Instagram is the search engine to watch right now.
With over 1 billion monthly active users and no signs of slowing down, it’s becoming an essential avenue in any marketing strategy.
In this post, I’ll go over how the Explore page works and how to own hashtags that will get you noticed. You’ll learn the difference between the Search bar and Explore tab, and how to optimize your posts to appear on both channels.
What You’ll Learn:
- Introduction to Instagram Search & Explore
- How it benefits brands
- How the Explore Page works
- How search Works on the Explore Page
- How to surface content on Instagram Explore:
- Instagram Explore FAQ
Search and Explore on Instagram
Due to its continued rise in popularity, it’s no secret that Instagram keeps adding features to make it more attractive to brands, like sponsored posts, product catalogs, and even in-app shopping.
But the question is: how do you make sure that your brand is at the top of the grid?
First of all, you take advantage of the Search and Explore page.
To step up their competitive edge, Instagram launched Search & Explore back in 2015 to better allow users see the world as it happens around them with real-time reporting.
At the time, Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom says “It’s a real-time visual pulse of what’s happening in the world.”
For users, this bold move simplified discovering photos, but for businesses, it allowed them another way to get their brand right in front of your targeted audience
Over the years, the Search & Explore page has been updated and revamped, with more notable updates including the Places Search, which groups images by location.
For a while, Instagram also featured a Tops Posts section. This displayed in a grid of 9 posts in the Search section, and allowed brands who landed in it instant visibility.
But Instagram’s revamped its Search & Explore page, instead featuring a near-endless stream of posts and leading marketers to wonder how, exactly, the Instagram algorithm was ranking images). Now, the tab is most commonly referred to as the Explore page or Explore tab.
While there’s a lot we still don’t know, here’s what we do.
There are 3 ways for users to discover your brand on Instagram if they don’t already follow you:
- The Instagram search tool, where people search for specific hashtags, keywords, and brand names.
- The Explore tab, where people see posts and Stories that are recommended by the Instagram algorithm.
- Sponsored posts, which are organic posts that you choose to promote.
Today, we’re going to focus on search and explore.
Why? Because sponsored posts are much more straightforward – you just pick an audience to see your ads.
How Do Businesses Benefit From Instagram Explore?
The Explore page not only hands you a way to get discovered, but you can use the feature to fine-tune your own Instagram strategy.
For example, the 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. From what we have seen, this is populated largely on your Instagram hashtag and search history.
Brands can use Search by Place to grow their 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 Does the Instagram Explore Page Work?
The Explore page is found next to your home feed and is filled with suggested posts, Stories, and topics.
Basically, Explore is where Instagram tries to anticipate what people will search for.
Like Instagram search results, it’s heavily influenced by what people have previously searched for.
It’s also influenced by trending topics. However, because it’s based on general recommendations instead of a specific search by the user, it also depends heavily on the Instagram algorithm to suggest posts.
In a recent post, we broke down that algorithm for you:
- Interest. Is this content that the user (ie your target audience) cares about?
- Timeliness. Are you posting regularly, at optimized times for your audience? Posts are more likely to show up if they are recent.
- Relationship. If this user has previously followed you, or has friends who follow you, then your posts are more likely to appear in their Explore tab.
The idea of getting on the Explore tab might seem more intimidating. But it’s actually becoming easier, as Instagram breaks that tab down into more specific categories. As well as their main Explore feed, users can choose to view recommended posts for their individual interests – such as shopping, fashion or food.
These recommended categories appear at the top of the Explore page and can be easily clicked on by the user to get more specific results.
How Does Search Work on the Explore Page?
Instagram’s search bar works very differently from other search engines that you might be used to.
For example, on Google, you can type in a question or string of words and get a response.
That doesn’t work on Instagram. You can search by a single keyword at a time, or a single hashtag word or phrase. But the key point is that you can only perform one, specific search at a time.
What’s more, every user gets individualized search results.
Instagram search adjusts the experience for each user based on previous searches, posts that your friends have liked, and what’s trending on the social network.
If you search for a keyword, you’ll get a mix of top results. You can narrow down the results by sorting them into different categories, found at the very top of the Search page:
If you search by hashtag – or tap on a hashtag related to your keyword – then you’ll go directly to a page full of related posts.
You’ll see a collection of top posts, Stories and IGTV videos with that hashtag. You can even choose to follow the hashtag so that you’ll regularly see the top posts in your home feed.
Instagram individualizes the experience for each user by choosing photos and videos that are liked by people you’re connected with and by current trending posts.
The hashtags used in these posts index and categorize the content to appear in what’s currently trending.
The hashtags are labeled in sections called “Top Posts” near the “Most Recent” posts to show users what’s popular for a specific hashtag or place.
Instagram then chooses what you see by linking the trending places and suggested people into different collections by Instagram account or place.
