How Does the TikTok Algorithm Work?

As a source of viral video content and internet trends, TikTok has quickly become one of the most popular social media platforms in just a few years. In 2021, it even surpassed YouTube in terms of monthly time spent on the platform, with people using it for an average of 24.5 hours each month. This is largely due to the addictive nature of the platform that entices people to keep consuming content – the result of its strategically-designed algorithm.

Due to the high levels of engagement the platform sees, many brands are leveraging TikTok to raise brand awareness and connect with younger audiences. But how does the TikTok algorithm work exactly and what makes it so addictive? More importantly, how can you make this algorithm work in your favor? Read on to find out.

How Does the TikTok Algorithm Work:

What Is the TikTok Algorithm?

The TikTok algorithm is a system that decides which videos to display to users on their For You page depending on their individual preferences. In other words, it’s the system that determines which videos you’d be interested in seeing.

As a result, the For You page is highly personalized for each individual user, and no two users will see exactly similar pages. It gets extremely specific by narrowing down the recommendations to niche interests, which means NFL fans will see football-related videos and not generic sports content.

@nfl mamba mentality ? #stefondiggs #nflplayoffs ♬ Paper Birds (3 min) - Jordan Halpern Schwartz

This also means that the types of videos you see can also change as your preferences and state of mind change over time. The TikTok algorithm will quickly pick up on your behavioral changes to recommend the most appropriate content in the current moment.

For example, you may see a lot of cooking TikToks on your For You page as you develop a new cooking hobby and start to watch more videos related to food. But once you lose interest a few months down the line, you might see a decline in these types of videos as you begin to interact less and less with the cooking videos recommended on your For You page. 

Factors that Influence the TikTok Algorithm

So how does TikTok know which videos to recommend? According to TikTok, there are several factors that the algorithm takes into consideration:

Factors that Influence the TikTok Algorithm

User Interactions

The TikTok algorithm is very similar to the Instagram algorithm in that it places serious weight on how users interact on the platform. In other words, it looks at how you behave on the platform to understand what you might like. It considers key data signals like:

  • Videos you like
  • Videos you share
  • Accounts you follow
  • Content you create
  • Comments you post
  • Videos you add to your favorites
  • Creators you hide
  • Videos you flag as “not interested”

To further narrow down on your interests, TikTok also considers how much of the video you watched. Watching a video in its entirety is a strong sign that a user is interested in the content, meaning that it carries more weight in the TikTok algorithm. Additionally, the algorithm also favors creators whose content you regularly engage with over ones that you follow but often scroll past.

Video Information

In addition to your activity, TikTok factors in the information on the video to identify the subject matter and then assess which ones you’d be interested in. It often looks at details such as:

  • Captions to identify any keywords that could inform the algorithm what the content is about
  • Hashtags to categorize the content and/or inform the algorithm what the video is about 
  • Audio such as sounds and songs to identify trending audio content and serve it to a larger audience 

Device and Account Settings

TikTok also puts your device and account settings into consideration, although not to the same level as user activity and video information. It uses these factors more as a way to optimize performance and less as content recommendation signals because users don’t explicitly express them as preferences. Some of the device and account settings TikTok considers are;

  • Device type
  • Country setting
  • Language preference

What the TikTok Algorithm Doesn’t Show

In an attempt to constantly optimize the user experience, TikTok excludes some content from showing up on your For You page to ensure that you don’t keep seeing the same videos or videos you’ve explicitly expressed a disinterest in. That means the TikTok algorithm will not recommend the following types of videos:

  • Content you’ve already watched
  • Spam content
  • Duplicate content
  • Content you’ve marked as “Not Interested”
  • Potentially harmful/upsetting content

Going Viral: How to Make the TikTok Algorithm Work for You

Whether you’re a content creator that wants to make it big on the platform or a brand that wants to expand its reach through TikTok, understanding the algorithm gives you much-needed leverage. It helps you understand how you can create content to gain more exposure and eventually attract more TikTok followers. Here are a few tips to creating videos that the TikTok algorithm will prioritize:

1: Focus on a Subculture/Niche

As subject matter holds weight in the TikTok algorithm, it’s important that you consistently create content in a relevant niche. The more videos you create in your niche, the better your chances of showing up in the For You pages of the right users.

So it’s crucial that you first decide on a subculture or niche to focus on, which will allow you to tap into an existing community and boost your content visibility with the right audience. This is pretty straightforward for brands as they already have products in place and industries defined. It’s all a matter of figuring out what types of content are popular within those industries and niches and using them to inspire your TikTok content strategy.   

For example, Elf Cosmetics uses the platform to share bite-sized tips, customer reviews, tutorials, and relatable videos.

@elfyeahGet with the program besties ??♬ original sound - gracie

For content creators, this step may be a bit more overwhelming because there are so many options to choose from. Since you have a knack for comedy, perhaps you’re considering the entertainment subculture. But you’re passionate about skincare and makeup so you also want to do a bit of beauty TikTok too. 

The good news is you don’t have to pick just one. You can even narrow it down to a few subcultures and mix them up a bit. Whatever you decide on, make sure it’s true to your heart so your content is always authentic.

2: Keep Your Videos Short

Remember when we said that the TikTok algorithm places weight on whether or not users watch a video in its entirety? This could be played to your advantage if you create shorter videos that are easy to finish in just a few seconds. 

While TikTok lets you create videos of up to 60 seconds, you’ll have to aim for a much shorter video duration if you want higher video completion rates. Try to keep most of your videos between 15 and 20 seconds long to increase the chances of users completing them. 

However, make sure you’re not compromising the quality of your content. Rather, aim to keep your videos punchy and straight to the point. This will help you engage your audience and get your message across more clearly.

