How to Use Instagram Search to Grow Your Instagram Account

Find the best hashtags to use, the relevant posts to engage with, and the right influencers to collaborate with

Photo by Igor Miske

Instagram places a big emphasis on search and discovery of content. It’s one of the few social media platforms with a Search and Explore tab in its app.

Being featured in the search results or in Instagram’s Explore section can be a great way to boost your success on the network with added exposure and the chance to reach new users who may not have otherwise seen your content.

There are also several other ways you can use Instagram’s Search and Explore for your business — finding the best hashtags to use, engaging your fans, and finding influencers to collaborate with.

In this post, you’ll learn all the ways you can use Instagram’s Search and Explore to help your business success on Instagram.

How to use Instagram Search to find the best hashtags

Including hashtags in your post or story increases the engagement level.

Including the right hashtags ensures that your post or story appears in your target audience’s search results or Explore section.

Here’re two ways of using Instagram Search to find the best hashtags to use:

1. Instagram Search results

When you enter a word or a phrase in the search box and select “Tags”, Instagram will show a list of hashtags related to the word or phrase (i.e. search results).

For example, a Korean restaurant owner could search for “korean food” and find the relevant hashtags in the search results:

Instagram will also show the number of posts for each hashtag. That tells you how popular that hashtag is.

Allen Harper, a photographer who wrote about Instagram hashtag use, suggested avoiding vastly popular hashtags.

Some hashtags are vastly more popular than others; however, popularity doesn’t always translate to effectiveness. For example, you’ll notice that #photooftheday, #like4like, #instagood, #iphoneonly, etc. are extremely popular. Unfortunately, since so many users throw these similar tags on their images, it means that their photos are buried in the pool within seconds and become virtually undiscoverable.
They are also tags that are nonspecific to any field or niche. In other words, what few people may be browsing these pools could likely overlook your photo because it’s not necessarily what interests them. In addition, the popular tags usually have a lot of bots/spammers that use this tag on images — you’ll earn yourself a lot of spam comments on whatever photo you posted with said tags.

I’d also avoid using hashtags that are infrequently used as it likely means that few people are interested in the hashtags. You can check the frequency of use by searching for a hashtag and seeing how often there’s a post with the hashtag.

That said, a hashtag could have few posts also because it is used only by a niche community. This makes it a great choice if that’s the community you want to reach. So it’s best to check out the posts with the hashtag before deciding if it’s suitable for your post.

2. Related hashtags

When you tap on a hashtag search result, Instagram would suggest related hashtags near the top of the app.

For example, a running shoes shop owner could search for “runner”, tap on “#runner”, and see these suggestions:

From there, she could explore the related hashtags and check out how popular the hashtag is and how frequent it is being used. Sometimes, Instagram suggests related hashtags that don’t show up in the search results (method one above). So if you can’t find a hashtag you’d like to use with method one, try this method.

How to use Instagram Search to engage your fans

Your fans could be posting about your business on Instagram without tagging your account. Because they didn’t tag your account, you might not find out.

But, if they are using your branded hashtag or your location tag, you can still find those posts and comment on them.

1. Engage fans who use your branded hashtags

If you have created hashtags for your brand and encouraged fans to use them, it’ll be great to follow up and interact with their posts or stories.

The common ways of interacting with such user-generated content are:

  • Liking it
  • Commenting on it
  • Re-posting it
  • Featuring it on a website

For instance, Alpenglow suggests its users include #alpenglowapp in their posts and it’ll repost their photos.

Taking it one step further…

You can also check out and engage with posts and stories with hashtags relevant to your brand.

For example, a cafe could check out hashtags such as #coffeeoftheday, #coffeetime, and #instacoffee.

If you want to leave comments, I believe it’s important to leave thoughtful comments. Leaving short, generic comments (e.g. Awesome!) and emoji comments (e.g. 🙌) can come off as being insincere since it’s common for Instagram bots to leave such comments.

Now that you can search for stories with hashtags, I think it’d be great to surprise fans with thoughtful comments on stories with hashtags relevant to your brand and especially hashtags you created for your brand. While the Instagram story search feature is new and people rarely receive comments on their stories, it feels great to seize the opportunity before this becomes a common practice.

2. Engage fans at your location

This tip is more suited for local businesses such as cafes, restaurants, and hotels than online businesses.

