Instagram SEO: Marketers and influencers share 8 tips to get started
Listen to this article:
When you hear “SEO,” your mind probably thinks about long-form articles and Google search. But the truth is SEO is baked into everything online, and that includes social media platforms—like Instagram.
Jess Sanfilippo is the Head of Social at House of Wise. From organic to paid social, she’s worked with it all.
But her experience with Instagram lies beyond the surface: Jess is a strategist, and she saw an opportunity with SEO.
Back in September 2020, Jess implemented SEO best practices on the brand’s Instagram page, and within just 8 months House of Wise saw incredible results.
“We have seen exponential growth. Certainly, more on the engagement side, which is great. We're seeing more shares, more saves. The quality of the content itself has elevated as a result of that, and then followers follow close behind,” She said.
If building an SEO social media strategy hasn’t been top-of-mind for you before, here’s a tip:
It’s never too late to start.
First, what the heck is Instagram SEO?
Like any search algorithm, Instagram SEO is about answering questions or showing content that is reflective of what your audience is searching for. Unlike optimizing content for search engines like Google, Instagram search optimization uses a combination of hashtags, keywords, captions, names, and bios to increase exposure and attract followers.
Tl;dr: It’s the process of making your content more easily discoverable.
If it’s your first rodeo with SEO then you need to start with the basics. The goal? Increase engagement and grow your following organically.
Kendall Dickieson, a social media extraordinaire working with brands like Canopy and Nuggs, explains Instagram SEO well:
“It allows you to search for content on the platform using keywords, not just hashtags. Previously, you could only do this to find Instagram profiles based on keywords they used in their Instagram name, username, or bio. Now, we can use keywords to search for posts too. For example, if you were looking for a specific pant from Everlane, you can type ‘Everlane straight leg crop,’ and you will get posts that have it written in the copy.”
Why brands and influencers are focusing on Instagram SEO
With SEO, brands can drive more eyeballs to their products, and even encourage users to take action—like make a purchase.
But increasing your brand’s reach can be difficult with so much competition on the platform, which is where SEO comes into play.
According to Angela Marti, an influencer with a niche in travel content, community, and social media marketing, “Implementing SEO strategies on Instagram is an organic way to increase your reach and growth, and given how hard it can be to grow on the platform, it's wise to make sure you have all your bases covered,” she said. “Keep in mind, SEO is a long-term strategy, not a short-term miracle solution.”
Angela’s first post dates back to the end of 2013; it had 39 likes. By 2015, she was using hashtags, locations, and descriptive captions—earning her thousands of likes per post.
Today, she has over 32,000 followers and a community using the hashtag #angiescommunity to engage with her.
Jess has seen similar results from building SEO best practices into House of Wise’s Instagram: more people are saving the brand’s content, sharing it to their stories, and DMing it to their friends.
But aside from engagement, what are the benefits of Instagram SEO? Jess, Kendall, and Angela outlined four key areas:
When you’re first starting out as a brand or influencer, your social media following typically consists of friends and family that want to support you. It’s great to have people rooting for you, but you also want to make sure others can discover you.
The benefit of searchability is simple: with keywords and hashtags, you can increase the chances of potential customers discovering your brand through Instagram’s search engine.
For example, when you search for “Dusty Rose Bag,” Yuuma Collection is near the top of the Instagram results page. This is because they used the hashtag #DustyRoseBag in the caption. The photo shows off their pink bag, and customers interested in purchasing it can go to Yuuma’s site from their profile.
Whether your industry is saturated or not, there are opportunities to innovate, revolutionize, and establish something new. Instagram SEO can help you build credibility by sharing thought leadership in your unique space.
This is exactly what House of Wise does:
“A part of what we do is really educational, so having those questions that people are asking very explicitly included in captions has proven to be a really strong thing for us. Your value proposition can be rooted in knowing your shit—for lack of a better term. Show off that you know what you're talking about and build that trust and loyalty before you even have that consumer converted.”
Jess explains Instagram SEO as a low-hanging fruit to present information that encourages customers to take another step—like make a purchase.
Essentially, more eyeballs = more opportunity for your brand.
At House of Wise, they keep an open-DMs policy, meaning the brand and team accounts have open DMs where customers can message to ask questions.
Most posts include a call-to-action to click the link in the brand’s bio, but having open DMs has worked as a customer service tactic where the House of Wise team can suggest products for interested customers.
