TikTok is the social media sensation whose ‘household name status’ just keeps rising. From its humble beginnings in 2016, to securing its spot as the second most downloaded iPhone app in 2020, it has captured the imaginations of people and organizations all over the world, inspiring quite a few dances and ‘challenges’ along the way.
How the TikTok Algorithm Works in 2021
Of TikTok’s 689 million monthly active users (MAUs) across the globe—a base expected to surpass 1.2B this year—over 60% of users in the US are between the ages of 10 and 29, and nearly 60% are female. It’s a cultural phenomenon among teenagers, with nearly 70% of American teens having an active account.
While the highest number of TikTok users fall within a decidedly younger age range than many other popular social platforms, the overarching audience is not without variety. Users are still spread across a wide range of age, location, and gender boundaries, with each individual user having their own preference for what type of video content they are most interested in seeing. As for determining what content to show which users and when? That’s where the TikTok algorithm comes into play.
“Brands commonly make the mistake of classifying TikTok as a younger demo platform despite TikTok’s continuous growth in popularity among all age groups. While Gen Z flocked to the platform first, you’ll see a plethora of content from all generations on the platform. I’m personally a big fan of #GrannyTok!”
— Riley Spicer, Sr. Manager of Paid Social at Tinuiti
What is TikTok’s Algorithm?
The TikTok algorithm in 2021 determines what shows up in your “For You” feed. The TikTok formula, based on our research, indicates that the videos a user will see in their “For You” feed will change over time based on their viewing preferences and habits.
This is how TikTok defines the “For You” page algorithm:
“A stream of videos curated to your interests, making it easy to find content and creators you love … powered by a recommendation system that delivers content to each user that is likely to be of interest to that particular user.”
How Does TikTok’s “For You” Page Algorithm Work?
TikTok has been secretive about its algorithms in the past, which has led to much speculation about the factors that affect how the For You Page (FYP) is populated. That changed in June 2020, with TikTok publishing a blog post detailing how the For You Page recommendations are generated.
According to TikTok, the For You Page’s algorithms are based on the preferences and activity history of individual users. That means no two For You feeds are going to be exactly the same, due to the sheer number of factors and variations involved; as the name implies, these recommendations have been carefully curated for you.
The 3 main factors that influence your TikTok recommendations include:
- User interactions
- Video information
- Device and account settings
User activity plays a significant role in determining which videos TikTok shows, with the following heavily influencing your For You feed:
- Video likes
- Video shares
- Accounts followed
- Comments posted
- Videos created
The algorithm also takes into account how far a user got in the video, and whether or not they watched it in its entirety. Watching a video from beginning to end is a strong sign of interest and carries greater weight in the TikTok algorithm than some of the other contributing factors.
Regularly showing up in users’ feeds goes beyond them simply being a follower. Users will see more content from creators that they engage with than those they simply follow but scroll past.
This encompasses video attributes and data specific to individual videos, including:
Hashtags in particular are a major component of which videos are recommended. Any user that watches or creates a video with a specific hashtag will be more likely to see videos that use that hashtag in the future.
Device and Account Settings
TikTok has confirmed that its algorithm takes device settings and account settings into consideration, but clarifies that these factors are not given as much weight as stronger, preference-indicative measures—such as likes and video plays—and that these factors are primarily tracked to optimize app performance.
Examples of device and account settings considered include:
- Language preference
- Country setting
- Device type
What Content Does the TikTok Algorithm NOT Show in FYP?
According to TikTok, to keep your “For You” feed interesting and varied, their recommendation system works to intersperse diverse types of content along with those you already know you love. For example, your For You feed generally won’t show two videos in a row made with the same sound or by the same creator.
Content the TikTok algorithm prevents from appearing in users’ ‘For You’ feeds including:
- “Not interested” content
- Duplicate content
- Seen content
- Potentially Safety-compromising content
What Doesn’t Influence Your TikTok ‘For You’ Feed?
The number of total followers an account has does not result in their posts surfacing higher, or more often, based on the functionality of the For You algorithm. Naturally, those who have a higher number of followers will have more overall visibility, but their posts are not given preferential treatment based on their popularity. Your track record of high-performing versus low-performing videos also does not affect placement.
This means that a TikTok video from a creator with a high number of followers—and/or with a history of high-performing videos—will not, based on those factors alone, get recommended more often than a video from a newer creator with less followers, and/or lower-performing videos.
Videos are measured and recommended based on their own merits, not the merits of their creators.
