Is Google Losing Its Grip on Gen Z?

“People are hardwired to appreciate other human beings as sources of information.”

Are young people more inclined to use TikTok or Instagram to search for information? In a 2022 article from TechCrunch, Google observed that search behaviours of younger users differs from older groups, with young users wanting “more immersive” content discovery. Some outcry about this shift is clear in the responses to the article—with replies ranging from “we’re doomed” to “now people are going to be exposed to even more misinformation”. However, understanding the content and context of users searching can help better understand this trend. For this, Digital Tattoo turned to Dr. Luanne Sinnamon, a UBC professor in the School of Information whose research focuses on the ways in which people interact with and make sense of digital information.

Recently, in the news and on twitter, there has been discourse that internet users—especially younger users—are using google less frequently for information seeking, and using apps like TikTok more. What do you think of this portrayal of information seeking trends?

I think that this is clearly a trend—Google itself has publicly said that they’re losing business from various social media channels, and I think Instagram is one they noted, but TikTok of course has a huge international following. Although it’s probably not at a level that would be seriously competing with Google. 

Could you shed some light onto this shift? Why do you think people are using Google search less frequently?

I think there’s probably a few different things that are driving this trend. One is certainly the appeal of multimedia content as a source of information. There are certain ways in which multimedia content is particularly appealing. You have a more direct sense of communicating with another person, especially with the way the videos are designed on TikTok. People are hardwired to appreciate other human beings as sources of information. We may get a sense of social support and emotional support from that kind of direct delivery of information. 

“You are led further and further into this system that’s carefully designed to keep you on the site.”

Other factors are related to the way these systems are designed. Partly they’re drawing on research on how to persuade people, how to make applications addictive. And so they create this kind of experience where you get sucked into a world, and highly relevant content is always being pushed to you. You are led further and further into this system that’s carefully designed to keep you on the site. 

At this point you may be asking the question: “Why is this?”; “What is the benefit to this platform of keeping me on the platform?” The danger of these addictive platforms is that they want to keep you on the app to make money from your interaction with the system (through collecting your data or by selling you products through ads). 

What is current research indicating about the kind of information people are searching for on different platforms? For example, are people using TikTok for information about things like product reviews, or are they seeking important information about current events, medical information, etc?

Many people are seeking the sort of social information that you would normally get from family and friends—restaurant recommendations, tips on life, how to solve little local issues that you face.

Another big part of it is shared experience, so hearing directly from other people about their life experiences, because social media platforms, compared to Google, have a feeling of direct communication. There are some kinds of information that are just better communicated through video. Things like learning a new skill, especially if it’s a physical skill like cooking, mixing drinks, playing golf.

“I think that the choices we make about where we spend our time and where we consume content, can have a very substantial impact on the way we see the world and the kind of views that we are exposed to.”

The other piece is that it does create a space of vulnerability, because TikTok is not an organisation whose primary mandate is to provide quality information to people. This is in contrast to Google, whose mandate is providing the public with high quality information—have other things going on, like they’re also trying to sell ads, and have a business by collecting your data, but their core mandate is to provide the best quality, most relevant information. TikTok doesn’t have that so it’s a vulnerable space where they’re not really policing misinformation or the quality of information to any great extent. So there is a concern that people would rely on that for all types of information. 

How do you think the platform on which people retrieve information has an impact on the content they are consuming?  Do you think the content we consume in turn has an impact on the content we share?

I think that the choices we make about where we spend our time and where we consume content, can have a very substantial impact on the way we see the world and the kind of views that we are exposed to. There’s been discussion for many years around the idea of the filter bubble—where people are in systems within their social networks, and primarily seeing information that reinforces their own views. That is definitely true to some extent. But I would say that at a higher level, the system we choose is going to affect the overall experience. There’s a very different “vibe” on reddit versus Google or TikTok, etc.

One of the things about TikTok is because they are their own closed platform (mostly all the content is created and shared on TikTok) they can monitor your behaviour across their platform and even off their site with third party cookies. So once you have an account, they’re monitoring everything you do in their system. They know how long you spend on the screen, what you click on, comments you write. If you’re actually producing content on TikTok, then they know an enormous amount about you. So they’re able to really get inside your head, and make predictions of what you want to see that feel almost supernatural at times. For some people this is a sign to put more control on the system to limit use, and for others it’s something that is very appealing because it makes interacting with information seamless. 

Could the platform on which someone seeks information impact their overall digital identity?

Yes, because so much of your digital identity is made up of the content that you consume and share. That creates a profile of what your interests are, and what your activities are a very comprehensive profile essentially, and so that would definitely have an impact. One aspect of this is that people already choose the platform that to some extent matches their personality or their needs in a social platform. And that’s why we see these generational divides. We’re definitely going to choose our platforms to suit our interests. But then the platform itself is going to reinforce that.

For somebody thinking about their digital footprint, it’s always important to recognize that each of these systems is set up for a different purpose, serves a slightly different community, and to some extent there are always values embedded in these systems. If you’re thinking about where you want to spend your time online, it’s good to think about whether the values of that system are embedded in it—the way it functions, what the priorities are—whether those align with your own. Because once you’ve spent your time there, and you’ve built up your profile, you’ve invested essentially in some kind of community. You want it to be on a platform that aligns with your own needs, goals, perspectives, and views on the world. 

* This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

Dr. Luanne Sinnamon is an Associate Professor at the UBC iSchool and served as Director from 2015-2020. Amongst other research, she studies the human-centred aspects of information retrieval and the ways in which people interact with and make sense of digital information. Dr. Sinnamon graciously sat down with us for a conversation about the ever-changing trends in young people’s information seeking behaviours.




Written by: Eden Solarik
Edited by: Alex Kuskowski & Lucas Wright
Special thanks to Dr. Sinnamon for taking the time to be interviewed for this article!

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