Experiment: Instagram SEO vs hashtags

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Back in March 2022, Adam Moserri made a surprising announcement via Instagram Stories. The Instagram CEO announced that hashtags don’t really matter on the platform anymore.

TBH, I’m still reeling over here. First, he says that you really only need 3 to 5 hashtags instead of 30, and now this? Is nothing in this world sacred?!

Word around the social-media-manager water cooler is that he was implying that the algorithm might be placing more emphasis on identifying relevant keywords in captions than in the past.

But why speculate wildly when you can put a rumor to the test?

In a classic Experiments blog move, we decided I should put my personal Instagram account through the wringer and get to the bottom of things once and for all. And I’m fine with that!

So: Is SEO the way to go? Or are Instagram hashtags still the most powerful tool for discovery? Let’s get into it!

Hypothesis

Using relevant keywords in Instagram captions will get my posts more reach than using hashtags

Instagram hashtags have been an important part of discoverability and reach since the platform launched back in 2010. In fact, we’ve written thousands of words about how to use Instagram hashtags to grow your audience, build community and generate engagement. (Are we… #obsessed?)

For years, selecting the right Instagram tags was a critical part of your social media strategy — as important as having great Instagram imagery or crafting the perfect Instagram caption.

Because, to be frank, Instagram’s SEO just wasn’t that great in the early days. Hashtags were the best way to clarify what your Post, Story or Reel was about, and to who it might appeal.

But then people started abusing the hashtags, cramming in the maximum number (30) to every caption, whether or not the tag itself was relevant. (This is why we can’t have nice things.)

The overload of inaccurate tagging made for a frustrating user experience. When you search for #penguins, you’re gonna wanna see some penguins, you know?

So Instagram got to work improving the platform’s algorithm and AI capabilities.

They started encouraging people to use fewer hashtags, rewarding quality hashtags over quantity.

Now, as Adam Moserri’s comments imply, we may be entering a post-hashtag era of Instagram . This means that the words you include in your caption will carry a lot more weight in the search function.

That’s right: Keywords, not hashtags, might be the new secret to reach on Instagram.

Methodology

To test out this theory, I fired up my trusty Hootsuite dashboard and prepared 10 different Instagram posts.

Hootsuite Publisher planner overview

I attempted to cover trending topics like travel, brunch, disco balls, florals, and Vancouver. I used generic-but-beautiful photos from Unsplash (one of the recommended free stock photo sites listed in this — ahem — very helpful blog post).

Unsplash free stock photo disco balls

(The content I’m usually posting these days is just baby photography. As cute as my daughter is, I didn’t think she was search-worthy enough for this experiment. Coco, please feel free to bookmark this post to show your future therapist.)

With great-looking photography lined up, I drafted up keyword-laden captions for half of the posts.

new post on Hootsuite with lengthy caption

For the other half, I used 3 to 5 relevant hashtags for the caption instead of something descriptive.

new post on Hootsuite Composer with hashtags

Then, I scheduled them to go out at Hootsuite’s recommended posting times, and waited not-so-patiently for the results.

Results

TLDR: Keyword-focused captions get more reach and more engagement than hashtags on Instagram in 2022. Turns out, Adam wasn’t foolin’!

instagram account page Stacey McLachlan

Before we get into more detail, can we just take a moment to appreciate just how beautiful my feed is when it’s professional photography of French toast, and not hormone-fueled paparazzi shots of a newborn? Gorge.

Sorry! Okay! Okay! I know we shouldn’t linger too long on the grid: after all, this experiment is about whether or not these individual posts had more reach with SEO keyword captions, or with classic Instagram hashtags.

So let’s head over to Hootsuite Analytics to help make sense of it all.

Overall, in the week I ran my experiment, I reached 2.3K Instagram users.

Hootsuite Analytics all reports Instagram publishing

But not all posts received equal attention, as it turns out.

Instagram posts analytics in-app

Here’s a little chart of just how that reach broke down:

TOPIC HASHTAG POST REACH SEO POST REACH
Vancouver 200 258
Disco Balls 160 163
Peonies 170 316
French Toast 226 276
Beaches 216 379

The margins on some posts were bigger than others, but overall, every single post with an SEO caption had higher reach than those with hashtags.

Overall, I had 30% more reach with my SEO posts than my hashtag posts. Yowza, as we say here in the social-media-science biz!

Importantly, these posts didn’t just attract more eyeballs. My posts with keyword captions got higher engagement, too, earning more likes consistently.

Instagram posts table engagement likes and comments

TOPIC HASHTAG POST LIKES SEO POST LIKES
Vancouver 14 21
Disco Balls 4 4
Peonies 10 24
French Toast 6 16
Beaches 17 36

Unless you, too, are posting about disco balls, these results predict that you’re going to get a lot more engagement from captions than from hashtags.

Sure, this was just a short-and-sweet experiment over the course of a week on my personal account, but the potential for businesses on Instagram is verrrry intriguing.

What do the results mean?

In a nutshell: Hashtags are out! SEO is in! But let’s break down some deeper takeaways from this little test.

A successful post needs more than just a pretty picture

Yes, great graphic design and beautiful imagery are important on Instagram — it’s a visual platform after all. But your audience craves more than just a pretty picture. They want context, authenticity, and meaning, too.

Your caption is an opportunity to provide just that.

Be descriptive and accurate with your captions

If you’re looking for discoverability and reach, being obtuse or artsy with your caption isn’t going to help. It may delight your existing followers to share a hilariously mismatched caption and photo, but the algorithm won’t have any idea what is going on.

For maximum reach, use descriptive keywords that can help new audiences find your content.

If you’re going to use hashtags, pair them with a proper caption

For this experiment, half of the posts used just hashtags as the caption. No further context, no full sentences, just tags, tags, tags.

To be honest, it looked a little spammy. It’s possible Instagram’s algorithm thought so, too, and delivered the content to fewer feeds.

So if you’re going to continue to use Instagram hashtags for your posts, try putting them at the end of a more robust caption. Just in case there’s still a little juice left for searching by hashtags, you’ll get the #bestofbothworlds.

In conclusion: sorry we doubted you, Adam Moserri. But due process is what the Hootsuite Experiments blog is all about! For more high-stakes Instagram trials and tribulations, why not find out what happens when you buy followers? (Hint: nothing good for your credit score.)

Use Hootsuite to schedule Instagram posts at the best time, respond to comments, track competitors, and measure performance—all from the same dashboard you use to manage your other social networks. Start your free trial today.

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