What Is The TikTok Algorithm, How Does It Work & What Marketers Need To Know

TikTok algorithm for marketers

TikTok, the fastest growing social media app of 2020, recently shared insights into their TikTok algorithm via news post “How TikTok Recommends Videos For You”. The article first explains the basics of a recommendation system before detailing which factors are measured by the algorithm and finally, how to personalize your For You feed.

In recent months, TikTok’s prodigious growth have attracted influencers, brands, and advertisers alike seeking to leverage the app’s high engagement rates and viral popularity. TikTok offers a variety of strengths over other social media platforms — namely how the TikTok algorithm surfaces new content from both creators and brands.

To understand TikTok’s algorithm and how marketers can leverage TikTok for high-performing campaigns, see the sections below (click to skip directly to a particular section):

What Is The TikTok Algorithm?

The TikTok algorithm is essentially a recommendation system that weighs interest and dislike factors including user interactions, video information, and device and account settings.

According to TikTok, its algorithm is essentially a recommendation system “designed to help people have a more personalized experience”. Like most recommendation systems, TikTok’s algorithm functions off of user preferences — these are interpreted as signals or factors.

While TikTok does not disclose the complete list of factors contributing to the algorithm, it does share and explain three primary factors:

  1. User interactions — actions each user takes while on TikTok. These include, but may not be limited to, 1) video likes, 2) video shares, 3) time spent watching a video, 4) accounts followed, 5) comments posted, and 6) content created
  2. Video information — details pertaining to video content created including 1) captions, 2) sounds, and 3) hashtags
  3. Device and account settings — e.g. 1) language preference, 2) country setting, and 3) device type. TikTok specifies that these factors are not weighted as heavily

TikTok clarifies that certain factors are weighted more heavily than others:

TikTok Algorithm

Many TikTok users and creators have noted that videos with a higher completion rate and/or average watch time (in addition to music selection and looping) significantly impact performance. In other words, the longer people watch a particular video, the more likely TikTok is to promote to more people via the For You Page.

“How Does The TikTok Algorithm Work? [Diagram]

TikTok’s algorithm can be understood across four major phases or stages:

TikTok algorithm diagram

  • Phase I — at the first stage, new content is served to a test group (small audience) as determined by the content’s analysis, hashtags, and account’s number of followers
  • Phase II — during the second phase, a slightly wider audience is tested. This audience is comprised of profiles similar to those that previously engaged favorably with the content in Phase I
  • Phase III — Phase III’s audience is significantly larger with the video appearing in more users’ For You Pages (FYPs) and also higher up in the FYP queue
  • Phase IV — at the final phase, the video hits mass distribution served to the widest range of audiences and users

It’s important to note that at every phase, TikTok’s algorithm considers 1) Likes, 2) Shares, 3) Comments, 4) Views to completion, and 5) Rewatch rate/Looping.

Additionally, TikTok clarifies that videos from accounts with larger followings receive more video views (due to their inherent larger following) however, “neither follower count nor whether the account has had previous high-performing videos are direct factors in the recommendation system.”

See why this has major implications for both marketers and influencers in the last section of this post below.

How Does TikTok Decide What To Show You? Getting Started, Challenges, Diversity of Content

In order to kick off the algorithm, TikTok first asks new app users to select categories or topics of interest. These include:

  1. Food & Beverage
  2. Sport
  3. Performance Skills
  4. Gaming
  5. Fitness & Health
  6. Fashion & Beauty
  7. Dance
  8. Outdoor Activities
  9. Daily Life
  10. Pop Culture
  11. Animation & Fan Culture
  12. Transportation & Vehicle
  13. Science & Education
  14. Professional Life
  15. Family
  16. Oddly Satisfying
  17. Travel
  18. Animal
  19. Celebrity Account
  20. Comedy

TikTok algorithm categories select

If no category or topic is selected, TikTok begins building the algorithm based off of a feed of popular videos — from there, a user’s likes, comments, replays shape successive recommendations. Additionally, new account follows and exploration of hashtags, sounds, effects, and trending topics further inform the algorithm.

Users have the option to indicate “not interested” by long-pressing a particular video and tapping “Not Interested”.

tiktok algorithm not interested

To combat repetitive content and aid diversity of content (common issues to recommendations systems also known as a “filter bubble”), TikTok limits duplicate content and will also periodically serve unrelated and more diverse content.

What Marketers & Influencers Need To Know About The TikTok Algorithm

There are a number of reasons why TikTok (vs. other social media platforms, namely Instagram) is appealing to both marketers and creators. Predominantly, TikTok’s algorithm democratizes how content becomes popular (largely) independent from an account’s fan base.

Whereas Instagram and other social media platforms prioritize content from friends or followed accounts, TikTok’s algorithm is geared towards surfacing content from accounts currently not followed.

Among the top social media apps, TikTok emphasizes discovery (the app’s homepage is a discovery page). Most other apps’ homepages feature posts or news from accounts already followed.

TikTok algorithm brands

Savvy brands and advertisers have taken note of this and are quickly building brand channels on TikTok and/or partnering with a variety of TikTok influencers to leverage the app’s algorithm for untapped marketing and engagement opportunities.