Instagram has published the second installment in its new ‘How Instagram Works’ series, with an overview of how its search algorithms function, and how you can maximize your chances of showing up in relevant search results.

The first post in the series looked at how Instagram’s feed ranking works, providing more oversight into how the platform looks to match relevant content with user interests, and how creators can ensure their posts reach people in the app. 

Search is a secondary consideration in this respect, but it is a key discovery surface, and if you’re looking to maximize your Instagram presence, you need to have an understanding of all of its systems, and how you can best align with such in your strategy.

Here’s a look at the key elements that you need to consider to maximize your IG discovery value.

The basics of Instagram search are fairly straightforward – Instagram uses the keywords that you enter into the search field to highlight the most relevant content, with the specific text that you input being the primary matching device.

Instagram Search

But that’s not the only factor – when providing relevant search matches for a query, Instagram factors in three primary elements:

  • The text you enter – This, Instagram says, is “by far” the most important signal for Search. “We try to match what you type with relevant usernames, bios, captions, hashtags and places”.

  • Your activity in the app – In addition to basic text matching, Instagram will also rank your search results based on your previous in-app activity, including the accounts you follow, the posts you’ve viewed, and how you’ve interacted with certain profiles in the past. “We usually show accounts and hashtags you follow or visit higher than those you don’t”. This is to help you find things that you’re more likely to be interested in, and to streamline your discovery process.

  • Popularity of each query – Finally, Instagram also factors in the popularity of the matches for your query when ranking the results it displays. The elements that could influence this include the number of clicks, likes, shares and follows that a particular account, hashtag or place sees.

So your previous activity plays a role in boosting your IG search presence, which is another element to consider in maximizing discovery. Building your presence over time, and maintaining regular activity, can help to improve your discovery potential in the app, and ensure that your profile shows up in a wider range of queries.

Instagram also notes that any accounts, posts and/or hashtags that go against its Recommendations Guidelines will get ranked lower in search results.

“Accounts that post spam or violate our guidelines may appear lower in search results, and you may have to search their full username to find them. We also balance searches for sensitive topics with additional safety measures to make sure we don’t show you related content that could be harmful.”

This, for example, would see Instagram giving lower ranking to profiles posting COVID-19 conspiracy theories, while at times, it’s also seen the platform reduce the search presence of content about political issues or conflicts. That has, in some instances, proven problematic for the app in the past, but from a brand and marketing standpoint, the only real concern here (assuming you don’t post conspiracy theories from your brand handle) is Instagram’s spam parameters, and ensuring you don’t fall foul of its rules.

In reviewing Instagram’s Recommendation Guidelines, the key parameters of note for brands, in terms of what Instagram looks to downrank in search matches, are:

  • Content that promotes or depicts cosmetic procedures
  • Content containing exaggerated health claims, such as “miracle cures”
  • Content attempting to sell products or services based on health-related claims, such as promoting a supplement to help a person lose weight
  • Content that promotes misleading or deceptive business models, such as payday loans or “risk-free” investments
  • Content that may be sexually explicit or suggestive, such as pictures of people in see-through clothing.
  • Content that promotes the use of certain regulated products, such as tobacco or vaping products, adult products and services, or pharmaceutical drugs
  • Unoriginal content that is largely repurposed from another source without adding material value
  • Content that promotes a contest or giveaway

Most of these are fairly straightforward and logical, but it is worth noting the final two points. Re-sharing memes might get you likes, but it might also penalize you in discovery, while Instagram also actively seeks to limit the reach, at least in a discovery sense, of contest/giveaway posts.   

In addition to these insights, Instagram also notes that it’s looking to further expand its search tools, which could also factor into how you approach your discovery optimization process.

Following on from the expansion of search options last year to show a broader set of relevant keyword matches, as opposed to being limited to profiles, hashtags and locations, Instagram is also looking to display an even wider range of results, based on your query. 

“We’re making search results better for exploration. For example, a search for “space” will show you space-related photos and videos, too. This is especially helpful when you don’t have an exact username or hashtag in mind when searching for a certain topic.”

Instagram Search example

As you can see in this example, rather than just showing profiles that include the keyword ‘space’ in relation to this search, Instagram also displays the NASA handle, and astronaut Scott Kelly’s profile, neither of which include the term ‘space’ specifically in their handle, but are about that topic.

That could help drive more users to the most relevant search matches, which will become more relevant as Instagram’s systems get better at understanding what’s in each posted image and what each profile is about. 

Finally, based on these insights, Instagram has also provided three recommendations for creators and brands that are looking to maximize their discovery potential in the app:

  • Use a fitting handle and profile name Instagram’s search results are primarily matched by text, so using a handle or profile name that’s related to the content of your posts “is your best bet for showing up in relevant searches”. Instagram also advises that if your friends or fans know you by a certain name, “include that name in your username or profile so that you show up when they search for you”.

  • Include relevant keywords and locations in your bio – Ensuring that your bio includes keywords about who you are, and what your profile is about, will also help improve your discovery potential. “If your account is location-specific, like for a small business, sharing your location in your bio can make it easier for people in your area to find you”.

  • Use relevant keywords and hashtags in captions This is a particularly relevant point of note: “For a post to be found in Search, put keywords and hashtags in the caption, not the comments”.

The final point has long been a subject of debate among social media marketers, as to whether Instagram posts perform better when the hashtags are in the caption or the first comment. Here, Instagram has answered that directly, providing clear guidance as to where your hashtags should be placed.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily confirm that putting your hashtags in your captions will maximize post reach, but given that it will maximize your discovery opportunities in search, that seems like the optimal approach. 

There’s some good advice here, which will help you understand how you can optimize your Instagram approach, and strategize your on-platform efforts. And while a level of experimentation is always recommended, these tips will help to guide you on the right path towards maximizing your discovery potential in the app.

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