How the TikTok Algorithm Works in 2021 (and How to Work With It)

How the TikTok Algorithm Works in 2021 (and How to Work With It)


The highly personalized TikTok algorithm that fuels the For You feed is what makes the app so addictive. Here’s everything brands need to know about how the TikTok algorithm works in 2021.

Download the full Social Trends report to get an in-depth analysis of the data you need to inform your social strategy in 2021.

What is the TikTok algorithm?

The TikTok algorithm is a recommendation system that determines which videos will appear on your For You page.

No two users will see the same videos on their For You page, and the videos you see might change over time based on your viewing preferences and even your current state of mind.

For example, here’s Amy Poehler talking about how her For You page can alert her she’s getting a little bit down:

Here’s how TikTok itself defines the TikTok For You page algorithm:

“A stream of videos curated to your interests, making it easy to find content and creators you love … powered by a recommendation system that delivers content to each user that is likely to be of interest to that particular user.”

How does the TikTok algorithm work?

Social platforms originally kept their algorithms secret. This makes sense, since the recommendation system is a proprietary technology that helps make each social network unique.

The algorithm is a key reason social networks can draw us in and keep us paying attention. TikTok doesn’t want spammers and other shady characters to be able to game the algorithm to get more attention than they deserve.

However, as people have become more skeptical about the inner workings of social networks, most platforms have revealed the basic workings of their algorithms.

Fortunately, that means we now know some of the key ranking signals for the TikTok algorithm, straight from TikTok. They are:

1. User interactions

Much like the Instagram algorithm, the TikTok algorithm bases recommendations on a user’s interactions with content on the app. What kind of interactions? Anything that offers clues about the kind of content the user likes, or doesn’t like.

For example, your For You page recommendations are based on:

  • Which accounts you follow
  • Creators you’ve hidden
  • Comments you’ve posted
  • Videos you’ve liked or shared on the app
  • Videos you’ve added to your favorites
  • Videos you’ve marked as “Not Interested”
  • Videos you’ve reported as inappropriate
  • Longer videos you watch all the way to the end (aka video completion rate)
  • Content you create on your own account

2. Video information

While user interaction signals are based on the way you interact with other users on the app, video information signals are based on the content you tend to seek out on the Discover tab.

This can include details like:

  • Captions
  • Sounds
  • Hashtags
  • Effects
  • Trending topics

3. Device and account settings

These are settings TikTok uses to optimize performance. However, since they’re based on one-time settings choices rather than active engagements, they do not have as much influence on what you see on the platform as user interaction and video information signals.

Some of the device and account settings included in the TikTok algorithm are:

  • Language preference
  • Country setting (you may be more likely to see content from people in your own country)
  • Type of mobile device
  • Categories of interest you selected as a new user

What’s not included in the TikTok algorithm

The following types of content will NOT be recommended by the algorithm:

  • Duplicated content
  • Content you’ve already seen
  • Content the algorithm flags as spam
  • Potentially upsetting content (TikTok gives the examples of “graphic medical procedures” or “legal consumption of regulated goods”)

And here’s the good news for all new TikTok users, or those who haven’t yet built up a large follower base. TikTok does NOT base recommendations on follower count or on previous success with a high-performing video.

Sure, accounts with more followers will likely get more views because people are actively seeking that content. However, if you create great content that speaks directly to your target audience, you have as much chance to land on their For You page as even the biggest TikTok stars.

Not convinced? Here’s the scoop straight from TikTok:

“You may come across a video in your feed that doesn’t appear to … have amassed a huge number of likes…. Bringing a diversity of videos into your For You feed gives you additional opportunities to stumble upon new content categories, discover new creators, and experience new perspectives.”.

Your goal is to be one of those new creators for your target audience. Here are 9 tips to help you do just that.

9 tips for working with the TikTok algorithm in 2021

1. Switch to a TikTok Pro account

TikTok offers two types of pro accounts, depending on whether you’re a creator or a business. Having a Pro account in itself won’t help get your videos on the For You page, but switching to one is nonetheless an important part of mastering the TikTok algorithm.

That’s because a Creator or Business account gives you access to metrics and insights that can help guide your TikTok strategy. Understanding who your audience is, when they’re active on the app, and what kind of content they enjoy is critical if you want to create content they like and engage with.

