How do you stand out in a sea of more than one billion Instagram users? Instagram SEO is a great place to start. Getting your content featured in search results pages can help extend your organic reach.

Understanding how SEO on Instagram works is important for any business wanting to connect with new followers. Let’s dive in.

Bonus: 14 Time-Saving Hacks for Instagram Power Users. Get the list of secret shortcuts Hootsuite’s own social media team uses to create thumb-stopping content.

What is Instagram SEO?

Instagram SEO means optimizing your Instagram content to be discovered in search results. When someone searches for a relevant keyword or hashtag in the Instagram search box, you want your account or content to appear near the top of the list.

Instagram SEO ranking factors

SEO, in general, is a little bit art, a little bit science. Instagram SEO is no different. There’s no exact formula to rocket your account to the top of the search rankings.

Fortunately, Instagram is open about the signals it uses to rank search results. Here’s how it determines what someone sees when they use the Instagram search bar.

Search text

It’s no surprise that what someone types in the search bar is the most important signal to search. Based on the search terms, Instagram looks for relevant usernames, bios, captions, hashtags, and locations.

What this means for brands: You need to understand what search terms people use to look for content like yours. Google Analytics, Hootsuite Insights, and other social monitoring tools can help give you insight into what terms people use to search for your business.

User activity

This includes hashtags and accounts the user has followed and interacted with, and which posts they’ve viewed in the past. Accounts and hashtags the user interacts with rank higher than those they don’t.

Here are the search results when I search “travel” from my main Instagram account, where I follow and interact with a lot of travel writers and travel brands:

travel search results main Instagram account

I follow all four of the top search results and have interacted with all of them in the past.

Here are the top results for the same search term—”travel”—from my secondary Instagram account, where I follow far fewer accounts and don’t focus on travel:

travel search results secondary Instagram account

The top four recommended accounts are completely different. Because I don’t have a history of following and engaging with travel accounts from this Instagram profile, Instagram has to rely on other signals to power the results.

What this means for brands: Again, it’s all about research. Understand the hashtags your target audience is likely to use and engage with. And encourage engagement with your posts.

Someone using search is more likely to see content from a brand they’ve engaged with before, even if they don’t (yet) follow that brand.

Popularity signals

Content that’s already popular is most likely to rank high in the search results. Instagram determines popularity using signals like the number of clicks, likes, shares and follows for an account, hashtag, or place.

What this means for brands: Post at the right time to spark engagement right away. That early engagement signals popularity and gives your content a search boost while it’s still relevant and fresh. Hootsuite can help with customized best time to publish recommendations.

5 Instagram SEO tactics to increase your reach

1. Optimize your Instagram profile for search

Your Instagram profile (aka your Instagram bio) is the best place to include relevant keywords and search terms.

Instagram bio SEO starts with Instagram name SEO. Choose a handle and profile name that’s relevant to your content. If you’re well known by your brand name, then that’s the best place to start. If there’s room for a keyword in your handle or name, include that too.

Notice all of the accounts that appeared in my top search results for travel—from both profiles—include the word “travel” in their handle or name or both.

travel search results Instagram handle

Also, make sure to include relevant keywords in your bio. Who are you, and what are you all about? What kind of content can people (and the Instagram search engine) expect to find in your grid?

Finally, be sure to include a location in your bio if it’s relevant to your business. Only Business and Creator accounts can add a location, so this is just one more reason to make the switch to a professional account if you haven’t already done so.

To add a profile location for Instagram bio SEO, open the Instagram app and tap on your profile icon. Tap Edit Profile, then Contact Options. Enter your address, being as specific or as general as you like. You can enter your specific street address if that’s relevant, or just use your city.

Make sure you turn on the slider bar for Display contact info.

Instagram bio and contact info

Source: @ckjnewberry

Your location only appears on your profile page on the app, not the web version of Instagram. But once it’s attached to your account, it’s a ranking signal to the Instagram search engine regardless of whether your audience is using the app or the web.

For more tips on making your Instagram profile more discoverable, check out our full post on how to write a great Instagram bio.

Bonus: 14 Time-Saving Hacks for Instagram Power Users. Get the list of secret shortcuts Hootsuite’s own social media team uses to create thumb-stopping content.

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2. Use the right hashtags

While it’s long been considered an insider trick to hide hashtags in comments, Instagram has now revealed that keywords and hashtags should appear directly in the caption to impact the search results.

They also recently shared some specific hashtag tips for showing up in the search results:

  • Use only relevant hashtags.
  • Use a combination of well-known, niche, and specific (think branded or campaign-based) hashtags.
  • Limit hashtags to 3 to 5 per post.
  • Don’t use irrelevant or overly generic hashtags like #explorepage.

Instagram users were somewhat shocked by the recommendation to limit the number of hashtags. After all, Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags per post. But the advice from Instagram is clear: “Don’t use too many hashtags—adding 10-20 hashtags will not help you get additional distribution.”

