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How Does the TikTok Algorithm Work?

By Leadhub
Posted on January 30th, 2023
secrets of the tik tok algorithm graphic with tiktok branding

Area 51. Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance. The Loch Ness Monster. Stonehenge. 

The TikTok algorithm.

Like other great mysteries in life, little is known about how TikTok actually works. And, like other great mysteries in life, there are plenty of rumors and conspiracies about TikTok’s algorithm.

Leadhub is here to help you fight through the hearsay to understand how this social platform so deftly learns about our preferences as quickly as it does and keeps viewers locked in.

What’s An Algorithm?

At its core, an algorithm is a formula used to solve a problem. You probably think of engineering or math first when it comes to algorithms, but many social media platforms utilize algorithms as well.

For instance, Meta famously uses algorithms to determine what you see on your Facebook and Instagram feeds. The problem it’s trying to solve with these algorithms is how to keep you on the platforms for as much time as possible. 

TikTok also has an algorithm to determine what you see when you open the app. Like Facebook and Instagram, it’s individualized based on your own preferences and interests — but it’s seemingly light years ahead of Meta’s algorithms in terms of accurately knowing the type of content you want to see. Some have gone so far as to ask if TikTok was reading our minds in order to deliver content that keeps us entertained and engaged.

What Actually Makes TikTok … Tick?

The answer lies in the video platform’s recommendation system, as they call it. TikTok has been notoriously vague about its algorithm over the years, but we all know it’s incredibly strong and astonishingly accurate.

For its part, TiKTok released a semi-transparent breakdown of its recommendation system in mid-2020. It struck to the hits of describing an algorithm without sharing any earth-shattering revelations.

According to TikTok, some of the key factors of its algorithm include:

  • Your own interactions with content. The accounts you like, share, follow and leave comments on will play a big role in future content you see. 
  • Information about the videos on TikTok also contribute to what you see. If you regularly seek out videos with captions on them in the Discover area, for instance, TikTok is going to deliver more videos with captions to your main feed. 
  • Your device and account settings. Your country and language will be the cherry on top of your feed, steering certain content your way. (However, TikTok says this doesn’t play as big a role as other factors.)

One massive difference between TikTok and other social networks is duplication. TikTok’s algorithm is designed to not show you repeat content

Facebook, Instagram and the like will continue to hammer home a piece of content if their algorithms determine you would like it. You may see it three or four times in some cases.

Not on TikTok. Everything is fresh. 

There’s also no advantage given to accounts with huge followings. Everyone is on a level playing field in terms of their content potentially being shared by the algorithm, which means the average person has a much greater chance of “going viral” on TikTok than other platforms.

How Does TikTok Seemingly Read Our Minds?

To get to that answer, we have to do some research.

Number Of Videos

Let’s start with Axios, which reported about TikTok’s algorithm in late-2020. This report found TikTok only needs to show a brand-new user eight videos for the algorithm to sink its teeth in. After those first eight videos are shown and the user has engaged (or not engaged) with them, the algorithm takes over, identifying other similar videos to show.

From there, the user is placed into clusters based on themes of videos they enjoy – trends, dancing, animals, sports, comedy, etc. Machine learning takes it from there, using a Netflix-like recommendation model. 

For example, let’s say User X and User Y are both in the same cluster of users. If User X enjoyed a specific video, as did User Y, then it’s a safe bet User X will also enjoy this other video that User Y enjoyed.

Watch Time

In mid-2021, The Wall Street Journal released a thorough investigation into TikTok’s algorithm. The report found watch time, or how long you hovered over a specific video, was all TikTok needed to know what to show you next. If you hesitate on one video for a split second or go back to watch it again, TikTok is tracking your interests and emotions.

Retention + Time Spent

The New York Times then got a hold of an internal TikTok document that broke down the platform’s algorithm for non-engineers. The Times wasn’t able to deliver on the promise of its story title: “How TikTok Reads Your Mind,” but it did break down TikTok’s algorithm in a bit more detail than we’ve ever seen before. 

The document spells out TikToks two main goals: retention (whether a user comes back to the app) and time spent (keeping you there as long as possible). It also explained the scoring mechanism TikTok uses to recommend videos to users – a prediction based on “machine learning and actual user behavior” involving likes, comments and video playtime.

More Questions About TikTok? Leadhub Has Answers.

Hopefully, this information helps take a bit of the fear out of using TikTok as part of your home service marketing efforts. TikTok is just better than the other platforms, it appears, in knowing its users. This technology can be used for exciting and effective marketing campaigns — if you have the strategy to take advantage of TikTok’s strengths!

Ready to take your home service company's social media strategy to the next level? Contact Leadhub today for a free marketing discovery call.

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