@tiktokforbusiness

With a Business Account you can access the Web Business Suite and tap into key insights, inspiration and more! #learnontiktok #businesscheck

♬ original sound – TikTok For Business

Here’s how to convert to a TikTok Business account:

  1. From your profile page, tap the three dots icon at the top right of the screen.
  2. Tap Manage account.
  3. Select Switch to Business Account and choose the best category for your business.

2. Find your subculture

It’s important to find existing communities to engage with on all social platforms. But the nature of the TikTok algorithm makes this an even more important step on the app.

That’s because unlike on other social networks, where people spend much of their time engaging with accounts they already follow, TikTokers spend most of their time on the For You page.

If you can tap into an existing community—or subculture—you’re more likely to be amplified to the right audience. Fortunately, TikTok subcultures gather around hashtags (more on those later).

Understanding your most valuable subculture can also help you create content that connects authentically with TikTokers, creating greater credibility, brand loyalty, and even more exposure.

Some of the top subcultures identified by TikTok are:

#CottageCore

For lovers of country cottages, gardens, and old-fashioned aesthetics. As TikTok puts it, “Flower prints, knitting, plants and mushrooms.”

@crescentshay

making my dream cottagecore dress (aka my daisy dress 🌼) – inspired by the strawberry dress! #diy #fashion #cottagecore #strawberrydress

♬ Line Without a Hook – Ricky Montgomery

#MomsofTikTok

For parenting hacks and comic relief.

@kodyeelyse

Grab some chicken nuggets and stay a while 🤗 #queenteam #womensupportingwomen #momsoftiktok #UpTheBeat #fyp

♬ dc mahakhamidd – Mahak Hamid

#Egirl / #Eboy

Candy-colored makeup and edgy fashion for free spirits who embrace technology and gaming.

@onigiri.nanaaa

EVERYDAY MAKEUP TUT ‼️ #fypシ #SHEINcares #rue21BeYouChallenge #makeup #makeuptutorial #egirl

♬ Loverboy – A-Wall

#FitTok

Fitness challenges, tutorials, and inspiration.

@nicole_stange

$20 for every one arm push-up… hype her up with a like #workout#workoutchallenge #fittok #fitness#fyp#trend#fypシ #trend

♬ Sail – AWOLNATION

3. Maximize the first moments

TikTok moves fast. This is not the platform to add an intro before you dive into the meat of your video. The hook for your video needs to inspire viewers to stop scrolling.

Grab attention and show the value of watching in the first seconds of your TikTok.

This stat comes from TikTok ads, but it might be worth considering for your organic content, too: Opening a TikTok video with a powerful emotion such as surprise created a 1.7x lift over content that started with a neutral expression.

For example, Fabletics wastes no time getting into this quick fitness routine:

@fabletics

Step up your #workout game with @natashaswinter’s fun bench total body burner! #fabletics #gymtok #wellness

♬ liam fawell wuki remix as the world caves in – liamfawell

4. Write an engaging caption

You only get 150 characters for your TikTok caption, including hashtags. But that’s no excuse to neglect this prime real estate. A great caption tells readers why they should watch your video, which increases the engagement and video completion ranking signals to the algorithm.

Use your caption to create curiosity, or ask a question that creates conversation in the comments. Is it possible not to watch this Guinness World Record TikTok once you read the caption?

@guinnessworldrecords

Will it fit? 🍏 Challenge time for mouth gape record-breaker @samramsdell5 🇺🇸

♬ original sound – Guinness World Records

5. Create high-quality videos specifically for TikTok

This should be an obvious one, right? Low-quality content is not going to find its way to the For You page.

You don’t need any fancy equipment — in fact, your phone is the best tool for creating authentic video. What you do need decent lighting, a good microphone if possible, and some quick edits to keep the content moving. TikToks can be 5 seconds to 3 minutes long, but aim for 12-15 seconds to keep your viewers engaged.

You need to shoot in 9:16 vertical format. Videos shot vertically have an average 25% higher six-second watch-through rate. This makes sense since they take up significantly more screen real estate.