The relevant passage in TikTok’s blog post states:
“While a video is likely to receive more views if posted by an account that has more followers, by virtue of that account having built up a larger follower base, neither follower count nor whether the account has had previous high-performing videos are direct factors in the recommendation system.”
How Does TikTok Calculate Effect?
Although TikTok shared some information regarding algorithmic functions, they didn’t share everything, leaving some answers up to anecdotal speculation.
The “Batch Effect” is a popular theory among TikTok creators. In the Batch Effect, TikTok essentially shows your video to different batches of people at different times. The way users react determines whether or not your content gets shared with more people. The more views and interactions your video gets, the bigger—and greater number of— batches see it down the line.
The time lag between different batches can take up to several days. Creators have observed that their video views often “jump” significantly after plateauing. This is speculated to be because the next “batch” has launched and their content has been exposed to more users.
Do TikTok Filters and Effects Increase Your Views?
Filters and effects are used to make your videos more compelling and engaging for viewers. TikTok offers creators and brands a wide variety to choose from, and regularly releases fresh, new options. Its vast library of effects and filters is a big part of what sets it apart from competitors like Instagram Reels.
Some analysts have noted that TikTok appears to give greater priority to videos that use effects—specifically, effects that are currently trending.
Going Viral: 7 Tips for Working with the TikTok Algorithm
Now that we have more insight into how TikTok’s algorithm works, the next step is to leverage that information to design videos poised for maximum exposure.
1. Create Shorter Videos
The algorithm rewards videos that are watched from start to finish, so aim to keep at least some of your videos short to increase your chances that users will complete them. 15-20 seconds is a good target to shoot for.
A side benefit to shorter videos is that you’re trimming your content to be punchier and more concise. This can improve the quality of your video and increase its chances of getting attention.
2. Use Trending Effects
Increase your visibility and video shareability by using effects.Trending effects should have the greatest impact due to both the popularity of their being used at that moment, and because TikTok will be actively promoting videos that use those effects.
3. Use Popular Hashtags
Most TikTok creators already know the value of #hashtags, but popular hashtags and hashtag challenges can have a significant impact on your video’s visibility. Prioritize hashtag challenges that use trending effects for best results.
If you’re looking for popular hashtags to use, you can hop to your Discover tab and see what’s trending.
4. Engage with Other Creators
Don’t just sit back and pump out videos—this is “social” media, after all! TikTok is a community, and showing others’ support can go a long way toward helping them, and you.
Like and comment on videos from other creators; engagement is the most important factor in TikTok’s algorithm, so they are likely to appreciate your efforts, and be more open to returning the favor when you publish new videos.
5. Use Trending Sounds and Music
Whenever a user likes a video, the TikTok algorithm shows you other videos that use the same music or sound. This means that sounds can trend the same way that hashtags and effects do.
Unfortunately, finding trending music isn’t as simple as discovering a popular hashtag; it’s not going to be listed on your Discover or For You feed. But there are still a couple of ways you can get this info.
Your first option is to open your video editor, and click on the Sounds tab. Here you’ll see trending sounds as you scroll through the list.
A second option is to sign up for a TikTok Pro Account. Go to the Follower tab, and you will be able to see what sounds your followers have been listening to for the last seven days.
6. Post When your Audience is Online
A TikTok Pro Account gives you access to reports that tell you when your audience is the most engaged. You can find this under the Follower Activity report in the Follower tab.
Try to publish videos when your followers are most active. This will help your videos generate more engagement faster, which will increase the velocity of the video and get it shown to more users.
7. Don’t Delete Old Videos
Unless you have a specific reason for deleting old videos, we recommend keeping them around, even if they haven’t earned the same exposure as more recent content. Because the TikTok algorithm does not use data from the creator’s other videos to determine ranking for new videos, each video is evaluated on its own merits. In short, your weaker videos are not “dragging you down.”
In fact, older and/or underperforming videos may have a chance of going viral. The Batch Theory implies that videos are still going to be shared among different groups; if this theory works the way many users expect, it would only take one new click for the video to start gaining potential velocity. There is anecdotal evidence of videos going viral after extended quiet periods.
As large a social force as it may seem TikTok already is, they are still a newer platform by comparison, with an abundance of opportunity on the organic and TikTok advertising front. If Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest are the “senior class” of social, TikTok might be considered a popular, ambitious sophomore.
Want to learn more about how to make the best use of TikTok for your brand? Contact us today to ‘tok’ with an expert!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2021 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.