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TikTok Algorithm Guide 2024: Everything We Know About How Videos Are Ranked

A deep dive into the TikTok algorithm, how it works, and how you can work with it to enhance your visibility and engagement on the platform.

Mar 26, 2024 10 min readTikTok
Photo of Kirsti Lang
Kirsti Lang

Content Writer @ Buffer

I’m no stranger to a certain amount of time-eating scrolling on social media, but TikTok is something else. I’ve been engrossed by the social media app for hours on end — and the TikTok algorithm is to blame.

But the secret sauce that makes the app so addictive to users is exactly what has content creators and marketers tearing their hair out. Why do certain TikTok videos gain meteoric popularity while others, seemingly of equal quality, barely get a glance? The answer isn't just in the dance moves or trending sounds. The answers lie in a host of signals weighed and analyzed by the TikTok algorithm.

The uncannily accurate recommendations are powered by an algorithm that delivers hyper-relevant video content that’ll make you wonder if they’re tracking you. Many creators find it mystical and feel the need to ‘hack’ or ‘game’ the algorithm, but that’s unnecessary.

In this article, we’ll dive into the TikTok algorithm, how it works, and how you can work with it to enhance your visibility and engagement on the platform and, with any luck, grow your TikTok follower count.

Work smarter, not harder: plan, organize, and schedule your TikTok content with Buffer. Here’s how →

How does TikTok's algorithm work?

TikTok’s algorithm works by analyzing thousands of signals by a user to determine what kind of content they most want to see. These signals — things like likes, comments, follows, and how long they spend on a particular video — determine what videos appear on their ‘For You’ page and in what order. 

TikTok's For You page, often abbreviated as FYP, has undeniably transformed how we consume content. The For You page is the first page you encounter on TikTok and is filled with recommended content and videos that get more accurate as you spend time on the platform.

Unlike the algorithms of YouTube and Instagram (but similar to LinkedIn), TikTok’s recommendation system serves a mix of quality content from creators you follow and those you've yet to discover from one page. The blend of familiar and new content is tailored meticulously to user preferences, making the social network addictive and fresh.

Many other social media platforms have taken a page out of TikTok’s book — like Instagram’s Reels feed and Threads’ own For You feed. 

TikTok does seem particularly good at getting users hooked on the app, leading folks to believe there’s some hidden secret behind the algorithm — which doesn’t seem to be the case. 

“There seems to be some perception that they’ve cracked some magic code for recommendation, but most of what I’ve seen seems pretty normal,” says Julian McAuley, a professor of computer science at the University of California San Diego. After viewing some internal documentation on the TikTok algorithm, he spoke to the New York Times

What sets TikTok apart, he said, is that they have “fantastic volumes of data, highly engaged users, and a setting where users are amenable to consuming algorithmically recommended content (think how few other settings have all of these characteristics!). Not some algorithmic magic.”

Let’s take a closer look at how TikTok’s algorithm works for a new user:

  1. The user joins TikTok, sharing some basic information as they sign up like age and location. 
  2. When they first open their brand-new TikTok account, their For You page will show them some of the platform's most popular recent videos, particularly among users who fit their demographic profile.
  3. As the user scrolls through the stream of videos, they may like a certain clip, follow a creator, or even tap over to that TikToker’s profile to watch more of their content. Every one of these tiny actions carries a certain amount of weight in the algorithm and signals how much the user liked the content.
  4. The more the user is active on TikTok, the more info the TikTok algorithm learns about them, and the better able it is to predict what they want to see. 

At its core, the TikTok algorithm prioritizes a few key elements, or ranking factors:

Engagement

This includes likes, shares, saves, comments, and — perhaps most importantly — video watch time. While we don’t know for certain, a fascinating analysis by the Washington Post uncovered that the time users spend lingering on a specific post can have a huge impact on what kind of content is served to them as they continue to use the app.

TikTok uses engagement like this as a signal that your content is valuable and worth showing to more users. The more engagement a video gets, the higher its chances of appearing in more FYPs.

User interactions

Who your audience follows and engages with can influence the content they see.

Video information

Details like whether the video was created natively on TikTok, the information in the caption, and any embedded details within the video.

Device & account settings 

Factors like location, language preference, and device type also play a (less important) role.

