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Instagram’s improved search could help close the gap with TikTok

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How search works and what it will be able to do next

Image: Instagram

Instagram plans to more prominently feature photos and videos in search results in the future, Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced on Wednesday. The change could show the grid of photos and videos a keyword search can pull up alongside results for accounts and hashtags, not dissimilar to how TikTok displays results.

The search tweak is part of “a series of improvements designed for inspiration and discovery,” according to Mosseri. The company has used keyword search as a way to offer visual results — certain terms can pull up pages of suggested images — but Instagram’s new plan will give those more prominence. Mosseri writes that searching with a term like “space” will pull up suggested photo and video results along with traditional accounts and hashtags, encouraging more exploration. The visual results will still live behind a tap of a keyword, but they should be more prominent and common. (Mosseri demos the tweaked search experience at around 3:30 in this video.)

TikTok’s layout for search results, featuring visual results first.

Instagram’s current keyword search is pretty hit or miss, however; it doesn’t always pull up results universally or with relevant collections of photos. That’s why Mosseri says the company is also expanding the number of terms that will pull up results, starting with English and then building out from there. When asked, Instagram wasn’t able to provide a specific launch date for the search improvements.

Instagram’s current account and hastag-focused search results.
Image: Instagram

Even without more visuals or new keywords in the mix yet, Instagram’s main criterion for what results it shows is relevance, according to Mosseri. The company has a series of “signals” it considers when showing results, listed below in order of importance:

Your text in Search. The text you enter in the search bar is by far the most important signal for Search. We try to match what you type with relevant usernames, bios, captions, hashtags and places.

Your activity. This includes accounts you follow, posts you’ve viewed, and how you’ve interacted with accounts in the past. We usually show accounts and hashtags you follow or visit higher than those you don’t.

Information about the search results. When there are a lot of potential results, we also look at popularity signals. These include the number of clicks, likes, shares and follows for a particular account, hashtag or place.

Those same suggestions apply to how your content shows up as well. The platform looks at the text in your Instagram handle and bio, your location, and the captions on individual posts to determine if your content is relevant for a given search. The company also attempts to filter out content that violates its Recommendations Guidelines, including sensitive topics like violence or semi-nudity. You don’t have to go back far to see how Instagram’s handling of these issues has provoked concern in the past.

Both of the improvements to search should make Instagram more usable and maybe more enticing to keep clicking through. The surface-level similarities to TikTok might not be a mistake either: Mosseri has openly discussed the post-photo-sharing era Instagram is entering with an embrace of video and more suggested content.