According to Jess, this has helped move people through their funnel more efficiently.
Instagram is a highly visual platform, making it difficult for the visually impaired to get the same experience. But over the years, Instagram has made improvements.
Enter, Alt. Text.
By using Alt. Text, you can properly and accurately portray your brand’s imagery.
There is an opportunity to include keywords in your alt text if it’s natural to do so. However, Angela suggests “The primary purpose of Alt. Text is not for SEO, but rather is a tool implemented on image-based platforms for the visually impaired. Good Alt. Text describes the content of the image in a way that provides a full sensory experience.”
8 ways to do Instagram SEO better for your brand
There’s a lot to consider with Instagram SEO, but you shouldn’t let that deter you from starting.
According to Kendall, the biggest mistake is “Not using it at all!” She said. “I think that IG needs to do a better job at educating about these resources.”
Kendall is right about there being minimal resources about Instagram SEO. Thankfully she, along with Jess and Angela, shared the top 8 ways to do it better for your brand.
- Incorporate keywords—everywhere
Search engines, like Google, rely on the strategic placement of keywords to scan and share relevant content to users—the same concept applies on Instagram.
Angela explains that keywords are “words that relate to your niche, brand, business, and content that best summarize what it is that you offer. Primary keywords are normally more vague terms such as travel and secondary keywords are words that add a more descriptive context to your primary keywords such as luxury.”
Using these keywords in your name and bio is important, but you should also be thinking about how you’ll incorporate them into every post. Through hashtags and descriptions, you can make your posts discoverable by including your primary and secondary keywords.
Pro tip: include your primary keyword within the first 138 characters of your post description, so people see the keyword before the “see more” button appears.
- Optimize your Instagram name and bio
Before you start creating posts and using hashtags, the first thing every brand and influencer should do is optimize their Instagram name and bio.
Why? Because there is search built into this part of Instagram too.
When people search for specific words or phrases, Instagram doesn’t just show hashtags or posts—profiles show up in the results too. Use your keywords strategically in both sections, and if you’re a niche brand or influencer you can add your location too.
“Many people aren’t aware that both your name and handle are searchable. This is why it’s so important not to repeat information, and be very meaningful with the keywords you’re using. Currently, these are the only two parts of your bio that are fully searchable within the Instagram search engine. Choosing a relevant, on-brand handle is so important,” Said Angela.
To get started, Angela suggests starting with 2-3 primary keywords and 4-5 secondary keywords in your profile. And don’t overstuff it! The keywords you use in your profile should relate to the things you want your target audience to search for.
Just like how Angela suggests, Jess from House of Wise uses the most important keywords strategically on the brand’s profile, which include full-spectrum products, stress, sex, sleep, natural, ethical, and gluten-free.
And here’s a lesser-known tip: many fancy fonts aren’t searchable. So if you’re using unique fonts for your name and bio, you’re diminishing your discoverability.
- Focus your use of hashtags
To Kendall, the importance of hashtags is clear: “Hashtags aren't dead. They can't save your account, but you shouldn't write them off.”
Her #1 tip? Treat hashtags like keywords, and be specific.
For example, the hashtag #Beauty may be related to your niche, but thousands of creators are using it every day. Your post will only get buried if you rely on heavily-used hashtags like that. So, get niche, get specific, and focus your hashtags.
In one of Canopy’s posts, Kendall uses this method to attract plant lovers and people living in apartments to drive interest in Canopy’s humidifiers.
- Write descriptive Instagram captions
The caption section of every post is the perfect place to get detailed and descriptive about your products. When you understand what your customers are searching for, you can get specific in your post captions to provide answers.
In Kendall’s experience working with food and beverage brands, she’s noticed descriptions becoming mini blog posts. “Tips and listicles are going to start becoming more and more prominent for creators and brands to educate—similar to blog posts they may have on their site,” She said.
For example, Twin Coast (a brand founded by two creators who share healthy recipes), writes recipes in their post captions. To get followers to take action, they style photos with their own coconut bowls and spoons that customers can purchase online.
In the early days on Instagram, it was common to keep descriptions short in fear of losing a customer’s attention. But now, people expect answers, information, and education.
And if you’re still concerned about keeping users interested, Angela says it’s key to use the beginning of your captions as titles: “Remember to use the titles of your captions (the first 138 characters) in strategic ways as hooks to increase post engagement and keep people reading.”
