In July, the Google executive who oversees the company’s lucrative and dominant search engine made a surprising admission. Younger users were diverting questions that would once have naturally flowed to the iconic search box to social networks, Prabhakar Raghavan said at a Forbes conference. Take the example of where to go for lunch: Google’s studies found that nearly 40 percent of people age 18 to 24 would look to Instagram or TikTok, not Google Search or Maps, to answer that question.
Today, Google announced changes to its search and maps to feature more images and video in search results—including from TikTok. The updates are designed to win over how Generation Z begins to search for lunch or anything else.
They’re the latest example of one of the hottest recent trends in the tech industry, which has seen companies such as Snap, Meta, and Twitter complain about, compliment, and sometimes copy the short video app. Not even Google’s search results page, one of the internet’s most lasting designs, can resist TikTok’s power.
One of Google’s changes will bring a feature called Exploration to the Google mobile app. It displays search results in a continuous scroll of tiles showing photos and videos that more closely resembles a social media feed than a list of links. Exploration will include Instagram and TikTok videos as well as YouTube Shorts, the 60-second video app Google created in 2020. Google vice president Cathy Edwards described it as intended to help people searching for inspiration rather than a fact or specific answer to a question.
“We know there is a class of user who really likes the results that they see on TikTok, and I think part of that is because TikTok reduced the barrier to entry for content creation, so there’s some really good content there,” Edwards said. “We are looking at more ways to bring that into our search results.”
The Exploration feature will initially be available on iPhones and will be limited to searches related to travel and tourism. Search for “Oaxaca, Mexico” and suggested topics in search results may include live music or Aztec ruins. Exploration features will launch in English in the coming months.
Perhaps Google’s clearest answer to the Gen Z lunch scenario in today’s updates was a new feature for Google Maps called Neighborhood Vibe. It provides an at-a-glance view of what’s trending in a community, displaying landmarks and photos from business reviews on local maps. Google Maps vice president Christopher Phillips said young users inspired a more visual approach that makes information faster and easier to digest for young and old alike. Neighborhood Vibe will use a mix of human decision-making and algorithms to determine what content to show in a given area at any time, Philips says. A Google spokesperson said Neighborhood Vibe does not take into account the location data that Google collects from users to determine when a business is busy.
Google also announced other updates to search that are unrelated to TikTok. They include a section on its results page dedicated to recommendations from forums and sites like Reddit, the ability to take a photo of a dish to search for where to find it near you, and an augmented reality mode in Google Maps that overlays listings like transit stations and ATMs onto a phone’s live view of the world.
Google has faced new threats to its near-monopoly on search queries before. Amazon began to eat into Google’s shopping search traffic years ago and is now the first place that most people in the US look when setting out to buy something online. In 2018, concern over the potential impact on Google’s business led a Morgan Stanley analyst to suggest Google give users free Home Mini smart speakers to help maintain its market dominance. The suggestion may seem outlandish, but Google has shown a willingness to spend heavily to prop up its flagship service, paying Apple billions of dollars a year to remain the default search engine on iPhones—a fee that claimants in a class-action suit filed earlier this year amounts to an annual fee to stay out of the search engine business.
In addition to competition from TikTok, Google search may soon also be reshaped by antitrust rules from the US or European Union. The EU has already fined the company millions of dollars for promoting its own shopping services in search results and is increasing its scrutiny on platforms seen as self-dealing. Antitrust law being considered by some members of the US Congress would prohibit dominant digital platforms from preferring their own products. That bill faces a narrow path to passage before power shifts to a new Congress in January, but if it becomes law it could alter how Google products and services appear in search results, and perhaps limit how much Google recommends YouTube Shorts over Instagram and TikTok.