To find what’s trending, users conduct searches to discover what, who, and where are popular on Instagram.
The results generated depend on a variety of factors, like the people you follow, who you’re connected with, and what photos, videos, and posts you’ve previously liked.
There are a few things you can do to increase your likelihood of appearing on the Explore page.
We’ll cover all of these in-depth momentarily, but some of the most beneficial tactics are:
- Know your audience. Who are they? Who else are they following? Do they prefer posts, Stories or IGTV?
- Add a location tag so that anyone searching for Places will find your posts. This is especially important for local businesses or franchises.
- Choose your moment. In general, Instagram engagement is higher on weekends and mid-morning during weekdays. Use your business account insights to figure out the best time to post for your audience.
- Use Stories for quick, attention-grabbing videos that will attract new followers.
- Use mentions to build up your network. Tag brand partners or influencers in your posts, so that you can get some attention from their audience as well. Just be careful not to stray into spam territory.
- User relevant hashtags. According to TrackMaven, posts with nine hashtags have the best engagement.
You’ve probably already noticed that hashtags play a big role in search on Instagram.
So, the first and most important thing you can do is to improve your hashtag game.
Use Hashtags to Increase Visibility
Hashtags are your secret weapon to success when it comes to Instagram.
Every post needs to have multiple relevant hashtags that are specific to your audience. But remember: it’s about quality, not quantity.
Remember, Instagram’s search results are controlled by many factors. You can’t control people’s individual search history or decide what’s trending – but you control your Instagram hashtags 100%. So, take full advantage.
Then, whenever you’re hosting an event, having a promotion, or just need more people to walk through your door, use these hashtags, along with your location, to get in front of more people.
Outside of tools, you can use the Explore Page yourself to find relevant hashtags.
When you navigate to the page, the sectioned titled “Tags” at the top will show you a list of hashtags related to the topic you typed into the search bar. In addition to revealing popular related hashtags, you’ll also see how the number of posts for each.
This can be extremely valuable information to have. Generally speaking, you want to avoid using very popular hashtags, as your chances for surfacing for them are much slimmer. Hashtags related to a specific niche could have a decisively smaller following, but end up more effective for your brand and audience.
Of course, you want to make sure the hashtags you choose have a decent number of posts. After all, a hashtag with no traffic does you no good.
You can also use the Tags section to find related hashtags. When you click on a hashtag in the results, the top of the page will display “related hashtags.”
Share Quality Photos
A great photo says a thousand words – especially on Instagram.
After all, 60% of consumers say they are more likely to consider a company if an image appears with their search.
So, make sure anyone using Explore finds pictures that accurately portray your brand.
And of course, only share quality pictures. Sixty-seven percent of consumers say image quality is very important when choosing a company.
Also, select your pictures wisely.
Certain aspects get higher engagements. For example, pictures of real customers have a 30% higher engagement.
Also, a high amount of background space generates 29% more likes than those with minimal space, and lighter images have 24%more likes than darker images.
Texture also comes into play with high levels of texture generating 79% more likes.
For even more visibility, geo-tag your photos and connect to the mapping function to make it easier to find your business. Using the right pictures will boost your engagement to encourage more likes and shares.
Use Instagram Stories and Videos
With over 400 million of Instagram’s 800 million user base being active daily, it only stands to reason that you want to utilize any feature that targets them on a daily basis.
This is where Instagram’s story feature comes in.
Built on the same principle as Snapchat’s disappearing snap feature, Instagram stories disappear 24 hours after being posted. If you create a story that you are fond of and want it to live on, you can “highlight” that story on your profile page.
It’s no secret that the Stories format has been a major win for Instagram, and brands have benefited greatly from them as well. In fact, 1 out of 3 of the most viewed Stories on Instagram are from businesses.
You can include lenses, hashtags, and stickers to enhance your photo or video stories. Businesses may be particularly interested in the location and poll stickers.
With these, you can generate more engagement, and in regard to polls, you can gather some valuable customer data.
Be sure to create unique and engaging Stories with relevant hashtags. Doing so is essential to getting featured on the coveted Explore page.
The more interaction your story receives, the more likely it is to become featured. This will lead to exceptional brand awareness, engagement and ultimately, conversions.
Outside of Stories, you should also be focusing on incorporating videos – both live and pre-filmed – into your strategy.
According to an Engagement report by Mention, videos receive 38% more engagement than image posts and 2.1x the number of comments.
Post at the Right Time
As of 2017, there were more than 25 million business profiles on Instagram. You can only imagine how much that number’s grown in the meantime.
So yeah, you’ve got some steep competition.
But posting at the right times during the day will help promote your engagement and get you in front of your audience when they’re most active. It will also increase the likelihood that you’re content is featured on the Explore page, as Instagram tends to promote posts that have published recently.