- Check out competitors, followers, and other inspirations
Inspiration is everywhere: from your followers, influencers in your niche, to your competitors. This is where Jess gets inspiration for House of Wise.
“Pay attention to your competitor's accounts and your followers. See what they're talking about, what they're having conversations with their friends about in their comments section, and incorporate a content strategy that optimizes those,” Said Jess. “Add that layer of competitive analysis plus adopt the interests from your target audience.”
Using the “tagged” section on your Instagram profile, you can see how customers are sharing and talking about your products.
As an example, one House of Wise customer shared a vulnerable story about the stress they experienced taking over their father’s business after his sudden death, and how House of Wise helped them go through that difficult time.
Seeing the language these customers use can inform how your brand should talk about its products.
- Use Instagram Alt. Text
When it comes to Alt. Text on Instagram, there is a myth that stuffing keywords can help you expand your reach. Jess, Kendall, and Angela say this is not the reason why brands and influencers should use it.
Plain and simple, Alt. Text is to make your Instagram accessible for those with visual impairments.
Angela suggests starting by describing the main object in the image and then moving outwards by describing placement, colors, and emotions. Also, don’t use fancy fonts, and use proper punctuation.
For posts like Angela’s, which are highly visual, Alt. Text is super important for everyone to enjoy the sensory experience.
While the purpose isn’t for SEO, Angela says you can be strategic in your use of keywords in Alt. Text: “Alt. Text plays a role in categorizing your image, so being strategic and using your keywords within your description is beneficial.”
She reminds everyone that you can always go back and add Alt. Text to older posts if you haven’t used it in the past, but avoid throwing in a bunch of keywords with no context.
“Alt. Text is used to describe what a visually impaired person would see if they could appreciate your image, and ultimately it's important to use it meaningfully and provide a full, descriptive, sensory experience. Small details really matter—the visually impaired just want to see and feel included in the social media experience,” Said Angela.
- Get tagged and mentioned more
Getting tagged and mentioned by followers, influencers, or other brands is all beneficial to your Instagram SEO.
Acting similar to backlinks in blog posts, getting tagged and mentioned on Instagram tells the algorithm that other people value your brand and content, benefitting how often you appear on Instagram’s Explore page.
Unfortunately, getting tagged and mentioned isn’t something brands have complete control over, but there are tips and tricks you can use to increase the chances of it happening. Here are a few organic and paid ways to do it:
- Host an Instagram contest.
- Send free product gifts to influencers.
- Pay for sponsored content.
- Reshare UGC so more customers feel inclined to tag you.
- Offer a referral or affiliate program.
- Offer loyalty points to those that tag you.
- Ask customers to share their reviews on Instagram.
- Create a community hashtag.
The other reason why getting tagged is beneficial is because if someone else’s post has a better chance of landing near the top of the results page for a keyword you’d like to rank for, it gives you an opportunity to get discovered—as long as the user tags your brand.
There’s a better opportunity to drive those users to your page where they can follow you, check out your content, or even visit your website (and hopefully make a purchase).
- Keep your descriptions natural and conversational
With blog posts, it’s pretty obvious when a company is keyword stuffing: it reads clunky and unconversational. The same issue can happen on Instagram.
“It's definitely a rabbit hole and it can get clunky really fast. So best practice is to incorporate the keywords, that searchability, and what you want to populate conversationally in your caption,” Said Jess. “Target in the most naturally conversational way that you can.”
You may not get penalized by Instagram if your captions aren’t conversational, but your target audience is more likely to engage with you if your content feels authentic.
You only have a few character spaces at the beginning of your captions to catch people’s attention. Use it wisely.
“Be meaningful with every word that you use on your page. People's attention spans are short, so make sure to be direct, concise, and clear on your purpose and value,” Said Angela.
The best way to get started with Instagram SEO: keep it simple
It’s true—there’s a lot that goes into an Instagram SEO strategy. From research, creativity, and relationship-building with customers and influencers, it can feel overwhelming.
And while Instagram SEO is a long-term game, it truly is never too late to get started with optimizing your content.
Kendall’s number one piece of advice is to start small.
“Don't get overwhelmed. SEO is overwhelming. But start with simple things first—like aiming to rank for a keyword by incorporating that keyword into both your name and username since both are searchable on Instagram,” She said.
Every business has felt the pains of being a bootstrapped team with limited bandwidth. If you can’t do it all, it is okay.
Start with one or two optimizations until you’re ready to power a full-blown strategy.