The TikTok Algorithm - The Definitive Guide to Going Viral

Last updated: August 25, 2020

TikTok Algorithm – The Definitive Guide

TikTok has over 1 billion users with over 100 million in the U.S. alone (for a full breakdown of TikTok statistics, click here). If your brand is on social, you’ve GOT to be on TikTok! Click here for amazing TikTok examples from brands.

At Wallaroo, we run TikTok strategy for a variety of clients. Before hiring us we always get asked, “How can my brand go viral on TikTok?” Through a combination of the work we’ve done, the results we’ve seen, and newly released information from TikTok themselves – we can tell you what you need to do to get more views on your videos, increase your follower count, and increase your revenue from the platform. Without further ado, here is the definitive breakdown for how the TikTok algorithm works.

Subset of Users

When a video is uploaded to TikTok, the For You algorithm shows it first to a small subset of users. These people may or may not follow the creator already, but TikTok has determined they may be more likely to engage with the video (based on their past behavior). If this initial group responds positively by either liking, sharing, or watching the entire video at a rate higher than what is normal for that account—TikTok then shows it to more people who it thinks share similar interests. That same process then repeats itself, and if this positive feedback loop happens enough times, the video can go viral. But if the initial test group doesn’t signal they enjoyed the content, it’s shown to fewer users, limiting its potential reach. It’s basically a mini-voting system that happens over and over until the metrics fall below the norm.

For You Page

This strategy is why your For You page may contain videos with lots of likes and views, alongside videos that may have been seen by only a few people. A new user with a small amount of followers can still make it to the For You page. Although creators with large followings may have an advantage do to their inherent advantage of follower count. “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,” the TikTok blog post reads. This is why TikTok is the best we’ve ever seen in regards to building an organic social following.

Watchability and Share-ability of Content

TikTok relies on a variety of signals to identify what kinds of videos users want to see. Some signals are weighted more heavily than others. Strong signals include things like whether you watched a video to the end, whether you shared it, and if you followed the creator who uploaded it after watching. TikTok also considers negative feedback on a video, like whether a user tapped “Not Interested,” or if they choose to hide content from a certain creator or featuring a specific sound. Due to these signals, creating content that catches people’s attention early (as in the first few seconds) is key.

Publish Date/Time

When videos are published is also a weak signal. TikTok says recommendations on the For You page may be up to roughly three months old, though videos usually peak in virality soon after they are posted. Since time stamps aren’t visible on the For You page, users may not know the videos they’re watching are from long ago. So anyone saying that there are certain days/times that work best for distribution are incorrect (although late at night probably doesn’t help at all).

Songs and Hashtags

The For You page algorithm looks at other elements like songs used in the video, hashtags, and captions, to categorize them and then recommend more videos like them. That’s why you may have noticed that your For You page often includes videos with the same sounds, if you’ve engaged with content using similar sounds in the past. The fact that TikTok utilizes hashtags proves that gaming the For You page—simply by adding the hashtag #foryou, is effective. If users engaged previously with videos using #foryou, it’s indeed possible they could be recommended more of them, but there’s nothing particularly special about the hashtag itself. Just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rule Violations

TikTok says it visually scans content to look for things that violate its rules such as nudity or violence. The Intercept published internal training documents from TikTok that directed moderators to suppress videos from people deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled. TikTok has since said the rules were outdated or never put in place. User safety is also considered: TikTok says it may block videos depicting things like “graphic medical procedures or legal consumption of regulated goods” from being recommended, because some people may find the content shocking.

Evolving Recommendations

TikTok says the For You page algorithm isn’t optimized for any specific metric, but rather is designed to take into account many factors. TikTok acknowledged in its blog post some of the challenges that come with designing recommendation algorithms, like the risk of creating filter bubbles, where users are shown the same one-sided ideas over and over again. To prevent this, TikTok says it purposely shows users different types of videos, even if they don’t match what they may have engaged with in the past. “Our goal is to find balance between suggesting content that’s relevant to you while also helping you find content and creators that encourage you to explore experiences you might not otherwise see,” the company wrote.

That’s all for now. We’ll be continually adding to this post as we learn more about the TikTok algorithm, so check back for updates. Hopefully that helps you with your TikTok strategy! Have questions? Email me personally at brandon at wallaroomedia dot com. Want to get a TikTok strategy going of your own? (You should!). Contact us today by clicking here! Or fill out the form below!

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Brandon Doyle

CEO + Founder