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Experiments

Experiment: Do Traditional SEO Tactics Work on Social Media?

Can we use what we know about optimizing content for Google to reverse-engineer social SEO success? To the laboratory!

Colleen Christison, Liz Stanton, Paige Cooper August 22, 2023
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Social SEO is like the new kid that just transferred to your high school. Who are they? What can they do to make me more popular? What can I say to get them to pay attention to me? Do they have a crush on me?

Luckily, our latest experiment can answer most of these questions. (Except whether or not social SEO has a crush on you. That’s between you and the internet.)

In all seriousness, social SEO is newer than traditional search engine optimization, so there are still a lot of unknowns. In this experiment, we tested some popular social SEO tips to see if they worked on TikTok and Instagram.

What tips? Well, like the ones we talk about in this Instagram SEO video:

This post will answer whether or not targeting content to specific high-volume keywords can help boost your video’s performance on TikTok or Instagram.

Bonus: Download a free social SEO checklist and follow pro tips for Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn to get your posts seen by more people.

Hypothesis: Traditional SEO tactics can help posts gain more reach on social media

Social SEO, or optimizing your social posts to appear higher in platform search results, is a brand-new game.

For this experiment, we’re starting with the assumption that the search optimization strategies that work for one type of platform might apply to another.

In traditional SEO, marketers optimize their web content to improve its ranking on Google. You target specific keywords and create content that matches the search intent (aka what someone’s actually looking for). It’s all about giving the algorithms that control search results as much context as possible so the robots know your content is valuable and put it closer to the top of the list.

In social SEO, you’re trying to do the same thing. Instagram and TikTok may not be Google, but they also use algorithms to determine which content is served to your audience.

We’ve done experiments on how social media impacts traditional SEO, but this is the first to look at social media SEO specifically.

Methodology

Here’s a breakdown of the steps we took for this experiment:

Step 1: Keyword research on TikTok

We took our own advice and followed the keyword research process outlined in step 2 of this TikTok SEO blog post.

We conducted keyword research by typing our main keyword into TikTok’s search bar and letting autocomplete fill in the rest.

conducting social seo keyword research using tiktok's search and autocomplete. in this example, "instagram" is typed into tiktok's search bar and a list of suggested searches has popped up. the list includes "instagram story idea," "instagram story hacks," and many more

We used those suggested search terms to create a pool of potential keywords that made sense for Hootsuite and our audience.

Step 2: Review the SERP

Once we had a keyword list, we looked at TikTok’s SERP (search engine results page) for each term. If the results for a particular search felt like they matched our target audience and content expertise, we added it to our shortlist.

For example, a term like “social media AI” sounded like a strong contender at first. But with the SERP showing videos like “how to deep fake yourself using AI,” we figured our content probably wouldn’t satisfy that audience.

Because social SEO is new, there’s not a lot of information on search volume (aka how many people are typing “social media AI” into TikTok or Instagram every month). So instead, we used video views to gauge interest.

When choosing keywords, we prioritized terms that returned videos with a minimum of 5K views. It’s not an exact science, but we figured higher average view counts might roughly correspond to more interest in the topic.

Step 3: Video creation

Once our research was done, we settled on five target keywords and created videos for Instagram and TikTok.

For each video, we focused on creating content that the audience wanted — not necessarily what they asked for. That is to say, we made content that matched the searcher’s intent for their term, not the search term itself.

For example, the top videos for a search term like “Instagram caption ideas” may have influencers offering sample captions like “might delete later” or “thought I looked cute.”

If that’s what the audience is looking for, we wouldn’t waste time creating a video on “5 tips on how to write a compelling CTA.” It wouldn’t be technically wrong, but it doesn’t match what the algorithm thinks people want. (And let’s be honest with ourselves: the algorithm is designed to give the people exactly what they want.)

Now comes another popular SEO tip: sprinkling the target keyword throughout the video. We included the target keyword in 3 places:

  1. In the script at least once,
  2. In the caption, and
  3. As on-screen text.
@hootsuite

Ranking the captions our new AI instagram caption generator wrote to announce its own launch #copywriting #aiwritingassistant #instagramcaption #aiinstagramcaption

♬ I Think I Like When It Rains – WILLIS

This TikTok targeted the keyword “AI Instagram captions,” so the phrase pops up in the caption and the script.

Step 4: Video publication and control groups

Once we had our videos, we posted them on both TikTok and Instagram, using Hootsuite’s Best Time to Post feature to make sure they went out at the right time. Then, we leaned back and watched the results roll in.

As social media scientists, we knew we needed a control group to compare our results to. But posting the same video without SEO optimization would be repetitive for our audience. This would, obviously, skew the results and negatively affect our social KPIs. No, thank you!

To avoid duplicate content, we decided to pull a random selection of standard content from each channel to use as a control group.

