There’s a reason it’s hard to stop scrolling when you open up the TikTok app. The social media app’s algorithm has been strategically designed to deliver content TikTok predicts you’ll like, and this recommendation system is famously good at getting those predictions right.
The key to TikTok’s algorithm is discoverability. TikTok delivers content from accounts users haven’t interacted with yet. It’s been so successful that other social media platforms, including Instagram and Twitter, have rejigged their algorithms to include that same joy of discoverability.
Making TikTok a successful part of your social media strategy in 2023 means understanding both how to create standout content, and how to play nice with the algorithm. We’ll go over exactly what feeds the TikTok algorithm, how it influences content creation the For You page, and how to make it all work for your brand.
What Is the TikTok Algorithm?
The TikTok algorithm is what determines the videos curated on the For You page. It’s a recommendation system that aims to deliver only content TikTok thinks you’ll enjoy watching, based on user activity and interactions, device and account settings, and video information.
The algorithm is highly personalized — no two people will have the exact same For You page feed. For example, one user’s feed may be curated with video content of cats, couple pranks, and beauty content. But another person may see video content about anime, celebrity gossip, and cooking.
The algorithm is also constantly getting better by using machine learning. Every time you watch a particular video, leave a comment, or scroll past something quickly, the algorithm remembers and continues to show you similar videos and content.
The TikTok algorithm learns incredibly fast
The Wall Street Journal conducted an investigation where they created 100 automated accounts, telling them to keep scrolling. Each fresh account was fed a large variety of content, but then started refining those results as the users watched videos on the social media app. They assigned interests to each bot account, to be expressed by watching and pausing on content that matched those interests.
The results showed that the TikTok algorithm figured out the bot account’s interests in under two hours — sometimes even under 40 minutes.
Because the algorithm is so powerful and so core to TikTok’s addictive success, its exact inner workings are a closely-guarded secret by parent company ByteDance.
However enough is known to give some guidance about how to make the TikTok algorithm work for you.
Where the TikTok Algorithm Works
The For You page is primarily where videos are curated by the algorithm. It’s the first thing you see when you open the app, and where users spend the most time.
But that’s not the only way to watch content on TikTok. Here are the other places where the algorithm comes into play.
There are two ways the search screen uses the algorithm. First, when you click the search icon, the app has a list of recommended search terms called “You may like.” These are based on both trending topics and your own watch history on the app.
Second, when you enter a search term, the results are influenced by your TikTok watch history.
The following page only shows TikToks from accounts you follow, but they are not in chronological order. Rather, they’re again based on what TikTok thinks you’ll want to watch.
The Friends page on TikTok only shows content from accounts you’ve added as a friend on the app. Again, their order is determined by the algorithm.
What Influences the TikTok Algorithm?
There is a set of signals that tell the TikTok algorithm what to show you. Some have been named by TikTok itself, while others have been discovered by researchers.
1. Watch Time
In the Wall Street Journal experiment, watch time appeared to be the top metric the algorithm takes into consideration. That means the algorithm pays attention to the video completion rate, or even when a particular user watches a video on repeat. This key data signals to the algorithm that you’re highly interested in the content.
Conversely, when you scroll past a TikTok without watching, the algorithm takes note of that, too.
2. Positive User Interactions
The algorithm makes note of every interaction a user has with videos, and there are many to consider.
These include positive user interactions such as:
- Following an account
- Leaving a comment
- Liking a TikTok
- Adding a TikTok as a favorite
3. Negative User Interactions
The TikTok algorithm also considers when you tell it you don’t like a video, such as:
- Marking a TikTok as “not interested”
- Reporting a TikTok for potentially upsetting content
TikTok will hide videos based on these interactions.
4. Video Information
The video information signals to the TikTok algorithm key data that affects users’ feeds.
It makes note of video information like:
- The TikTok video caption
- The sound used
- Hashtags included
- Effects used
Take for example the very trendy Bold Glamour filter.
@chiaraking But why do i like it #boldglamour #boldglamourfilter ♬ party with a monster - Chiara King
If you keep watching TikTok videos using this filter, or create content with this filter, the algorithm will show you more.
The algorithm also notes if you’ve had previous high-performing videos.
5. Your Own Posts
Your own posts on TikTok influence the algorithm, too.
