Do Instagram and TikTok threaten Google?
You’ve probably read the TechCrunch article that says Google execs suggest Instagram and TikTok are eating their core services.
Considering that almost 60% of Google’s revenue comes directly from search and another 10% comes from advertising on Youtube (which also appears in searches), it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say something is wrong.
According to the TechCrunch article, about 40% of young people (between 18–24 years old) would use Instagram and TikTok when they need to discover something; in other words, whenever they need to look for a place to eat or meet, they no longer turn to Google searches.
In my view is no surprise and would be occurring for the following reasons:
1. Lists are boring and skewed (including this one)
At the beginning of the internet, they didn’t have many search options.
Before Google, I used Altavista, a Google predecessor, also list-based — only much worse — because the results were less relevant. Google has dramatically improved the results, but they are still lists (and they are boring).
You have a list of results, some of which have pictures; sometimes you have advertised before, and sometimes they have a map you don’t know how to use.
I live in Portugal, and I researched “where to eat in Lisbon,” the capital of the country:
We have a high text density, so the cognitive load is high. In these cases, we privilege the first item because of the laziness of having to read all the results — this is even a cognitive bias called position bias¹. It’s no wonder that almost 30%² people choose the first result.
This is something so blatant that among those who do search engine optimization (SEO), there is the following saying:
“The best place to hide a dead body is page two of Google.”
So you end up choosing between one of these results, not knowing where it will lead, going back and forth between bad sites until you find a well-ranked blog or restaurant site that meets your expectations.
And there, another problem begins: even though Google has the best algorithm in the world (and super secret), you will probably find several stamped figures like TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, Opentable, and other sites with highly optimized and boring content.
These players have learned to master the results pages but don’t consistently deliver the best experience.
2. Amazon had already shown this
Amazon also uses lists only:
- They have fewer results per screen,
- They have photos of the products and the course
- They have reviews where they can be brutally honest and helpful.
3. We look for where we spend the most time
We spend hours on feed networks like Instagram and TikTok. They are practically casino machines, generating endless entertainment at random, produced and curated by the users.
Recently both networks have been showing more videos.
No wonder our mental effort watching a video is much less than reading this article or Google lists, where, after all, you are always trying to differentiate real content from advertising.
As you spend more time on Instagram or TikTok, you will look for what you want in the same place. — Perhaps due to availability bias, which makes us think about what is most available in our minds even if it is not the most representative, in this case, a search engine itself.
4. The Instagram Experience
I admit, before this article, I had already used Instagram as a source of discoveries, restaurants, in particular.
After all, it is effortless to browse the places, look for restaurants and then filter by mentions created by users for “more real” photos.
Not long ago, Instagram improved that feature, creating a map interface where you can see locations on the map.
If you are in the place, you can still filter by various categories, such as restaurants, cafes, tourist attractions, etc.
By selecting one place, the result is still a list, but this time much more interesting, with only four results per view and many photos.
By clicking on any of them, you can view the profile of the place; far from ideal, but it is a much more visual experience than Google.
The big problem is the network’s profile; when seeing the profile of the place with photos generated by the users, sometimes the images are of users in the area, not of the dishes (in this use case).
In practice, you are trying to see the restaurant’s specialty, not a young woman posing for a picture.
5. The TikTok Experience
The “Chinese app” surprises from afar here.
It is pretty clear why young people have been using TikTok instead of Google, and the results are unexpected; just looking at this screenshot makes you want to click on the “7 secret places to eat in Lisbon” even though this is not even the most liked in this view.
Why I believe that interface is better than Google:
There are fewer elements per view; this generates less cognitive effort, it is easy to understand what is happening and makes you want to interact more
We know the results are short videos, simple enough to decide whether or not you want to know more about a location.
Users create and curate results; the chance of something being “too polished” here is less than in Google results. Although it is a list, the first result is not necessarily the most liked, giving the feeling that the results are fixed in another way.
All this analysis is directly related to Professor Clayton Christensen’s concept of Jobs to be done (JTBD), where we do not use the product for what it says it is, but which solution best solves our problem?
From this point of view, Netflix’s biggest competitor is not necessarily another streaming platform but a better entertainment source, including Steam, the gaming platform.
In this JTBD, at least TikTok solves the problem of finding places to eat much better than Google.
An alternative solution
But of course, I’m a designer, and it would be hard to stop here.
I decided to scribble some ideas of what could be done and imagine the impact of a very aggressive redesign on your search engine, so I tried to focus on solutions with as little impact as possible and using formats already used today.
I remembered Youtube already has shorts, a format of short videos similar to TikTok, which requires little investment of time and low cognitive effort.
To avoid breaking any existing logic, I left these results with a horizontal navigation layout, which is a complicated decision. Still, Google already uses it in its menus just below the search field.
Next, I brought a video in regular format from Youtube itself, following a growing investment of time. However, still low effort, so the user can choose according to their time context to decide, imagining breaks in the search taxonomy itself or what Google calls micro-moments. In this case, the “I want to go” micro-moment.
They followed with the traditional Google search results, still with the insertion of images depending on the website available, but generating a first view (before the scroll) of less effort even if it presents more results.
Here’s the final product:
Of course, I am unaware of thousands of points in terms of the technical, user and strategic data that should be considered when imagining a hypothesis like this.
But it’s a tease of what could be done to reimagine some of the Google experience at a time when videos dominate our content consumption on a global scale.
And then what did you find?