Since Instagram’s 2010 launch, the platform has solidified its reputation in point-and-shoot media sharing.
Today, Instagram is one of the most effective ways for brands to connect with their audiences–as well as reach new ones, by optimizing for the Instagram Explore feed.
Leverage our insights to get your pictures and assets to appear on Instagram’s search explore.
What is Instagram Search & Explore?
In 2017, social media giant Instagram launched Search & Explore, an update designed to show users more of the topics, channels, and accounts that interest them.
While often referred to as a single feature, Search and Explore represent two different ways for audiences to find your brand on the platform.
- Instagram Search is essentially the social media equivalent of the SERPs, in that it allows users to search for information using the platform’s built-in search function. While you can’t search Instagram with standalone keywords, you can search for top posts, people (@account_name), places (location tags), and tags (#hashtag).
- Instagram Explore is the platform’s discovery engine and is designed to serve up curated content such as new topics, shoppable posts, and IGTV recommendations based on users’ interests, connections, and engagement history.
In this article, I’ll share some tips for how to appear on Instagram Search and in the Explore feed.
The Benefit of Appearing in Instagram’s Search and Explore Features
Being featured on the Instagram Explore page or in the search results is a great (and free) way to expand your brand’s reach to people outside of your existing follower base.
Because Instagram’s algorithm is designed to serve its users with content that aligns with their interests, brands have a huge opportunity to drive engagement and growth among users with interests in common with their current followers.
How Does Instagram Search Work?
According to Instagram, the algorithm ranks search results based on several factors, including the accounts you follow, the content you like, and who you’re connected to. Users can search by location, top posts, accounts, or using hashtags to search by topic.
From there, Instagram then tries to provide the most relevant results based on those contextual clues.
Here’s an example from Later, showing what comes up for each tab when they entered the keyword “vancouver.”
How Does Instagram’s Explore Work?
Instagram Explore individualizes the user experience by choosing photos and videos that are liked by people you’re connected with and by current trending posts.
The algorithm applies the same set of criteria the Search function uses to deliver relevant content but aims to reach users who are passively browsing, as opposed to actively searching.
For brands, that means the optimizing becomes more about increasing visibility and driving engagement, versus targeting the right topics.
In late 2019, Instagram revealed additional information about the algorithm, a two-stage process that breaks down as follows:
Candidate Generation Stage
The Instagram algorithm will choose what you see by linking the trending places and suggested people into different collections by Instagram account or place.
Instagram uses something called “seed” accounts which are accounts that people have engaged with before. It then analyzes these accounts and identifies content that users would be interested in. To find what’s trending, users will then conduct searches to discover what, who, and where are popular on Instagram.
The second piece of the algorithm Instagram Explore page is an algorithmic process that narrows down the hundreds of candidates to just 25 of the highest-quality and most relevant candidates for content. This is the content that appears on the first page of the Instagram Explore feed grid.
How to Appear in Instagram Search
Share Quality Content As Much As Possible
Visuals are a critical component on all social platforms, but especially on Instagram.
Per Instagram, posts are curated based on user engagement, which means the best way to appear in the “Top Posts” section is to create visually compelling photos and videos (more on creating Instagram videos, here)
Additionally, make sure that the content you post accurately portrays your brand, as users are “discovering” your account without much context.
When it’s possible, try incorporating interactive elements into your content–think polls, stickers, or clickable components, which can encourage higher engagement, thereby increasing the chances that your content appears in the Explore feed.
Post at the Right Time to Better Chances of Appearing in Instagram Search
Later recently analyzed 12 million Instagram posts to determine the best time to post, and found that posts published between 9am-11am EST received the most engagement.
This is a general average, so depending on your business industry, your audience analytics may reveal that there’s another time that gets better results. For more on all of the factors at play, check out my previous post on the best time to post on Instagram.
Create Engaging Captions
While Instagram’s focus may be on visuals, captions are the secret to driving engagement. Your goal is to create a catchy, yet descriptive caption in your brand’s voice.
As far as length goes, there’s no real consensus on how long the ideal caption should be. My advice is to cut it off after you’ve made your point–cutting out anything redundant or unnecessary.
According to Keyhole, the average caption is between 138-150 characters long, including hashtags. Joint research from Fohr and Later say that captions are getting longer, placing the average somewhere around 405 characters. That report also noted that there’s now a correlation between longer posts and higher engagement, as shown here:
Here’s an example of a “longer” post from Airbnb, which embraces a more authentic, “story-telling” approach:
Notice how they’ve created a hook to encourage users to read “more” by expanding the page.
To drive higher engagement, use @mentions in captions whenever you can.
Here’s an example from The Sill, which expertly applies the @mention to encourage comments, in very few words:
Use Instagram Explore to Fine-Tune Your Targeting
Finally, Instagram Explore not only offers business users an opportunity to reach new audiences, it also allows you to learn more about your audience.
For example, the Discover page will let you see suggested people and places that are already relevant to your brand. This takes a lot of guesswork out of targeting your audience because the recommendations are based on your Instagram activity.