So, what are the best SEO hashtags for Instagram?

That depends on your business and your audience. To get a sense of which hashtags are already driving traffic to your posts, take a look at your Instagram Insights. The Insights for any post will tell you how many impressions for that post came from hashtags.

Instagram Impressions hashtags

If you’ve used multiple hashtags, Instagram analytics won’t tell you exactly which ones did the heavy lifting. But if you’re sticking to the recommended 3 to 5 hashtags, you should be able to determine which ones consistently drive traffic over time.

You can also use social listening to see what hashtags your target audience, your competitors, and influencers in your industry are already using.

Finally, you can use the Instagram search bar to discover popular keywords and learn which hashtags the people you follow are interested in. These will likely resonate with your audience, too.

Go to the Instagram Explore page and type a hashtag (including the # symbol) into the search bar. You’ll see which of the people you follow are already following these tags. If you search for a generic hashtag (like #travel), you will also see some more specific hashtags that could provide a good balance for the general, niche, specific combination Instagram recommends.

#travel and related hashtags

The search results page for any keyword (see the next tip) also includes a Tags tab. Tap on it to see the most popular hashtags for that keyword, along with the total number of posts for each.

3. Use the right keywords

In the past, Instagram search did not consider keywords in captions, but that appears to be changing. Instagram now specifically recommends including relevant keywords in post captions to help with discoverability.

That’s because they’re changing how search results are served. In the past, search results only included relevant accounts, hashtags, and places.

Now, search results also include keyword results pages meant for browsing. This is great news for lesser-known brands, since it gives people a better chance to find your content without searching for your specific account name.

use relevant keywords to improve discoverability

Clicking on any of the keyword results pages (indicated with a magnifying glass) opens a full page of content to browse. Each keyword results page is essentially an Explore page for that specific keyword. Note the Tags tab, which can help you uncover the most popular hashtags for each keyword.

keyword results page for travel photography

So, how do you choose your target keywords? The research you did in the step above to figure out your best hashtags will give you some initial clues.

Analytics tools will give you more insight. For example, use Google Analytics to see which keywords are driving traffic to your website. These are likely good candidates to test in your Instagram posts.

Hootsuite Insights powered by Brandwatch is another good tool for keyword discovery. Use the word cloud feature to uncover common words used in relation to your brand, industry, or hashtags.

Hootsuite Insights word cloud for related keywords

Source: Hootsuite Insights

4. Add alt text to images

Alt text on Instagram is just like alt text on the web. It’s a text description of an image or video that makes the content accessible to those with visual impairments. It also provides a description of the content in case the photo itself fails to load.

Instagram alt text also has the advantage of helping Instagram better understand what’s in your content, and therefore better understand whether it’s relevant to a specific search.

Instagram uses object recognition technology to create an automatic description of each photo for those who use a screen reader. This information also provides information to the Instagram algorithm and search results about the content of your photo.

Of course, the automatic alt text will never be as detailed as alt text created by a human. For example, here’s the auto-generated alt text for a photo I posted on Instagram.

automatically generated alt text for photo of a bee and flower

(Note: You can check out your own auto-generated alt text by turning on the screen reader on your phone or computer.)

The photo is clearly a bee, but Instagram’s alt text just classifies it as “flower and nature.” While I used the word “bees” in my caption, providing custom alt text here would provide a better experience for those with visual impairments as well as sending better alt text Instagram SEO signals.

To add alt text when you post a photo, tap Advanced Settings at the bottom of the screen where you write your caption.

click advanced settings to add alt text to Instagram photo

Under Accessibility, tap Write Alt Text and add a photo description using relevant keywords.

To add alt text to an existing photo, open the photo and tap the three dots icon, then tap Edit. At the bottom right of the image, tap Edit Alt Text.

edit alt text on existing photo

Enter your alt text, then tap the blue checkmark.

enter alt text and tap blue check mark

This new alt text is much more accurate, and includes keywords people might use to search for content like this. It’s an easy Instagram optimization strategy.

5. Maintain a quality account

Instagram search results are also based on the Instagram Recommendations Guidelines. That means accounts that go against these guidelines will appear lower in search results or not appear in search at all.

Keep in mind that the Recommendations Guidelines are more stringent than the Community Guidelines. In short, if you violate the Community Guidelines, your content will be removed from Instagram altogether. If you go against the Recommendations Guidelines, your content will still appear on the platform, but it will be harder to find.

Instagram search avoids recommending content that is “low-quality, objectionable, or sensitive,” as well as content that “may be inappropriate for younger viewers.” Some specific examples of what NOT to do include:

  • Clickbait or engagement bait
  • Exaggerated health claims
  • Unoriginal content copied from another source
  • Misleading claims or content
  • Buying likes

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