3: Make the First Few Seconds Count

While the goal is to get people to watch the entire video, you still have to make sure they’re watching your videos in the first place. With short attention spans, people are quickly going to scroll past your videos if the first few seconds don’t captivate them. This is why it’s important to make the first moments count so your audience is instantly engaged and keen to keep watching.

Make sure the first 2-3 seconds of the video can instantly hook in your audience using text overlay, visual elements, and audio. Cut out any unnecessary sections and get straight to the interesting part.

For example, Levi’s has a huge brand presence on TikTok with 1.2M followers and 19.9 million total likes. The secret to their success is short and engaging videos that instantly captivate the audience in the first few seconds. In the TikTok below, the first scene immediately shows the reward – why they should watch the rest of the video – using text overlay.

@levis Because just machine washing is mid ? #denimhacks #liveinlevis ♬ original sound - Levi’s

4: Leverage Popular Hashtags

Using popular hashtags in your TikTok videos is a great way to improve your chances of showing up on the For You pages of relevant users. Since those popular hashtags are already seeing tons of engagement, they could help to significantly boost your content visibility. 

Look for trending hashtags under the Discover tab and see if there are any opportunities for your brand. Even better, be on the lookout for hashtag challenges you can participate in. Trending challenges not only give you content inspiration but participating in them improves your chances of getting discovered. In recent studies, it's been found that 79% of users believe that TikTok provides a platform for brands to showcase their personality and self-expression.

For example, the New Story Charity account used the #LearnSomethingNew hashtag to raise awareness about social housing projects gone wrong. The video received 774.1K likes and 5.2M views, while most of their videos usually see about 500-700 views.

@newstorycharity When social housing projects ignore the needs of the families they’re supposed to help ??? #LearnSomethingNew #LearnOnTikTok #Mexico ♬ Creepy and noisy synth lead song(838982) - utukemono

You can even take this approach to the next level and create your own trending hashtag. Brands like Guess, BMW, Elf Cosmetics, and Samsung have all launched highly successful TikTok challenges that got their branded hashtags trending. Pepsi also created the #pepsicanbalance challenge where, as the name suggests, users were challenged to balance a Pepsi can. The hashtag became immensely popular, garnering a total of 12.4 million views.

#pepsicanbalance _ TikTok


5: Use Trending Audio to Your Advantage

TikTok isn’t just limited to hashtags when it comes to content discovery features. It’s a place where audio elements can be used to find popular content. As you can see below, TikTok lets you conduct a search using trending songs in addition to hashtags.

So to improve your content visibility, make sure you leverage trending songs and sounds in your videos. In fact, the TikTok report cited above also found that 68% of TikTok users remember a brand better when it uses a song they like in its video. Plus, 58% feel more strongly connected to the brand while 62% are more curious to learn about the brand. This speaks volumes (pun intended) about the power of trending audio elements on TikTok.

Brands can even create their own sound and try to get it to trend to gain further visibility. For example, Fabletics partnered with Kevin Hart to create an original sound that other users can use in their videos. The video promoting this original sound got 4M views and 456.9K likes.

@imkevinhart “F” on my chest ??? @fableticsmen ....I RIIISSSSEEEEE #FableticsMen #FableticsPartner ♬ original sound - Kevin Hart

6: Make Your Captions Relevant and Engaging

Since the TikTok algorithm factors in video captions, this is another opportunity you can leverage to improve your content visibility. You can now add a caption of up to 2,200 characters, which gives you plenty of space to write a relevant and engaging caption that describes your video or adds context. 

You can use this space to insert relevant keywords but make sure you’re not just stuffing it with random keywords in an attempt to “game” the algorithm. Keywords should be used naturally as part of a phrase or sentence to help draw in your viewers and get them to engage with your videos. You could write funny and relatable captions, ask questions, or prompt them to take some sort of action. 

For example, Buxom Cosmetics created a TikTok comparing their various products to “Euphoria” characters. They used the caption space to ask their viewers a simple question – “Who are you?” This is a great way to get people to engage with the video and leave a comment.

@buxomcosmetics Who are you? ?? #euphoria #makeup ♬ EUPHORIA CHARACTER VOICES - LIVVY

Winning at the TikTok Game

Understanding how the TikTok algorithm works is one of the key ways to win at TikTok. So if your brand is planning to leverage the platform, take advantage of the tips above to make the algorithm work in your favor. This is also an effective way for content creators to gain visibility and build influence on the platform.

Frequently Asked Questions

What algorithm does TikTok use?

TikTok uses an algorithm that recommends relevant video based on user activity and video information.

How does the TikTok algorithm work?

The TikTok algorithm considers several factors to determine which videos to show to users. These factors include user interactions such as video likes, shares, and account follows. It also considers the video information such as hashtags, audio, and caption.

How does TikTok decide what to show you?

TikTok considers several factors such as how you’ve behaved on the platform and which accounts you interact with to show you content that it deems most relevant to you.

How do you beat the TikTok algorithm?

You can “beat” the TikTok algorithm by understanding how it works and creating content to align with the various factors it considers.

When is the best time to post on TikTok?

The best time to post on TikTok varies for each account but in general, 9 AM EST on Tuesdays, 12 AM EST on Thursdays, and *5 AM EST on Fridays offer particularly high levels of engagement.

About the Author
With over 15 years in content marketing, Werner founded Influencer Marketing Hub in 2016. He successfully grew the platform to attract 5 million monthly visitors, making it a key site for brand marketers globally. His efforts led to the company's acquisition in 2020. Additionally, Werner's expertise has been recognized by major marketing and tech publications, including Forbes, TechCrunch, BBC and Wired.