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The Small Business Guide to Instagram SEO

Authored September 2023 by Tim Campbell-Smith

3 minute read

     We hail from an era (and I mean yeeeeeaaaarrrssss) where at first the full thirty hashtags on Instagram would dramatically increase discoverability. We struggled, but adapted to the less-is-more approach when in about 2020 Instagram changed to rewarding relevant hashtags and not a high quantity. Now, we have a new change: hashtags don't really increase discoverability on Instagram. Don't shoot the messenger, this is just what was shared by Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri and validated with data by Social Media Today. Today, hashtags serve a different purpose: they're a social signal, or something Instagram uses to understand what your post is about and who to share it with (based on what they search). This is why we're in The Era of Instagram SEO. In this article we'll discuss the hashtag replacement: Keywords and Instagram SEO.

Tim Campbell-Smith standing in front of trees

A Quick Refresher: Search Engine Optimization and Keywords

     Search Engine Optimization is the practice of manipulating words, images and content you own to be discovered by search engines based on what people look for. It works on the premise that people go to platforms like Google, Instagram and TikTok to find what they're looking for: be it answers, ideas or information. One of the easiest things we can manipulate are words. Where do we see words, especially on Instagram? Your bio, your screen name, your posts, alt text and video captions. 

     Keywords have replaced hashtags. In fact, a search on Instagram desktop or mobile will show you that you can no longer see a hashtags tab, and instead will see keywords that further direct you to posts, accounts and more. 

     An immediate benefit to small businesses with the keyword change: we no longer have to select specific, pigeon holed hashtags and load them up: we can simply use the keywords that describe our businesses and let people find us. This is the future of Instagram.

A screenshot of Instagram analytics showing low views from hashtags

Where Do Keywords Go on Instagram?

     So if we know hashtags don't increase discoverability on Instagram for small business, but keywords do....where do we put keywords? Use this as a checklist, but the main places you can put keywords on Instagram:

   ✅ Your bio 

   ✅ Screen name (not the username that you log in with, what displays)

   ✅ Captions, the body of the post you write

   ✅ Hashtags 

   ✅ Alt text on images 

   ✅ Captions on videos, either on posts in the feed or stories 

Screenshot of Tim Campbell-Smith's Instagram bio
Screenshot of Instagram post Tim looking at caption
Screenshot from Instagram showing accessibility and alt text

How Do You Plan Your Keywords for Instagram? 

     Okay, so if we know we need more keywords, how do we figure out what keywords we need? There's a few ways to do small business keyword planning for Instagram, and I'd recommend by writing down a list of words you use to answer these questions: 

  1. What words would people search to find you?

  2. What problems, solutions, products or services would people be looking for when they found you? 

  3. Are there any places, people or things you get associated with?

Start by using those words. Then, to find keywords, I recommend these tools:

  • Ubersuggest

  • Answer the Public

  • Google Trends 

  • SEMRush 

  • Google Keyword Planner

  • Wordstream 

Finally, here's some methods of ways of finding keywords: 

  • If you don't already have one, create a business Pinterest account (it's free) and use the trends feature to see what's trending and other keywords,

  • Search Reddit to see what people post about and keywords, and

  • Start to search a keyword on Google and review the other suggestions that come up.

How This Will Impact Your Business Instagram

     This is going to change how people find and interact with your Instagram, and how you measure it or report on it. On each individual Instagram post (with a business account) you can see how people discovered your posts. If you haven't already, you'll notice your discovery from hashtags has probably been decreasing for a while now. The inverse will grow: you're going to notice "Impressions from Other", or Instagram post views will grow, as this includes different search features. Until Instagram rolls out better analytics that show if it came from search, discovery, etc. we have to accept the "from other" number. 

A screenshot of Instagram analytics showing low views from hashtags

A Final Note: Keep the Hashtags...Specific and Relevant

     I am still advocating for the use of hashtags on Instagram posts...but only relevant ones that describe the post and who it's for (and no, that's not a hall pass to add 30 hashtags with audience identifiers). Keep them specific! One way you can do this is by asking yourself: How would I describe this post to someone who couldn't see it or read it? How would I explain the context? Those words you use in your answer can form the basis of the hashtags you use. 

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