Step 5: Key metrics

So, how would we know if our experiment was successful? We used TikTok and Instagram’s native analytics to review performance and measure success.

First, we gave each video 4 weeks to collect views. Yes, that’s a very long time for a trending TikTok video, but SEO is an evergreen game, so we wanted to give our videos enough time to gather views from searchers.

For TikTok, we decided that the key metric would be views from the For You page, as opposed to views coming from followers or our profile. We figured that a successfully optimized video would be more likely to appeal to a wider audience and appear on the FYP. (In a perfect world, we’d use views from search as our primary success metric, but we decided to prioritize a metric that appears in both Instagram and TikTok analytics. We’ll take a different approach next time!)

For Instagram, we looked at views from non-followers for the same reason. After all, the goal of SEO is to get our content served to people who don’t already know us but are interested in our niche.

We also looked at total engagements, unique views, and engagement rate (and for TikTok, we were also able to view “watched full video”).

We also spot-checked the search results manually to see if our videos popped up into the top spots.

Results

The TL;DR of the results is that social SEO can improve both reach and engagement rates. Let’s get into it.

TikTok results

On TikTok, our five optimized videos earned 33% more views from people new to our account (aka the FYP). They also had a slightly higher average engagement rate: up from 4.59% to 4.75%.

Our SEO-optimized videos also earned 39% more unique views when compared to our control videos.

Still, when we spot-checked the TikTok SERPs for our keywords, we didn’t see our videos surfacing in TikTok’s search results.

Average Video Views by SectionAverage Total Engagements
TikTokSEO ContentControlSEO ContentControl
22% FYP, 11.4% following, 8.6% personal profile16.6% FYP, 15.4% following, 15.2% personal profile475208

Here’s an example showing TikTok’s native analytics for a video from our control group. For this non-optimized video, most of the views came from people who came straight to our profile or were already following us. Only 2% of views came from the FYP.

TikTok's native analytics for one of our control videos. This screen shows Video Views by Section

And here’s what the analytics looked like for one of our SEO-optimized TikToks. Check out those video views by section — 31% of our views came from the FYP!

TikTok's native analytics for one of our SEO-optimized videos

Instagram results

Due to a tragic error, our experiment’s best-performing Instagram videos were accidentally boosted.* Alas, we can no longer access the organic results. However, is it a brag if we acknowledge that these posts were boosted because of how well they were doing??

*Pro tip: Hootsuite will boost your top posts automatically too; just let it know what the trigger should be. 500 likes? 10,000 views? Grab your free trial and try it out!

But, the experiment wasn’t a failure. Strangely enough, our SEO-optimized videos still saw higher total and average engagements.

Average Views by SourceAverage Total Engagements
Instagram*SEO ContentControlSEO ContentControl
5288 from followers vs. 909 from non-followers*5300 from followers vs. 1126 from non-followersSkewed: 578.8

Non-skewed: 250.7
200

(*Data with the accidentally boosted posts is labeled as skewed for transparency)

Once we removed the paid views from the calculated averages, we noticed fewer non-followers than the control saw our SEO-optimized content.

But we saw 25% more total engagements and a higher average engagement rate (4.0%, up from 3.1%).

So, go figure. The SEO optimization worked, just not in the way we predicted.

Like TikTok, we didn’t see our videos in the search results here, either.

Here’s how one of non-optimized Reels performed, according to Instagram’s native analytics. Here, 22% of views came from non-followers.

Instagram's native analytics for one of our control Reels Instagram's native analytics for one of our control Reels, showing where video views came from

And here’s how one of our SEO-optimized Reels performed. For this one, only about 17% of the views came from non-followers.

Instagram's native analytics for one of our optimized videos Instagram's native analytics for one of our SEO-optimized Reels, showing where views came from

 

Bonus: Google results

Guess what? Google includes TikToks in its search results, so if you’re looking to rank on this all-knowing monolith’s SERPs, then get your TikTok strategy on point.

Knowing this, we took a look at Google’s SERP for our target keywords to see if any of our SEO-optimized TikTok videos would rank.

While none of them made it to the first spot (or Page 1), we did have this video come in at the 12th position for the term “steal our post Instagram.” Funnily enough, this showed us that the order of words in our captions matter.

@hootsuite

Steal these Instagram post ideas but only if you wanna double your followers 😏 #igtips #instagraminspo #instagrampostideas

♬ original sound – Hootsuite

We meant to target the keyword “Instagram post ideas,” but the caption started with “Steal these Instagram post ideas,” which must have confused the poor Google robots.

These results weren’t exactly what we expected, but hey, we did learn something — start with the important info!

Next time, we’d say something more like, “Instagram post ideas you should steal if you wanna double your followers.” Or perhaps you’ll steal this caption idea.

What do the results mean?

So, what do these results mean for you and your social strategy?

