What Exactly Is Bytedance Searching For?—Data Sheet

August 13, 2019, 1:01 PM UTC

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In a recent moment of clarity, I purged my phone of its more distracting apps. Gone are the addictive scrolling feeds from Instagram and TikTok, the latter of which I downloaded for research on an article, only to find myself hopelessly sucked in by its offering of punchy, short video content.

TikTok is owned by Beijing Bytedance, a Chinese company with a valuation of $78 billion, making it the world’s most valuable start-up, at least right now. Yesterday, the Beijing-based company added a new offering to its suite of over 15 apps–a search engine called Toutiao Search, which some people think is a challenger to China’s dominant search provider, Baidu.

In its quest for profit–or purpose–Bytedance has tackled a number of incumbents. The company launched a rival to messaging service Slack, called Lark, in April; it is reportedly creating a music streaming service to “challenge” Spotify; and it is frequently butting heads with Tencent. The duo traded multiple lawsuits over the past year. In one suit, Bytedance accused Tencent of preventing WeChat users from opening links to Bytedance content and services.

It’s a common goal among Chinese tech firms to trap as many users as possible in their own ecosystem of products. Toutiao Search furthers that purpose by not only returning search hits from across the world wide web–censorship permitting–but by also offering results of content from its own constellation of other apps.

A search for “Hong Kong,” for example, might return travel information about the city but it will also return TikTok videos geotagged with that location.

Baidu, of course, doesn’t describe Toutiao Search as a threat. Baidu App manager Ping Xiaoli told reporters that the company estimates there are two new search engines launched in China every year but that hasn’t prevented Baidu, which holds 76% of the market, from dominating the space for the previous two decades.

I’m inclined to agree and, even if Toutiao Search is a challenger to Baidu’s search supremacy, it’s competing on the wrong battlefield. Advertising sales deliver the majority of Baidu’s revenues, $11.9 billion of a total $14.8 billion last year, but the search giant is busily repositioning itself as an A.I. firm, edging into health care, autonomous vehicles, and more.

Bytedance has a strong hand in A.I., as well. Artificial intelligence powers the algorithms that hook suckers like me on TikTok’s viral video content. But as Bytedance pokes and probes at different industries–it might release a smartphone later this year, too–it has yet to show that it can turn its prowess in A.I. into something more sustainable than fad apps.

I’m not convinced Toutiao Search will be much different.

Eamon Barrett

On Twitter: @eamonbarrett49

Email: Eamon.Barrett@Fortune.com


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I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that. If you want more in-depth coverage of artificial intelligence, don't forget to subscribe to our weekly Eye on A.I. newsletter. The newest issue comes out later today.


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