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Back in July 2022, a statistic from Google about Generation Z and their use of social platforms for search started making headlines. “For Gen Z, TikTok is the new search engine”, proclaimed the New York Times, while Business Insider stated that “nearly half of Gen Z is using Instagram and TikTok for search instead of Google”.

Since then, the stat in question has been widely circulated as proof of dramatically changing search habits and the way that younger generations approach information finding online. The stat as cited usually contains some or all of the following information: 40% of young people now prefer to use TikTok and Instagram for search rather than Google.

But like all stats that seem huge and mind-blowing, it’s best to approach this information – which was originally shared by Google’s Senior VP, Prabhakar Raghavan, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference – with some cynicism. Luckily, cynical examinations of popular stats are my speciality, so here’s a breakdown of what this stat is really about and why you should think twice before repeating it.

It’s not just about TikTok

It’s not really a surprise that the reporting and headlines about this statistic have focused solely on TikTok as the purported “replacement” for Google. The self-styled entertainment platform is significantly more buzzy and trends-y than Instagram, and it enjoys an inherent link to Generation Z, who have been nicknamed “the TikTok generation”. Plus, headlines tend to simplify things for the purposes of grabbing attention.

However, it’s important to note that the original stat referenced both TikTok and Instagram. I can’t help but be reminded of the infamous “50% by 2020” voice search stat that I spent a few posts taking down, which was originally said by Baidu’s Andrew Ng about voice and image search. Because voice was the buzzy, futuristic-sounding search method, voice was the half of the statistic that commentators and analysts latched onto and circulated.

Even when it’s just a couple of words omitted, this makes a big difference to the focus of a stat. If you thought that a stat was showing that 40% of young people do X, but it’s actually X and Y, then what is the real figure for X? The split between the two is unknown, but either way, the percentage of young people who do X is not as large as first thought, and that matters.

And speaking of which…

Raghavan didn’t say 40%

Catchy stats tend to circulate sans their original context, and while I understand the temptation to boil things down to their key ingredients, to be specific and definitive, it means that important nuance gets lost.

So, I try to look for the phrasing that was used for the original stat, to make sure that there isn’t a component that changes how things can be read. And in this case, there are several. Here’s the quote from Prabhakar Raghavan’s talk that gave rise to the stat:

“In our studies, something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search … They go to TikTok or Instagram.” [Emphasis mine]

“Almost 40%” could be anything from 37% to 39%, even 36.5%, and the “something like” introduces even more uncertainty. Prabhakar can be forgiven for wanting to keep things simple and digestible for a speech – but it’s a problem when people don’t have the exact figure to cite or make comparisons to.

It’s also a problem when ‘40%’ turns into “nearly half” (as in the Business Insider headline) and becomes closer to 50% in people’s minds, when the real figure might be a chunk less than that. Especially bearing in mind, as we’ve covered, the unknown TikTok/Instagram split.

When TechCrunch reported on the stat and Raghavan’s speech, they did the due diligence of checking what precise age demographic was meant by “young people”, and Google confirmed on record that “[Raghavan’s] comments were based on internal research that involved a survey of U.S. users, ages 18 to 24”.

This is another important qualifier. The stat is referring only to young people of one nationality, and while the US does tend to be the assumed default for a lot of statistics, especially those issuing from US-based tech companies, it’s still context that frequently gets omitted. Who’s to say if the same is true of young people in the UK, or Poland?

The original quote was about “looking for a place to eat”

If you’re sharp-eyed, you’ll already have spotted this in the original quote: Raghavan is specifically talking about young people searching Instagram and TikTok for dining inspiration – not any other kinds of information.

Now, to be sure, that’s still a shift in behaviour, and particularly relevant to Google, who want to be able to provide that inspiration through Google My Business listings and Maps. But saying that “Generation Z is shunning Google for TikTok” or that “Generation Z are using Instagram and TikTok for search instead of Google” conjures up an image of Gen Z opening TikTok each time they want to know anything – or to search for news, websites, articles.

That wasn’t within the scope of Google’s internal research – and even if it might be happening, Google hasn’t published any official figures in that vein. But when seen “in the wild”, this stat is almost always without the dining inspiration context, and so manages to imply that two-fifths of all Generation Z are using TikTok for search of every kind – suggesting a much more profound shift in search behaviour than is backed up by the data.

Proclamations about TikTok as Generation Z’s ‘new search engine’ are therefore best viewed with scepticism, especially when they’re using this stat as a basis. As usual, the reality is much more nuanced.

Google hasn’t publicised the stat any further

When TechCrunch contacted Google to ask about this statistic, they reportedly learned that “The data has not yet been made public … but may later be added to Google’s competition site, alongside other stats”.

Google’s competition site isn’t a stat repository per se, but references statistics in order to paint a picture of the competition Google faces from other sources. However, since July 2022, this statistic does not appear to have been added, and the only mention of TikTok at the time of writing is the following:

“People have more ways to search for information than ever before — and increasingly this is happening outside the context of only a search engine. Often the answer is just a click or an app away: You can ask ChatGPT a wide range of questions, listen to music on Spotify, ask friends for information on WhatsApp and get recommendations on Instagram and TikTok.”

This is definitely a reference to changing information-seeking behaviour and credits Instagram and TikTok for “recommendations”, like the dining inspiration that Raghavan cited in his talk. However, there are no figures included.

As far as I can tell, a version of this stat also has yet to appear on any other official Google sites. That means the data behind it still hasn’t been made public, except for Raghavan’s comment – which requires a lot more qualifiers than most people realise.

Is Generation Z shunning Google for TikTok? In certain contexts, possibly; but I wouldn’t proclaim that TikTok is the new generation Z ‘search engine’ just yet.