The biggest TikTok takeaway is: Optimizing for keywords can get you ~40% more views, including 33% more views coming from the FYP.

While it may not help your video rank on Google or TikTok’s SERP, that doesn’t mean it’s not helping. You don’t have to see it to believe it, folks.

Find out more on TikTok SEO.

The biggest Instagram takeaway is: By optimizing for keywords, you may find yourself with a ~33% bump in engagement rates.

Due to our boosted post mishap, we can’t say with 100% certainty that Instagram reacts as positively as TikTok. But, in our heart of hearts, we know it’s (probably) true. We’ll definitely rerun this experiment in the future to continue to validate results.

Find out more on Instagram SEO.

The way you can sell this to your boss (or yourself) is this: Optimizing for keywords is easier than creating a viral hit. Integrating social SEO into your content strategy could pay dividends over the long run.

Tips, tricks and insights into social SEO

Now that you know how effective SEO can be for TikTok and Instagram, here are nine tips to get you started:

Do your keyword research

Add keyword research to your routine. SEO pros will often perform traditional keyword research once every quarter, but social moves fast. There’s no firm rule as to how often you should be doing social keyword research, but we would recommend pairing it with your content planning.

Keyword research can actually act as a source of inspiration for your content strategy. You’ll discover the terms people are searching for, which indicates a trend or subject your audience is interested in. Then, you can create content that speaks to that interest and hits those keywords.

Supplement, don’t replace

SEO is a methodical approach to getting your content seen, while trends and viral content capitalize on a brief, intense interest from your target audience.

SEO shouldn’t replace your trends and viral content strategy. It should supplement it.

Optimize your educational content, especially

If you’re only going to optimize one piece of content, make it your educational content. On YouTube, the world’s second-largest search engine, educational how-to videos get most of their views from search.

While other types of videos get most of their clicks by using exciting thumbnails and being “up next”, educational content is something people actively search for using … yes, keywords.

It makes sense to optimize educational content for search because people are already searching for it.

We’re big on YouTube SEO, too.

Embed your content on your blog or website

If you’ve got a blog, website, or somewhere to house media, you need to embed your SEO content in relevant articles.

Embedding your keyword-optimized content in another piece of optimized content sends an even stronger relevance signal to Google and makes your video much more likely to rank.

Plus, if your blog or website ranks well and pulls in decent traffic, your embedded videos have a longer half-life and can keep getting views in the long-term.

Pay attention to your script

YouTube, TikTok, and (we suspect) most social platforms that host videos can process the “text of words spoken.” They crawl your transcript, looking for keywords.

So, be sure to pepper your keywords and variations throughout your script. And try to hit your target keyword in the first few seconds.

Put your keywords first

Keyword order seems to matter for some search engines. Be sure to organize your captions intentionally, with the target keyword first.

Add text natively within the platform

In addition to the spoken audio, social platforms will crawl the text on your videos. If you want to make it easier for the platform’s robots to “read” your content, adding your text natively within the platform may have better results.

It’s tough to make blanket statements about all social platforms as we simply don’t have that kind of insight. But, this theory would be a good one to A/B test with your content.

Include alt text

Not only does alt text help visually impaired folks enjoy your content, but it also can help your publishing platform recognize what your content’s about.

The jury’s still out on whether or not alt text has significant benefits for SEO; we did an Instagram alt text experiment with inconclusive results. However, that experiment did not contain keyword research or a significant focus on keywords.

Don’t sleep on your title and hashtags

Title and hashtags are the most obvious tip on this list, but we couldn’t live with ourselves if we didn’t add them here.

Put your keywords in your title and hashtags to help inform the social platform’s algorithm and your audience on what your video is all about.

Save time managing your social media and get your content seen using Hootsuite. From a single dashboard, you can schedule and publish content, engage your audience, and measure the performance of all your accounts, across networks. Try it free today.

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By Colleen Christison

Colleen Christison is a freelance copywriter, copy editor, and brand communications specialist. She spent the first six years of her career in award-winning agencies like Major Tom, writing for social media and websites and developing branding campaigns. Following her agency career, Colleen built her own writing practice, working with brands like Mission Hill Winery, The Prevail Project, and AntiSocial Media.

By Liz Stanton

Liz Stanton is an Inbound Marketing Strategist and associate editor of the Hootsuite blog. After years of freelance writing, she transitioned to a full-time marketing career in 2018. Before joining Hootsuite in 2022, Liz worked as a brand strategist, content editor, and digital campaign manager. She specialized in helping digital marketing agencies, B2C businesses, and SaaS startups build their brands and improve conversions through content marketing and social media.

Read more by Liz Stanton
By Paige Cooper

Paige Cooper is a lapsed librarian turned copywriter turned inbound marketing strategist who spends her days growing the Hootsuite Labs YouTube channel.

Read more by Paige Cooper

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