Design your videos to be played with the sound on. 88% of TikTok users said sound is “essential” on the platform. Fast-paced tracks that play at 120 or more beats per minute have the highest view-through rate.

And be sure to use TikTok’s built-in features like effects and text treatments. According to TikTok: “These native features help keep your content feeling native to the platform which can also help get it on more For You pages!”

Sephora embraced that concept with the green screen swaps in this TikTok:

@sephora

🌿 Bestselling clean fragrances you’ll love 🌿 😊 Made with feel-good ingredients only.

♬ original sound – sephora

For the greatest algorithm TikTok impact, try experimenting with trending effects. TikTok identifies these within the effects menu.

6. Post at the right time for your audience

While this is important for all social media platforms, it’s particularly so for TikTok. Active engagement with your content is a key signal to the algorithm.

To find the times when your audience is most active on the app, check your Business or Creator account analytics:

  • From your profile page, tap the three dots icon at the top right of the screen.
  • Tap Business Suite, then Analytics.

follower activity graph of times

Source: TikTok

You can also access TikTok Analytics on the web. For more details, we’ve got a whole post on how to get the maximum benefits from TikTok Analytics.

Note: TikTok recommends posting 1-4 times per day.

7. Engage with other TikTok users

21% of TikTokers said they feel more connected to brands that comment on other people’s posts. Keeping on top of the comments on your own videos is also key to building the engagement signals to the algorithm.

TikTok offers some unique ways to interact with other TikTok creators, like Duets, Stitch, and video replies to comments.

Stitch is a tool that allows you to clip and integrate moments from other TikTokers’ content into your own.

@tiktok

Now Introducing: STITCH! Make the ultimate collab with your fav creators 🎬

♬ original sound – TikTok

Duets allow one user to record a “duet” with another user by commenting alongside the original creator’s video in real time. Gordon Ramsay has been making great use of this tool to critique TikTok recipes:

@gordonramsayofficial

#duet with @aldentediva This is definitely a Sunday Supper I’d like to avoid 🤦‍♂️ #ramsayreacts #tiktokcooks #chickenparm

♬ Spongebob – Dante9k

Video replies to comments let you create new video content based on comments or questions on your previous posts.

@tiktok

Want to reply to a comment with a video? Now you can! Available now for all users!

♬ original sound – TikTok

The default settings on TikTok allow others to create Duets and Stitch videos using your content. If you want to change this for any particular video, tap the three dots icon on the video to open Privacy Settings, then adjust as needed.

You can also turn off these features for your whole account, but that would limit the opportunities for other TikTok users to engage with your content, decreasing discovery potential.

8. Use the right hashtags

A couple of types of hashtags can help boost your content in the TikTok algorithm:

For You page hashtags

Tags like #fyp, #foryou, and #foryoupage are commonly used to try to get onto the For You page. TikTok won’t confirm whether these work, but given the number of accounts using them, they’re worth trying, like Chipotle does in this post.

@chipotle

This is why guac is extra btw #chipotle #guac #avocado #foodtiktok #recipe #fyp

♬ original sound – Chipotle

Trending hashtags

To find trending hashtags, go to the Discover tab, then tap Trends at the top of the screen.

Be sure to keep an eye out for hashtags related to challenges. Hashtag challenges are a good way to come up with new ideas for content while sending the algorithm some good trend vibes.

And take note: 61% of TikTokers said they like brands better when they create or participate in a TikTok trend.

You can also search for trending hashtags by region in the TikTok Creative Center. If you’re looking for inspiration, you can also see the top trending TikToks by region for the last seven or 30 days.

If you’re a small business, use hashtags to tap into the community of people looking to support independent entrepreneurs with TikTok’s top small business hashtags:

9. Use trending sounds and music

Two-thirds (67%) of TikTokers said they prefer brand videos featuring popular or trending songs. And, like we’ve already said, participating in any kind of trend is a good bet when aiming for the For You page.

So, how do you find out which songs and sounds are trending?

From the TikTok home screen, tap the + icon at the bottom, then tap Sounds on the Record Video page. You’ll see a list of top trending sounds.

To find out which sounds are trending with your particular audience, you’ll need to check TikTok Analytics. Find this data in the Follower tab.





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