Sprout Social recently updated their ongoing list of the best times to post on social media.
They discovered that Wednesdays appear to be the sweet spot in the week, while Mondays have the least amount of engagement, with Fridays between 10am-11am also seeing high engagement.
Of course, what works best for your brand will depend entirely on your specific audience. And the only way to know for sure is to run tests and monitor your analytics.
Start by posting at different times throughout the day, spread out over the course of the week, and after enough time has passed do a deep dive into the analytics you’ve gathered to determine what times get the best engagement for your brand.
Whether it’s long-form on your blog or short and sweet in a social media caption, the content you create remains one of the most important aspects of your strategy.
On social media specifically, your captions help drive engagement.
On top of that, including well-placed keywords and hashtags will help Instagram match your content to relevant searches, which will increase the likelihood that your post ranks in Explore.
Although there isn’t any apparent connection in the length of Instagram captions that impact engagement, the average caption is 138 characters long, including the hashtags.
Your caption should accurately reflect the tone and feel of your brand. Are you free-spirited and funny? Sarcastic and self-deprecating? Serious and professional? The tone you take here should be similar to how you approach your website, blog, etc.
Create a catchy and descriptive caption that includes your location and your website’s URL to help with search visibility.
Some brands will benefit from lengthier, more informative captions. Often, these can be used as “micro-blogs” and used to provide information or insight on a given subject.
Other brands will benefit from captions that are short and straight to the point.
Like most things in marketing, this will likely require a little experimentation to see what length (and kind of content provided) works best for your brand.
Strive to Promote Engagement
It’s pretty simple really, the more likes, comments and shares you get, the higher you’ll appear in a search or on Explore.
But how do you make sure users will engage with your posts?
Here are some suggestions to help you do just that:
- Create branded hashtags and encourage followers to use them. You can then use the search feature to follow up with those who have posted by liking, commenting, or re-posting.
- Search for and follow influencers you would like to collaborate with. Eighty-two percent of consumers are likely to follow recommendations made by influencers.
- If you have a brick-and-mortar location or are having an event, be sure to use geo-tags to help users engage with your business. Much like branded hashtags, you can then follow up with those who have visited your location.
- Be sure to create and post quality content your followers will want to see
For more ideas on what to post, check out my full article here.
FAQ on Instagram Explore
1. How are photos and videos chosen for the Explore Page?
Instagram’s algorithm was once closely guarded but, with its recent update, Instagram insiders have given us a look into how the new algorithm works.
Results are still tailored to each individual user based on the people you follow and the content you like. It works similarly with video channels, automatically choosing accounts that you will enjoy based on your previous activity.
As such, you will likely see:
- Content similar to what you’ve previously engaged with
- Content with high engagement
- Content from accounts similar to those you follow
With the new algorithm however, Instagram will focus on these three main factors:
- Interest – Instagram will predict the likelihood of your interest in a post based on your past behavior.
- Timeliness – The new algorithm will prioritize recent posts.
- Relationship – The more you interact with a user’s post, the more you will see their posts in your feed.
Other factors that affect the new algorithm are how often you use Instagram, how long you spend using it and how many users you follow.
2. What are the best ways to get on the Instagram Explore page?
There are a few things you can do to increase your likelihood of appearing on the page. Some of the most beneficial are:
- First, know your audience. Know who they are, what things interest them, and what kind of accounts they follow. These insights will let you know the kind of content that’s already appearing on their explore page so you can better emulate it.
- Use relevant hashtags. According to TrackMaven, posts with nine hashtags have the best engagement.
- Add a location tag
- Publish your posts when your target audience is most active
- Use Instagram Live
3. How do I select the best hashtags?
One of the best ways to find the most relevant is through Instagram itself.
Enter a search in the search bar and select “tags”. Instagram will then show results of hashtags related to the word or phrase you searched for, and the number of tags for each one. From that list, you can select the hashtags best for your business. It’s usually best to avoid the most and least popular hashtags (unless you operate in a very specific niche).
4. Does more engagement make your posts more likely to appear on Instagram Explore?
Yes. The more likes and comments your post has, the more likely it is to appear on the page. As such, you should do everything you can to boost post engagement, so focus on creating valuable posts and tag all companies and products involved with it.
6. What are some of the most important metrics for Instagram search?
When it comes to Instagram search, analytics are important. You’ll want to pay special attention to:
- Comments – this will tell you how engaged your users are with your posts
- Follower growth rate – tells you the overall growth of your channel
- Timing – tells you when your posts perform the best
- Engaged hashtags – tells you the best hashtags to use
Instagram isn’t going anywhere. Quite the contrary, in fact.
As the Explore page continues to evolve, more and more people will be using it to find posts relevant to them.
Make sure your brand shows up by following the tips above.