- The sounds you use, especially trending sounds
- The hashtags you include
- Your video captions
- Accounts you’ve tagged or dueted
- Other video information
Simply put, if you create a lot of content about farm life, the algorithm is going to show you other videos about farm life on your For You page.
6. Device and Account Settings
Lastly, the TikTok algorithm looks at your device and account settings. TikTok uses this to further refine what it shows you.
- Your language preference
- Your country
- Your device type
TikTok says that the device type and accounting settings don’t have as much weight in the algorithm as other key ranking signals, but it’s still important. It uses this to deliver more localized content as well as content that is in a language you can understand.
Related Article: How Much Does TikTok Pay Creators?
TikTok Algorithm Rumors
Due to the secretive nature of ByteDance, there’s plenty of rumors out there about how the TikTok algorithm works. However, over the years TikTok has made statements to the media to address some of those rumors and shed light on the algorithm.
Here’s what we’ve learned:
Employees Can Choose to Make a TikTok Go Viral with “Heating”
Self-proclaimed TikTok expert Jera Bean breaks it down in this video:
@jera.bean Replying to @alohadae let’s talk about this secret TikTok heating button 🔥#greenscreen ♬ original sound - Jera Bean TikTok Expert
This information came to light thanks to former and current employees who spoke to Forbes and leaked documents. Reportedly, the feature was used to please hand-picked brands and influencers.
A spokesperson confirmed to Forbes that “only a few people” have access to promoting videos, and it’s done to “diversify the content experience.”
TikTok Doesn’t Want Too Much Repetition
According to Axios, the TikTok algorithm “aims to avoid redundancies that could bore the user, like seeing multiple videos with the same music or from the same creator.”
The TikTok algorithm doesn’t want you to watch the same videos over and over so when a user watches a video, they won’t see it again in their feed.
TikTok will also include videos from outside your usual interests to see if it can tempt you with something new.
TikTok Users Are Categorized by Interest
In that same call with reporters, TikTok said it categorizes users into “clusters” based on interests. That’s why you may repeatedly see videos about the LGBTQ+ community, or horses, or baseball.
Related Article: 11 TikTok Video Ideas + Examples from Brands and Creators
How to Make TikTok Videos the Algorithm Likes
Now that we know how TikTok’s algorithm works, how can brands use it to their advantage? Playing nice with the algorithm will help give your TikTok videos a boost, giving you a better chance at gaining views, likes, and followers by finding relevant users.
Here are a few tips to make the TikTok algorithm work for you:
Find Your Niche
We know that the algorithm sorts TikTok users into “clusters” based on their interests, and that TikTok wants to keep showing each particular user videos that include their interests. More than finding new followers, you need to create TikTok content that will appear organically in For You pages.
If you want a highly-engaged audience that will watch your videos again and again, you need to find a TikTok community to embed yourself within. Some communities define themselves with a trending hashtag, like #foodtok for culinary enthusiasts, #beautytok for makeup artists, or #catsoftiktok for cat lovers.
Communities may have inside jokes or trends unique to their subculture. As a brand on TikTok, you need to identify with communities, or communities, make sense for you. Spend time watching videos and training your algorithm to learn your interest and you’ll start seeing how other TikTok users engage within your niche.
Gymshark, an athletic apparel company, has firmly rooted itself in the fitness community, which is very popular on the app. Rather than simply trying to copy everything that trends on TikTok, they keep their content focused with high-quality videos.
On this TikTok for example, which has 4 million views, they play on an ongoing trend of men at the gym being impressed by a woman who can lift heavy weight.
@gymshark She got the whole gym watching #deadlift #gym #Gymshark ♬ Speak Up - is0kenny
They use the hashtags #deadlift and #gym so the algorithm picks up on their niche.
They also partner with popular #FitTok creators and influencers to create organic feeling content for their feed, reposting their TikToks and tagging them for extra engagement and reach.
Related Article: How to Grow Your Instagram in 2023
Make the Most of Your Captions and Hashtags
TikTok now allows captions of up to 2,200 characters, making it the perfect place to employ search-engine optimization techniques on the platform.
TikTok SEO Includes using relevant keywords for your identified niche so the TikTok algorithm is more able to identify your genre of content. That can be done as a written sentence, or with trending TikTok hashtags.