Each one of these factors is in pursuit of one goal: to help users discover new, relevant content. One of the standout features of TikTok's algorithm is its emphasis on content relevance over creator popularity. This means that even if you're new to TikTok, your content can still get significant visibility if it resonates with users. Key tools in this discovery process include:

  • Relevant hashtags
  • Keywords
  • Common search phrases

Finally, TikTok won’t recommend certain content on your For You page if:

  • It’s too graphic or endangers the safety of users,
  • It’s tagged as “not interested”
  • You’ve seen it already

This focus on ensuring its users get the most relevant content is one of the best (or not great) things about TikTok because audience size doesn’t matter for your discoverability. Whether you have an existing platform or not, TikTok is an equal playing field for creators.

Want to know when you should be scheduling your content for maximum engagement? We analyzed millions of videos to help pinpoint the best times to post on TikTok.

5 ways to work with the TikTok algorithm

Understanding the TikTok algorithm is the first step, but how does it translate into actionable advice for creators or tactics that can be worked into a marketing strategy? Here are some ways to harness the algorithm's nuances to enhance your content's reach and engagement.

Leverage TikTok SEO

It’s no secret that TikTok users treat the platform like the short-form video version of Google. Gen Z, in particular — TikTok’s largest demographic — uses TikTok like a search engine

As a result, SEO (search engine optimization) should be a key part of any TikTok social media marketing plan can be a powerful way to get more views and followers on TikTok.

You’ll find our comprehensive guide to TikTok SEO here, but here’s a quick-start guide:

  • Understand what your audience is searching for: Look at what hashtags are popular on TikTok within your niche and the questions you and other creators in your niche get in the comments. Search for keywords that match your content ideas, and check out the 'Others searched for' keywords in the results.  TikTok’s Creative Center is also a brilliant source of popular content, from trending songs to up-and-coming creators. You can also try keyword research tools like Google Trends, Answer the Public, or Exploding Topics.
  • Identify your keywords: Choose 2-3 keywords that will match common search terms from your audience. When you create your content, make sure the video actually covers those topics or answers those questions. 
  • Optimize your videos with your keywords: When you upload your video, weave your keywords in as many places as possible — your video caption, captions, and even on-video text can have an impact.

Use all the tools in TikTok’s toolbox

You should be making relevant and engaging content, but that only works if your content is seen in the first place. By keeping to TikTok’s rules of reach, you can ensure your content is always optimized for reach so you can focus on posting. Here are some evergreen tasks to consider as you make your next TikTok:

  • Use relevant or trending hashtags. Three to five hashtags are recommended as the sweet spot for boosting discoverability.
  • Incorporate trending audio from the TikTok audio library. Here’s our guide to finding trending TikTok sounds while they’re still popular. 
  • Add conversation-starting captions to your videos and sprinkle in relevant keywords.
  • Experiment with carousels: TikTok’s photo carousels are a great way to disrupt the feed and stop users from scrolling past. 
  • Embrace native TikTok features. Whether it's filming directly within the app or using features like Stitches or Duets, staying native can give you an edge. For more robust editing options, use CapCut, which is owned by TikTok’s parent company Bytedance.

tiktok algorithm; a checklist to film your next tiktok
Check your next TikTok against this checklist
💡
The TikTok Creative Center is a goldmine of information – use it to discover what’s popular (or rising in popularity) among your audience.

Once you’ve built a considerable content library, dive deep into your analytics to understand what performs best. Which videos do your viewers rewatch? Which ones do they share? At what times are they watching your videos? Use this data to refine your content strategy.

Publish content consistently

TikTok's ecosystem thrives on rapid content consumption – if you miss a day, you might miss a whole trend. That’s why the most popular advice is to post frequently and consistently.

However, it’s important to balance that with the knowledge that while regular posting can boost visibility, it's crucial not to sacrifice quality for quantity. A well-thought-out video that taps into a trend or resonates with an audience can perform better than multiple hastily-made ones.

There’s a lot of advice for what makes the most engaging content – use a hook! Hop on trends! However, your goal is to find a relevant audience, just as much as the algorithm’s goal is to deliver relevant content. So, you need to make content that resonates with your audience.

Consider creating a signature so you’re instantly recognizable to your audience, even if they’ve never met you. For example, Notion creator, Easlo, starts most of their videos showing their laptop, which they then open. The videos all have a muted tone in their signature black and white, along with text on the screen that tells the viewer what to expect.

@heyeaslo

Notion is literally my second brain. #notion #getyourlifetogether #gettingmylifetogether #getorganized

♬ ... is sweaty - Kellan

Nikita Redkar makes videos breaking down complex topics in more approachable ways for her audience, usually while wearing pink and walking down the street. She’s become known for this style to her 700k+ audience.

