 …Really putting my metrics on display here😂 tried to fit as many golden nuggets into 1 video. Engagement calculator is at the end & i have a 🔗 for that too #tiktokanalytics #tiktokmetrics #tiktoktipsandtricks #tiktoktips #greenscreen

♬ original sound – Cass | Your Creative Bestie✨

In any social media space, you will need to analyze your performance and adapt, and TikTok is no different. As you go along, monitor your TikTok analytics, to determine watch time, completion rate, and engagement to glean a greater understanding of what is most effectively resonating with your audience, and what can be left behind. Once you have a clear picture of your audience’s preferences, you can begin refining your content to adjust your overall approach and make improvements to any content you put out in the future. 

While the bulk of your adaptation will be in response to your own analytics, staying informed about algorithm updates will also help make sure you are adapting to stay top of mind. TikTok’s algorithm is continually evolving, so staying informed and updating regarding these changes will make sure that your strategy on the platform is keeping up with TikTok changes and shifts. 

Further Reading: TikTok Marketing: 5 Reasons Why, 5 Strategy Tips How, and 5 Examples to Help You Master the Channel

Conclusion

At its inception, many people disregarded TikTok as something for young people, or something that would pass, but it has proven its staying power over the past five years, making it a formidable platform on which to leverage your marketing strategies. Despite its popularity and regular use, much of what makes TikTok run remains something of a mystery to all but its developers, making it vital to research the platform and regularly refine your approach to TikTok marketing to remain top of mind. 

Have you employed any of these strategies on TikTok? Let me know in the comments! 

Hero Photo by Collabstr on Unsplash

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Neal Schaffer
Neal Schaffer

Neal Schaffer is a leading authority on helping businesses through their digital transformation of sales and marketing through consulting, training, and helping enterprises large and small develop and execute on social media marketing strategy, influencer marketing, and social selling initiatives. President of the social media agency PDCA Social, Neal also teaches digital media to executives at Rutgers University, the Irish Management Institute (Ireland), and the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland). Fluent in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, Neal is a popular keynote speaker and has been invited to speak about digital media on four continents in a dozen countries. He is also the author of 3 books on social media, including Maximize Your Social (Wiley), and in late 2019 will publish his 4th book, The Business of Influence (HarperCollins), on educating the market on the why and how every business should leverage the potential of influencer marketing. Neal resides in Irvine, California but also frequently travels to Japan.

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