If you have location tag for your businesses, I’d recommend checking it regularly to see if your customers have posted photos or stories at your place. If they had, you can follow up and thank them or ask them if they have enjoyed the food, stay, or experience.

If you don’t have a location tag for your businesses, here’re the steps for creating one:

Step 1: Open the Facebook mobile app and tap “Check In”.

Step 2: Type your business name in the “Where are you?” field.

Step 3: Scroll down to the bottom of the list and tap “Add (your business name) in (your location)”.

Step 4: Select the most appropriate category for your business

Step 5: Fill in your exact address and a photo that represents your place.

(Be careful when you are creating a place as you can’t edit it once you have created it.)

Step 6: Hit “Create”!

Taking it one step further…

You could even engage with people who are near your place.

Go to “Places” in the Search section and tap on “Near Current Location”.

Or you could search for nearby locations such as points of interest where your target audience might be hanging out (and taking photos for Instagram).

When you find relevant posts or stories, you could leave a thoughtful comment.

For example, when I was in Madrid for our 8th Buffer retreat, I posted the following photo and tagged the plaza outside of the hotel. The hotel found my photo (through the location tag, I believe) and left a nice comment on it:

How to use Instagram Search to find influencers

The last way to use Instagram Search for your business is to find Instagram influencers you’d love to collaborate with.

A study by Dr. Jonah Berger from the Wharton School, and the Keller Fay Group, the leading authority on word of mouth marketing research, found that influencers can effectively sway consumer behavior.

82% of consumers are “highly likely” to follow a recommendation made by a micro–influencer, compared to 73% who are highly likely to act on a recommendation from an average person.

Here’re five ways you could find such influencers on Instagram:

1. People search

The first way is to select the “People” category and search for profiles using relevant keywords.

For example, an eatery could search for “food” and see the following search results:

This method can be great for local businesses as Instagram seems to personalize your search results based on your location and the profiles you follow. The three profiles mentioned above are all food bloggers in Singapore (where I’m based).

2. Followers search

The second way is to look through your follower list as you might have fans who are influencers.

If you have a small following, you could look at each of your followers. If you have too many followers to do that (yay!), Shane Barker recommends looking at the profiles with the keyword in their username or name.

Using Shane’s example, a clean food eatery like Righteous Food could look out for usernames with “food” or “foodie”, in its follower list.

3. Location tag and hashtag search

The third way is to search for relevant location tags and hashtags and check out the top posts’ profiles.

Searching for influencers through location tags is effective for local businesses while searching for influencers through hashtags is better for finding niche influencers such as fitness or food bloggers.

For example, a small business owner that sells running gears could search for “#instarunners” and see the following posts:

Then, she could check out the top posts as those posts are more likely to be from users with a sizeable following. She could also look through the most recent posts if she’s looking at a niche hashtag.

4. Explore section

The fourth way is to use the Explore section which curates the most relevant Instagram posts for your account based on factors such as the people you follow and the posts you like.

This can be the most efficient method if you have been following people relevant to your business and interacting with posts relevant to your niche. Instagram has essentially done the search for you!

I use my Instagram account mainly for my hobby, triathlon, and this is an example of what I see in my Explore section (you could assume this is what a triathlon apparel retailer would see, too):

These are posts that are similar to posts I’ve Liked or from accounts similar to accounts I’ve interacted with. I could check out these profiles and see if any of them is suitable for a collaboration.

5. Similar accounts

The fifth way is to use Instagram’s recommendations for similar accounts.

When you have found a potential influencer partner and followed her, Instagram would suggest similar accounts for you to follow. If the suggestions don’t appear, you can tap on the downward arrow beside “Follow” or “Following” to see the suggestions.

For example, a fitness apparel retailer could follow a fitness blogger and see the following suggestions:

This method is great if you have already found a suitable influencer partner and wish to find more influencers like her.

To learn more about what to look for in influencers and how to work with them, check out Shane Barker’s go-to guide to Instagram micro-influencers:

How do you use Instagram Search?

These are the different ways you can use Instagram’s Search and Explore for your businesses:

  • Find the best hashtags for your brand
  • Discover posts to engage with
  • Search for influencers to collaborate with

Are there other ways that I’ve missed? It’ll be great to hear from you if you know of other cool ways of using Instagram’s Search and Explore.


The full version of this blog post was first published on the Buffer Social blog on May 25, 2017 by Alfred Lua.