Every large platform has its own rules and characteristics. From an SEO perspective, Instagram is an exceptional case: the image platform has no direct text search, which makes discovering content and accounts somewhat different. You will find out just how it works and which success factors play a role, in this article.
Instagram is on its way to outpace its parent company Facebook. While the growth of Instagram is on a constant rise, Facebook is stagnating. For us, this is reason enough to take an intensive look at Instagram based on a large set of data. After all, it is our speciality to bring light into the darkness of large platforms.
Table of Contents
The following evaluations are based on analysing more than a billion Instagram posts. For this, we regularly monitor more than 50 million Instagram accounts and continuously analyse all accounts with more than 10,000 followers. More on that in our changelog.
Being an image centric network, Instagrams search naturally has to work differently than Google’s web search and Amazon’s product search. In a nutshell it works by users adding one or more hashtags to their images. Other users can now search for those hashtags. The search is limited to hashtags that already exist, which means you cannot just freely search for any word.
By the way: in order to improve your own hashtag kung-fu, we already published our free Instagram Hashtag Generator, last year. Which is already one of the most used tools of its kind around the globe.
The search result on Instagram is divided in two: the top part of the hashtag search is made up of the “Top posts”, where nine images are shown that evidently are preferred by users. These results stay noticeably longer on the top of the Instagram SERPs than the second result category: with their “Most recent” posts, Instagram chronologically shows the images that have just been added to their entire network with that hashtag. This means that, for frequently used hashtags, they can change by the second.
A Visibility Index for Instagram
Just as for all platforms, the same holds true for Instagram: just getting one good ranking does not spell success. Only when you take a holistic view of many keywords and rankings, will you be able get an exhaustive and comprehensive image of the situation. For this, we invented the Visibility Index for Instagram.
The Instagram Visibility Index is based on a weekly crawl of the Instagram search results for the 250,000 most successful hashtags. Seeing how Instagram is mostly used on smartphones, which increases the use of suggest and autocomplete features, the “head” of the hashtags used is far more pronounced that what we are used to from Google or Amazon. The hashtags at the end of those 250,000 most successful hashtags have nearly no relevance while the hashtags at the top get used many million times.
From these hashtag search results we will evaluate the nine results that Instagram shows as “Top posts”. These results, compared to the other results in “most recent”, seem to actually have an algorithm that helps the sorting and selection. In sum, we look at 2.25 million search results. These rankings are then weighted by the click probability of their position as well as the search volume of the hashtags. The result is a visibility value for Instagram’s search. All in all, we re-allocate one million visibility points, each week.
Instagram Ranking Factors
Much has been written about the suspected factors that play a role for the ordering of your personal feed on Instagram, which, it being Instagram, are often rather ornate in nature. The search, on the other hand, has largely been neglected, at least publicly. Seeing how we track many other metrics, aside form the Visibility Index, for the relevant Instagram accounts, we are able to see patterns for possible ranking factors. And while correlations do not necessitate causation, we can still gain interesting insights.
- Engagement, meaning the sum of likes and comments in relation to the number of followers for the account, shows a clear correlation with having many and good rankings. While we see an engagement rate of about 1 percent (0.957% to be exact) across all accounts, that engagement rate increases to 3.42% for accounts with a Visibility Index above 1 and accounts with a Visibility Index above 10 have an average engagement rate of 5.25%
Ranking factor probability: very high
- Frequency of postings – Being up-to-date is the trump card on Instagram. While the block of nine “Top posts” is not affected as extremely as the rest of the results, which are sorted entirely in chronological order by Instagram. These successful “Top posts” still get replaced, as time goes on – there is no “evergreen content” as we see on Google. The same also shows up in the data: across all accounts we see a daily posting frequency of about 0.58 posts – a little more that one new post every second day. For accounts with a Visibility Index value of more than 1 the average posting frequency already goes up to 1.22 posts a day and accounts with a Visibility Index of more than 10 even go up to 1.86 – nearly two posts each day.
Insight: You can only rank if you regularly post new content. The Instagram algorithm has a build in decay factor.
Ranking factor probability: quite high
- Number of followers, those mysterious beings. We can assume that within the Instagram universe there is no other key figure which has so much written, guessed and manipulated about it than the number of followers. Entire industries live of the artificial creation of a virtual follower army and Instagram regularly takes counter-measures by deleting them from the system. Looking at all accounts, we see an average of 68,000 followers. With a Visibility Index above 1 the average is already at 248,000 followers and accounts with a Visibility Index above 10 have an average following of 328,000 followers. Does it seem that having more followers will get you more visibility in the Instagram search? It looks like it, at the moment.
Ranking factor probability: quite high
- Number of follows, meaning the number of accounts that the account itself is following. This obviously shows certain bot-induced patterns over time, but the number of follows does not seem to have any bearing on the rankings. Across all accounts, we see an average of 1,580 follows. Looking only at accounts with a Visibility Index of more than 1, that average goes down to 1,105 and those accounts that are extremely successful on Instagram with a Visibility Index of more than 10, have an average of 1,058 follows.
Ranking factor probability: unlikely
- Account verification – does having the blue checkmark besides your account help your ranking in Instagram’s search? Our data shows no connection. Across all accounts, 8.7% of accounts with more than 10,000 followers are verified. For accounts with a Visibility Index of more than 1 that number goes up to 12.9% – while accounts with a Visibility Index score of more than 10 are back down to 7.9%.
Ranking factor probability: unlikely
The number of possible ranking factors on Instagram is rather manageable. The platform does not currently analyse the content (the images or videos) itself, but rather focuses their ranking on meta-data around the content and account. I hope that we have hereby checked the most important and obvious of the potential ranking factors on Instagram.
Instagram Visibility Index as Quality Indicator
As we have just seen: accounts that post on a regular basis, have high engagement on their postings and those who also have a large number of followers, rank above-average on Instagram. And that is exactly what is shown with a high Instagram Visibility Index.
Our influencer search uses this exact behaviour by Instagram: you can use it to search through all posts by all evaluated accounts during the last 3 month. The result is already sorted by the Visibility Index value for the account, in descending order. We can nicely see this in the following screenshot. I searched for the hastags #dachshund and #wienerdog:
We see the more than 800 relevant dachshund-influencers on Instagram, in descending order, by their relevance on Instagram’s search.
A search engine stays a search engine – even if it works in somewhat unusual ways, as it does in the case of Instagram. In the end it comes down to a range of ranking factors, which you can have a positive effect on. Engagement rate, frequency of postings and amount of followers currently have large leveraging powers for increased rankings on Instagram’s hashtag-search.