If you’ve ever paused a video on TikTok to wonder why it’s being shown to you, you know about the mysteries of the popular short-form video app’s algorithm. A post with no caption and minimal followers reaching your feed seems nonsensical. And if you’ve been creating content to little response, it can feel like Tiktok's algorithm is set up against you.
Those trying to build an online presence on TikTok may wonder what it takes to land on someone else’s For You Page (FYP) and make a video go viral. While a brilliant script and entertaining visuals will help you build a following, understanding how the TikTok algorithm works is key to making your content take off.
TikTok's algorithm is a complicated set of instructions that determines what content will be displayed on each user’s FYP—a recommendation system for each user, in other words. The TikTok algorithm has been lauded for its accuracy with the impressive (and sometimes unsettling) personalization it offers every TikTok account. It’s why you may see an abundance of cat videos while your roommate frequently sees recipe ideas and your sister gets all of the true crime breakdowns.
How does TikTok's algorithm work?
We don’t know the full extent of how the TikTok algorithm works; like most social media companies, the bulk of its programming is proprietary and only some details are shared publicly. However, TikTok has disclosed a few basic elements that factor into its recommendation system:
- User interactions: These are the ways viewers respond to and engage with content. User interactions include positive feedback, such as following a creator or liking, sharing, rewatching, or commenting on a video. They also include negative feedback, such as hitting the “not interested” button or hiding a user.
- Video information: This includes captions, hashtags, filters, and sounds. In your recommendations, you may see familiar keywords and audiovisual elements similar to content you’ve viewed.
- Account settings: The type of device you use to watch videos, your language preferences, location, and other settings on your account also factor into the TikTok algorithm.
The algorithm processes these factors (and likely many others!) and assigns them a weight. For example, the length of time a user watches a video has more impact on the algorithm than where a video originated geographically. The content is then assessed on the chance that a specific user will be interested in it. If the computations check out, it will queue up on that user’s TikTok FYP. Although a video is likely to receive more views if posted by an account with a large number of followers, follower count does not factor into the algorithm recommendation system.
TikTok's FYP stands for "For You Page." When you create your TikTok account, the app initially offers you a wide variety of content on your FYP. It pays close attention to what you scroll past quickly and what draws you in, comparing videos that interest you to ones you haven’t seen yet. Eventually, you will find yourself on a certain side of TikTok, with most of the videos on your FYP following certain themes.
The algorithm will display videos it determines are most likely to entice you on your FYP. As a living computation, the algorithm will adapt to your changing interests. If you stop interacting with a creator you used to watch repeatedly, the algorithm will slowly stop displaying their content. Or if you search a new hashtag, it may start feeding you new content that uses that tag.
You can use tricks like this to customize the content the TikTok algorithm shares with you. However, it’s not so easy to make sure that your content reaches other viewers.
The name of the game with TikTok videos is entertainment. To figure out what makes a post entertaining, scroll through your own FYP and note what seems to captivate other users.
You can make popular content work for you by creating a stitch or duet; responding to trending sounds, dances, and challenges; or even coming up with your own trend and encouraging others to do it. Another way to generate TikTok content is taking a look at your own life. If you have an exciting job or hobby, consider a “day in the life” or “get ready with me” video. Similarly, try creating helpful tutorials or an educational timelapse.
“For the most part, I honor whatever idea excites me as a creator because I think an audience can feel that,” says Caroline Klidonas (@carolineklidonas on TikTok), who has amassed 306,000 fans and 17 million likes on the app with her parodies of film and TV tropes.
“Some of my best videos have been ones where I experimented and tried something new,” she says. “There’s really no guarantee of what will work, so staying open and listening to your creative intuition is the key. If a video flops, but I had a good time making it, it’s still a win.”
Whatever you choose to try, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. For example, Under the Desk News shares significant world news updates in a digestible and soothing way. The account is highly recognizable because its host, V Spehar, reports from under their desk. Another example is Rhyleep95, whose “cursed cosplays”––startling recreations of popular characters––allow them to showcase their dancing abilities. Something that feels outlandish to you may be an unexpected hit, so if you come up with something you haven’t seen elsewhere, give it a shot.
“Beyond the numbers, I think it’s more important to get clear about what you want to come through your content overall,” says Klidonas. “It might feel like it’s ‘just TikTok,’ but it can serve as a body of work or a mini portfolio if you want it to. My videos have led to some incredible opportunities outside of the app, and I think sticking to what felt aligned with my creative voice, more than any strategy or algorithm hack, has been a contributor to that.”
Many content creators want to learn how to make a TikTok go viral. But as anyone who accidentally went viral on the platform can attest, there is no guaranteed path to success. Still, there are certain steps that content creators like you can take to boost your chances for engagement and ensure that your videos are seen by as many people as possible.
Here are a few things you should do to give your content the best chance for success:
1. Find your niche
You may know what kind of content you want to post, but it might not be the content that people want to watch. For example, you may be incredibly excited about an idea for a scripted miniseries, but for some reason, your audience latches on to your stories about college (pro tip: if that’s the case, try turning your stories into scripted skits). Video topic, length, aesthetic, and posting schedule all impact the ways that people experience your content. To determine the best TikTok content ideas for you, spend time experimenting with your content to gauge audience response and find your niche.
“The only way I was able to find my ‘niche’ was by not trying to find one at all,” says Klidonas. “I had to be open to trial and error. If an idea had me scrambling for my tripod, I acted on it.”
2. Post consistently
TikTok advises posting 1–4 times a day as you explore which content performs best for you. Posting regularly keeps your audience engaged and increases your chances of having something perform well.
“I remain consistent at an output level that feels achievable for me without burning out, which is two videos per week (which is pretty low compared to other creators),” says Klidonas. “I pay attention to posting days and times that generally do well, but even that isn’t a sure thing. Algorithms are fickle, and it’s best not to get too caught up in analytics.”
3. Use trends to your advantage
The algorithm seems to give preference to content that’s in line with what’s already trending. Use trending sounds or hashtags to jump into an already successful pool and increase your chances of being displayed on other users’ FYP TikTok feeds.
4. Use accurate keywords/hashtags in your captions
Part of the recommendation system relies on the description of your content. You don’t need a full summary, but the description should include relevant terms to help the algorithm figure out where your video belongs. On the other hand, don’t include trending hashtags just for the sake of including them if they’re not relevant to your post.
5. Make your content accessible
Make sure to use TikTok-automated captions or add your own when editing your final video. If hard-of-hearing users can’t consume your content, they won’t waste time trying to engage with it.
6. Catch viewer attention ASAP
If a user isn’t immediately interested in a video, they’re not likely to stay on it. Hook them as quickly as you can to increase the chance that they watch the video all the way through.
7. Interact with your audience
The algorithm also seems to favor users that are particularly active, so get your name out there by commenting on other creators’ videos or stitching/duetting content that resonates with you. Respond to your viewers when they comment to build community and increase engagement.
8. Switch to a Pro account
TikTok Pro offers data about your content that you won’t get on a regular account. This allows for better insight into content performance and viewer engagement. By tracking your numbers long-term, you can see how your strategies are working out and make adjustments as necessary.
If you employ these TikTok strategies, you may just have the chance to hack the algorithm, crack the viral video code, and achieve the internet fame of your dreams.