Social Media as Search Engines: What Does It Mean for Your Business?

Social Media as Search Engines: What Does It Mean for Your Business?
Younger consumers are using social media platforms as search engines to discover products, services, and information. Here’s what businesses should know.
by Mackenzie Born Apr 06, 2023 — 4 min read
Social Media as Search Engines: What Does It Mean for Your Business?

Looking for the best local happy hour, product recommendations for home decor, or tips for managing money? Younger generations aren’t always turning to Google to find their answers.

With short, user-generated videos on hyper-specific topics, social media platforms have become a go-to search engine for information seeking. Younger consumers, particularly Gen Z, have turned to social platforms as a method to cut through the clutter of the internet and discover tailored videos made by real people who have experienced a certain service or product. Whether they’re seeking inspiration on Instagram or finding answers on TikTok, users can get the information they’re looking for in a bite-sized video — or 20 — that quickly tells them what they need to know.

Google has noticed. In a July technology conference, Google senior vice president Prabhakar Raghavan said Google’s own research shows that almost 40% of young people go to TikTok or Instagram when looking for something like a place for lunch. Given that 88% of young consumers use at least one social media platform multiple times a day, according to Afterpay, it’s no surprise they’re relying on social platforms for a range of needs — from trend following and shopping to searching for information and resources.

Social media’s advanced algorithms mean users are served with personalized content that matches their interests and preferences. Coupled with the fact that social media typically offers up more interactive, digestible content — like a 60-second TikTok video — than a standard Google search result, users are easily able to quickly filter through relevant content to find what they’re looking for. 

For some, social media search results feel more trustworthy than an internet search does. The New York Times reported one Gen Z consumer’s sentiment that TikTok videos “don’t seem as biased” as Google’s, offering them a different opinion from Google’s ads and websites that are optimized for search. Plus, social content is often delivered by real people, some with a notable following, that garner more consumer trust than a search engine. This matters particularly to younger consumers, as Afterpay found that 43% of Gen Z would buy a product or service based on the recommendation of an influencer.

While it can’t be overlooked that social media searches can spread factual misinformation, the platforms present a separate and unique opportunity for social selling and social commerce — both aimed at marketing a brand’s reputable goods, products, or services to consumers. These are three popular ways consumers are using social media to search for and find brands and their offerings: 


According to Hubspot, 22% of consumers prefer to discover new products on social media, and that number shoots up significantly when looking at Gen Z alone: 57% of Gen Z consumers say they discover new products on social media, and 71% say it’s where they most often discover new products.

Consumers look to social platforms with the intention of keeping tabs on what’s new and trending: TikTok reports that 56% of its users are using the platform to discover new products or brands, while Instagram says their platform helps 83% of users discover new products and services.


Much of that product and service discovery leads to social commerce. The 2023 Square Future of Commerce report found that the number of retailers selling goods directly through social channels in 2022 jumped 10% year over year from 2021. Seventy-nine percent of consumers are making purchases directly from their mobile devices, and consumers reported buying a monthly average of four products directly from social media platforms in 2022.

Social platforms aren’t just for retailers, either. Visual-heavy social channels are especially advantageous for food and beverage and service-based businesses that use social media to showcase their ambiance and offerings. And consumers are checking social apps before deciding to eat somewhere — according to Restaurant Dive, 45% of diners tried a restaurant because of social media. 

Tips and tutorials

Users aren’t always looking for a trending product or service. Consumers have also turned to social channels for educational content, often to help answer questions that were traditionally more common on Google Search — like how to write a cover letter or best recipes for an air fryer.

TikTok’s short and interactive how-to videos, in particular, have gained traction among younger generations, with educational topics ranging from starting your own business and managing money to making career changes or learning a new language. While users may not necessarily be looking for a specific product or service, there’s a valuable opportunity for brands to be present at this point in a consumer’s search. 

Eight-eight percent of Gen Zers use at least one social platform multiple times per day, and 74% use at least two. Daily, they spend the most time on YouTube (67%), followed by Instagram (65%), TikTok (58%), and Snapchat (55%), according to Afterpay’s Gen Z report.

How businesses can leverage search interest on social platforms 

It’s clear that consumers are using social media as search engines, but how do businesses meet them there? 

Brand awareness

Since consumers are already using social platforms to search for new trends, products, and services, businesses have an opportunity to be present on social media in a variety of forms to capture their attention. Bee Joyful, a company that sells reusable and eco-friendly products, leveraged specific TikTok trends and viral moments as opportunities to educate users about being more eco-conscious — building their brand awareness and helping contribute to a 300% increase in online sales.

To drive brand awareness, be sure to optimize your posts for social media search. Depending on the social platform, that can mean using strategic keywords in your captions or bio, selecting a few relevant and trending hashtags for your post, and remembering to include keywords or alt text for any photos and videos that you use.


Social platforms offer unique marketing tools that help build engaged communities, advertise products and services, and make sales. From influencer and micro-influencer campaigns, which hold significant conversion power for younger consumers, to leveraging ads and user-generated content across platforms, brands have ample opportunity to get in front of high-intent audiences.

Again, it’s essential to optimize posts for social’s search algorithms. Influencer and user-generated content can help expand your reach and get your brand in front of new audiences, and certain tools — like TikTok Promote or TikTok’s Creator Marketplace — are a good starting point to enhance the search visibility of posts.   

Social commerce

For many businesses, the end goal is converting (and retaining) a customer, and social search is an opportunity to get products and services in front of consumers to make that happen. eMarketer reports that 71% of TikTok users are inclined to buy when coming across an interesting product, and projects that nearly 40% of TikTok users will make a purchase on the platform in 2026 — up from just 5.7% in 2020.

Even with TikTok’s fast-growing popularity, Instagram and Facebook are still a significant driver of social interest and sales. eMarketer projects that 35% of users will make a purchase on Instagram and 37% on Facebook in 2023. Recognizing the rapid growth of social commerce, both Meta-owned platforms offer social commerce integrations so businesses can sync their online store catalog to Instagram and Facebook and make their posts shoppable. 

Mackenzie Born
Mackenzie Born is an editor at Square covering all things commerce, from starting and running a business to leveraging technology that helps it grow.


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