Search by Place to grow your audience by connecting with people in certain geographical locations. You’ll explore what’s being shared by your location to engage with users while finding the best hashtags for more visibility.
The same feature allows you to discover trending hashtags in real-time to see if current trends relate to your product, service, or brand. If they do, leverage this to develop engaging conversations to build brand trust and loyalty. Then, use these as inspiration to help develop your own trending posts for users and places that are connected to your business.
How to Optimize for Instagram Search
Add the Right Keywords to Your Name Field
The first step toward helping audiences find you on Instagram is optimizing your name.
The “Name” field included in your bio is separate from your handle, searchable, and can be customized with keywords that describe what your business is all about.
The idea here is to help audiences find you using the search tool, so you’ll want to use the name that most people know your brand by–eliminating the extra characters or numbers in your handle.
Notice in the example below, the handle is @chelseamarketny, while the name is Chelsea Market–which is further reinforced in the profile picture.
Optimize Your Bio
Like the “Name” field, you’ll also want to optimize your Instagram bio to increase potential search appearances.
Make sure you set your profile to “public” and add relevant keywords, clickable hashtags, and your business category to increase the likelihood that the right people will find you.
You have 150 characters to accomplish the following:
- Showcase your brand’s personality.
- Explain what your business does.
- Drive users toward an action.
Here are a few examples from real brands:
A Color Story uses their bio to highlight key info, using a branded hashtag to show their product in action (they’re an Instagram editing tool), as well as how to get in touch for support queries or potential partnerships.
Socialbakers offers a brief description of their software–highlighting its value in a few words by mentioning its 10k user base. It also uses the space to promote its website, behind-the-scenes channel, and to indicate that its part of the “software” category.
Blue Star Donuts is a good example of a brand using all available form fields. This works best for those with a physical and online presence–helping them rank based on multiple factors: category, location, keywords, etc. They’ve also included multiple CTAs like those featured on Google’s local results: call, email, directions–which provide a straightforward way to take action.
Optimize Your Hashtags to Appear on Instagram Search
Hashtags are one of the top ways to make your Instagram posts searchable, and work much like keywords in that they unlock searching and tracking capabilities.
As such, you’ll want to approach hashtags strategically, avoiding the common mistake of applying them haphazardly upon posting.
Ideally, you should aim for a mix of hashtags that cover the following areas:
- Branded hashtags–campaign or brand-specific hashtags you’ve created to promote your brand on Instagram.
- Community hashtags–hashtags used by your audience and the influencers they follow.
- Trending topics–time-sensitive hashtags related to current events or relevant trends.
- Product-related hashtags–used to target users looking for a type of product: #springshoes or #salessoftware.
Determine your target hashtags by doing the following:
- Research your target audience. Look for trending hashtags, followed topics, and what kind of content they post.
- Research other brands & influencers in your niche. You’ll also want to look at your competitors, complementary brands, and influencers. Identify the topics that come up and what drives engagement among your shared audience.
If you’re looking for a way to streamline the process, any of the following tools can be used for hashtag research:
How many hashtags should you include?
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about how many hashtags will net you the most engagement. Some say it’s five, others say nine, or 11.
Technically, you can use up to 30 hashtags per Instagram post, but as you might imagine, this can come off as “spammy” if you’re not careful.
Some brands have responded to this by adding hashtags at the end of the caption or below the “More” tag (Instagram’s equivalent to the fold) for a cleaner aesthetic.
Others add several lines of white space and periods to separate the hashtags from the rest of the caption.
While this is totally fine–especially for secondary hashtags–you’ll want to include your most important hashtags in a more visible location.
Add Location Tags
Like hashtags, location tags are an effective tool for appearing in the search results. In fact, research has shown that posts that include location tags receive 79% more engagement than those that leave that detail out.
Where hashtags allow users to search by topic or category, location tags increase your chances of appearing in the search results when someone searches by location.
Unlike adding hashtags, adding a location tag doesn’t require much background research. To add a location tag, all you’ll need to do is tap one of the suggested locations that come up while you compose your post.
If the desired location doesn’t come up, you can select “Add Location” to search for your location or create one yourself.
Optimize Your IGTV Titles & Descriptions to Appear on Instagram Explore
In keeping with the separation between IGTV and Instagram proper, IGTV has a dedicated search section that can be optimized for more opportunities to connect with your audience. Here, you’ll want to create a description that explains what’s in the video, while also targeting the best keywords for the topic and your brand.
Instagram Search & Explore Doesn’t Have to Be Hard
In the end, optimizing for Instagram Search & Explore follows the same set of best practices that apply to social media marketing in general. For example, writing relevant captions, using hashtags, and investing in great visuals apply across all social channels.
The main takeaway here is you’ll want to approach your Instagram strategy much like how you apply SEO tactics to your website content.
Pay close attention to the keywords and hashtags you use. Do those terms align with audience interests? Which terms get the most engagement? Which terms are low performers?