@nikitadumptruck

pay actors and writers so i can keep having a fictional character to crush on!!! #comedy #news #explained #actor #screenwriter #film #tv #wga #sagaftra #hollywood

♬ original sound - Nikita

More than anything, a successful TikTok marketing strategy means keeping a close eye on the metrics and applying these learnings to future content. If there’s a particular type of content that people always watch to the end, that might be a good focus point for you.

Niche down to reach your target audience

TikTok offers a diverse creative playground, but if you have a goal you’re trying to achieve as a creator (awareness for your business, for example), defining your niche can help you stand out.

Niching down doesn’t have to make your content boring – it just means you know how to frame your content for the audience you’re targeting, and every additional follower outside that group is a bonus.

Ayomi Samaraweera started posting career-focused content on TikTok, which won her a brand deal with only a few thousand followers. Doubling down on a niche early on allowed her to grow quickly.

@ayomitok

#greenscreen Thank you to @businessinsider for this feature on how I landed my first paid brand deal with only 2000 followers - always great to chat with the BI team and grateful for the support from my TikTok community #PR #businessinsider #firstbranddeal #paidbranddeals #shootyourshotseason #microinfluencertiktok #creatorfounder

♬ BREAK MY SOUL - Beyoncé

One way to take a list of content ideas to new heights is by starting a content series. Fashivly’s Ashlyn Greer makes videos creating outfits based on coffee orders, usually from suggestions commented from their followers.

@fashivly

#greenscreen #coffeelook #outfitideas

♬ original sound - fashivly

Whether you're into DIY crafts, dance, or digital marketing tips, honing in on a specific niche can help you build a dedicated and engaged audience.

Whether you're into DIY crafts, dance, or digital marketing tips, honing in on a specific niche can help you build a dedicated and engaged audience.

Balance creativity with conformity

There are two sides to the TikTok creator coin.

Every creator brings a unique voice and style to the platform. While being aware of prevailing trends is essential, this uniqueness will set you apart. However, while you can make whatever you want (within the guidelines), you should also look to fit in by creating content that looks like everything else on the app.

This doesn’t mean copy-pasting someone else’s creation style but focusing on creating what the person scrolling through the app expects from the next video on their page. For example, Mitra, Buffer’s social media manager, makes TikToks that feel natural to TikTok but also show who we are as a company.

@bufferapp

I love it here #CapCut #salarytransparency #buffer #workbenefits #workperks #futureofwork #remotework #remote #wfh #4dayworkweek #4dww #fourdayworkweek #salariesintech #booktok #bookrecommendations

♬ original sound - Ian Asher

One of the charms of TikTok — and the expectation from its users — is its raw, unfiltered vibe. Users often resonate more with content that feels genuine. Many creators, especially brands, struggle on TikTok because they’re replicating the polished look of the content they create for other social media platforms.

Think of it as a dance between fitting in and standing out. You want to be recognizable as part of the TikTok community but also offer something fresh and unique. You have to meet them where they are while using the app.

This doesn't mean you can't produce high-quality, polished visuals. Pro creators have learned how to create content their audience wants to see, even if it has an elaborate style. Their success comes from the fact that the content still feels personal, as if a real human is sharing a moment of their life behind the screen.

Go beyond virality to build genuine connections

Viral content can boost visibility, but what happens after the virality fades? Building genuine connections ensures long-term engagement and growth. Some ways to do that include:

  • Engaging with your community: TikTok isn't just a platform to broadcast; it's a community. Engage with your followers, respond to their comments, and collaborate with fellow creators. These genuine interactions can foster loyalty and turn casual viewers into dedicated fans.
  • Collaborate with other creators: Speaking of collaborations, you should explore this often-overlooked strategy for growth on TikTok. Working with other creators, especially those in complementary niches, can introduce your content to a whole new audience.
  • Leverage TikTok success off-platform: If you've built a substantial following on TikTok, consider directing them to other platforms. Whether it's your blog, email list, or another social media channel, diversifying your audience ensures you're not putting all your eggs in one basket.

The TikTok algorithm, while intricate, is not insurmountable. Remember, in TikTok's vast, dynamic universe, authenticity and genuine engagement will always shine brighter than fleeting virality. So, creators, roll up your sleeves, tap into your unique voice, and let the TikTok journey begin!

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