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TikTok's China twin Douyin has 550 million search users, takes on Baidu

Rita Liao
·3-min read

The advance of short videos is reshaping how information is created, disseminated and consumed online. Snappy 15-second videos aren't just for entertainment. On Chinese short-video apps Douyin and Kuaishou, people can get their daily dose of news, learn to cook, practice English, hunt for jobs and seek practically any type of information from the platforms' quickly expanding content library.

While people are increasingly used to being fed by machine-recommended videos, many users still have the urge and need for active searching. Douyin understood that and incorporated a search function back in mid-2018. More than two years later, the feature reached 550 million monthly active users. There's still room for Douyin's search feature to grow, as the app last reported 600 million daily users in September, so its monthly user base should be above that.

Kelly Zhang, the young product manager credited for the rise of Douyin, TikTok's Chinese version, disclosed Douyin's search user figure for the first time this week on her microblogging account. Search is a territory that had long been dominated by Baidu in China. As of December, Baidu's flagship app had 544 million monthly active users, so it's safe to say as many people are searching on Douyin as on Baidu.

Zhang's remark is telling of Douyin's ambition in conquering the online video sector, and eventually how people receive information: "I have said this before: I hope Douyin could become the video encyclopedia for human civilization. Video search is, therefore, the index of the book, the gateway to finding answers and reaping new knowledge."

She further added that Douyin's search engine is hiring for research and development, product and operational roles in the upcoming year (China has just observed the Lunar New Year) as the video app continues to ramp up investment in search capabilities.

Short video platforms are already the second-most popular method for Chinese users to search online, trailing only after general search engines like Baidu and coming ahead of social networks and e-commerce, data analytics firm Jiguang said in a report last December. Baidu's command of search is increasingly limited by the walled gardens built up by Chinese tech titans who block one another from free access to its sites and data. The status quo harms user experience but bodes well for vertical search engines on apps like Douyin and Alibaba's Taobao marketplace, and consequently revenues from ad sponsorships.

ByteDance cut its teeth on using machine learning algorithms to recommend content through services like Douyin, TikTok and news aggregator Toutiao. The model proved highly efficient and lucrative, prompting its predecessors from Baidu to Tencent to introduce similarly algorithm-powered content feeds. ByteDance's move into search, a realm with a longer history, is an intriguing yet natural step. The firm is just completing the puzzle for its digital media empire, giving people another option to find information. Users can receive machine recommendations and subscribe to content creators if they want. They can as well put in a search keyword if they have one in mind, the good old way.