Instagram Search Algorithms: How They Work & How You Can Optimize Your Presence

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Instagram has published the second installment in its new “How Instagram Works” series.

It includes 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 tries to match relevant content with user interests and how creators can ensure their posts reach people in the app.

While search is only a secondary consideration, it is still a crucial discovery tool. To maximize your Instagram reach, you will need to be familiar with the systems of Instagram and how to best align your strategy to them.

How Instagram search works

via Instagram

Instagram search is very straightforward. It uses the keywords you enter in the search field as the primary matching device. It takes into account 3 factors when providing search matches that are relevant to a query:

  • The text you enter. Instagram claims that this signal is “by far” the most important for search. “We try to match what we type with relevant usernames.”
  • Your activity in the app. Instagram will rank your search results on top of basic text matching. They also consider your past activity in-app, such as the accounts you follow, the posts you’ve viewed, and how you interact with specific profiles in the future. “We typically show accounts and hashtags we follow or visit higher than those we don’t.” This is so you can find the things that are most likely to interest you, and it will also help streamline your discovery process.
  • The popularity of each query. Instagram takes into account the popularity of your query matches when ranking its results. Influence factors include how many clicks, likes, and shares a specific account, hashtag, or place receives.

This means that your past activity can play a part in boosting your IG search presence and maximizing discovery

Your profile will be more visible to more people if you build your presence and keep it active.

Instagram also notes that any accounts, posts, and/or hashtags that go against its recommendations guidelines will be 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 would mean that Instagram would give a lower ranking to accounts posting conspiracy theories, and at times it could also reduce the search presence of content on 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 genuine 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 guidelines, the critical parameters of note for brands — in terms of what Instagram looks to downrank in search matches — are:

  • Content that depicts or promotes cosmetic procedures
  • Content with exaggerated health claims such as “miracle cures”
  • Content trying to sell products and services based upon health-related claims such as promoting a weight loss supplement
  • Content that promotes deceptive or misleading business models, such as payday loans or “risk-free” investments
  • Content that might be sexually explicit or suggestive, such as photos of people wearing see-through clothing
  • Content that promotes certain regulated products like tobacco or vaping products, or contains information about adult products and services, or pharmaceutical drugs
  • Unoriginal content which is primarily repurposed or adapted from another source but without any material value
  • Content to promote a contest or giveaway

While most of these points are straightforward and logical, it is worthwhile to note the last two. Although re-sharing memes can get you likes, it could also penalize your discovery. Instagram also actively tries to limit the reach of contest/giveaway posts.

Instagram notes these insights in addition to saying it is going to expand its search tools even more

This could be a factor in how you approach discovery optimization.

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 more comprehensive range of results based on your query.

“We are improving search results for exploration. Searching for “space” will also bring up space-related videos and photos. This is especially useful when you don’t know what hashtag or username to use when searching for a particular topic.”

via Instagram

The updated Instagram Search process will now show you the post results of the first “top” page. This enables you to highlight relevant content to your query rather than a listing or hashtags.

These results are already available by tapping on the keyword matching display for your query. But Instagram wants to make this a more significant focus to help increase discovery and maximize engagement.

These insights have led to 3 recommendations from Instagram for brands and creators who are trying to maximize their app’s discovery potential:

  • Use a profile name and handle that are appropriate. Instagram searches are primarily matched using text. This means that a handle or profile name that is relevant to your content will be your best bet for appearing in relevant searches. Instagram recommends that your friends or followers know you by a specific name so you can show up in searches.
  • Include keywords and relevant locations in your bio. Ensure that your bio contains keywords about your identity and the topics you care about. This will help increase your potential for discovery. Sharing your location in your bio is a great way to make it easier for people in your area to find you, especially if your account is location-specific, e.g., a small company.
  • Use hashtags and keywords in your captions. This is a very relevant point to remember: “For a post that can be found in Search, put keywords/hashtags in the caption and not in the comments.”

This last point has been a topic of discussion among social media marketers for a while: whether Instagram posts perform better if the hashtags appear in the caption or the first comment. Instagram has now given clear direction on where to place your hashtags.

While this doesn’t necessarily mean your hashtags will be seen more often in your captions, it is a good idea to include them in your captions as they can increase search engine discovery.

All of this is excellent advice that will help you to optimize your Instagram approach and strategize on-platform efforts.

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