Instagram has never really found the right mix of content to make its "explore" section feel like a vital and useful part of the app — but that might change today as Instagram 7.0 rolls out for iOS and Android. The focus of the update is a brand-new explore and a search update that make Instagram feel even more like a competitor to Twitter than ever before. The main explore view will now surface trending tags instead of simply showing a grid of photos. Tapping on one of those trending hashtags will show you the most popular images up top, followed by a grid of all the most recent images submitted with a particular tag.
Trending places will also get their own dedicated part of the explore section, and Instagram's search feature has been updated to include places in search results in addition to the existing people and tags categories. There's also a way to search across all three categories at once, with Instagram bringing you the "top" results across the service.
An overlooked part of Instagram gets a much-needed update
These two updates make the explore tab instantly more useful than it used to be, particularly if you're interested in using Instagram as a way of finding images connected to events or places rather than just as a stream of pictures from your friends. The last update pushes that concept further — the explore tab will also now host a number of curated image collections. A few examples given on the Instagram blog include topics like "glimmering islands," "ancient ruins," and towering rocks." It feels a lot like some of the community-focused content that VSCO publishes on its site and in its apps, and it could be a good way of finding some of the finer photographers on Instagram — tapping one of those banners at the top of the explore section will bring you to a list of Instagram users and a quick sample of their photos.
If you like the old grid of photos from people you follow, it's still there, just below the trending tags area and curated images banner. While it's a bit too early to tell if these new categories will help Instagram users stay more engaged with the app, there's no question there's quite a bit more for people to browse through here. It's also too early to say whether this focus on trending tags will make Instagram a part of the immediate cultural conversation that takes place on Twitter around breaking news and huge world events, but there's little doubt that's where Instagram is setting its sights.