Think of writing these captions the way you’d use SEO for a landing page, but don’t go overboard. If you jam-pack the caption with a nonsensical list of keywords, that will signal to TikTok users that you’re not actually engaging with the app’s culture and are just optimizing for views.
Rather, keep it short and fun — the TikTok algorithm will do the rest.
Take a look at this TikTok from the NBA’s official account.
@nba This @lakers sequence 😱 #nba #basketball #lakers #dlo #austinreaves #dennisschroder #losangeleslakers ♬ original sound - NBA
The caption reads:
“This @lakers sequence 😱 #nba #basketball #lakers #dlo #austinreaves #dennisschroder #losangeleslakers”
They kept the caption short and sweet but included hashtags that signal to the algorithm that the video will be of interest to anyone who likes basketball, the Lakers, Austin Reaves, or Dennis Schroder.
The algorithm will also pick up on any words in your TikTok's on-screen text.
Use Trending Audio and Hashtags
When a particular trend, challenge, or audio clip goes viral on TikTok, creating content with that trend is always a good idea. But you need to do it in a way that’s still authentic to your brand and, ideally, plays to your niche.
Example: The San Diego Zoo
The zoo adapted that trend by using the audio clip over footage of their baby elephants. That sticks within their niche of cute animals while also getting a boost from the trend, which they also named in the caption.
@sandiegozoo Zuli is ✨bonita✨ #sdzsafaripark #elephant #bonita #animalsoftiktok ♬ HEYYY WAIT A SECOND - THEREALFIERY
The result? More than 500,000 views.
Pay attention to trending sounds and trending songs on the app and find a way to use them. One word of warning though: if you have a TikTok business account, you won’t be able to use TikTok’s vast library of copyrighted audio, even if they’re trending songs.
The now-sunsetted “discover tab” was once a way to find trending songs and trending hashtags, but you can now discover new trends in the Creative Center.
Another thing to keep in mind when creating trending content is that you have to move quickly. Timing is everything. According to Jake Bjorseth, Founder and CEO of Gen Z marketing agency trndsttrs, “By the time you see the trend on your FYP, you have about a day to post before that train leaves the station.”
And there’s nothing cringier than a brand account that’s weeks or months late to the party on a trend.
Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to TikTok Playlists (with Examples)
Create Short Videos
Engaging videos are short videos. Remember, watch time is a key factor in the TikTok algorithm. To capture the algorithm’s attention, you want the audience to watch the full video by making shorter videos.
Duolingo has more than 6 million followers on TikTok. Much of that success is their use of their hilarious mascot and engaging in memes, but take a look at the length of the videos. Most are under 10 seconds long, with some outliers going up to 15 seconds.
@duolingo you called? #Duolingo #languaglearning #dulapeep #dualipa #rizzgod ♬ Meat 2 Meat - Quail 🦹🏾♂️
The native video editor lets TikTok creators make videos up to two minutes long and you can use a third-party TikTok video editor to create TikToks up to ten minutes and upload from your camera roll. But you should aim to create shorter videos. Longer videos may be skipped by TikTok users. Length is just as important as the size, quality, and content of your TikTok videos.
Get the Timing Right
Lastly, make sure you’re picking the right time to post on TikTok. There are broad recommendations for when to post on TikTok, like Thursday evenings.
Even better though is to examine your own analytics. If you go to Creator Tools, then Analytics, you can see when your content does best. This can be affected by your particular niche.
Teachers, for example, don’t have a lot of time to scroll TikTok midday on a weekday, so that wouldn’t be the best time for an education brand to post.
Play Nice with the TikTok Algorithm and It Will Play Nice with You
When you break it down, the TikTok algorithm isn’t as mysterious as it seems. It simply wants to deliver relevant content to the right audience that will keep people scrolling.
Just like on any other social media platform, creating high-quality videos must be combined with an awareness of what the algorithm favors. To get more engagement, keep your videos short, using trending music, find trending hashtags, and you’ll be well on your way.
With just a few tweaks to your own videos, you can create content that appeases the algorithm, finds your target audience, and grows your follower count.
Try these trending TikTok tools:
- TikTok Video Ad Maker
- Repurpose YouTube to TikTok
- Repurpose Instagram to TikTok
- Repurpose Twitch to TikTok
- TikTok Safe Zones Template