Activity continues at Instagram. Fresh from announcing 'Buy Now' buttons to enable users to shop direct, and new, Facebook-esque targeting for advertisers, the photo sharing app has announced another upgrade, this time to its search functionality. Instagram's updated search will better enable users to find posts they wouldn't otherwise see in their feed, highlighting trending content, content from around you, and curated collections centered around specific themes. It's a big development, and one which could change the way Instagram's search functionality is used. It might also put them in direct competition with Twitter in coverage of real-time news and events.
Instagram's updated search aims to make it easier for users to find new and interesting content. From the official announcement:
"With more than 70 million photos and videos posted to Instagram every day, wherever something is happening, chances are you can see it here. Whether it's behind the scenes at the NBA Finals, on the runway with the latest fashion trend at a favorite club with a local band, people are capturing moments large and small on Instagram. But, until now, there's never been an easy way to find these moments."
The update helps users find these moments via three methods:
1. Trending Places
The new Instagram search screen will feature a box at the top labelled 'Trending Places'. Clicking on this will highlight the events and locations getting the most attention in real-time, as well as trending events close to you. Instagram Engineering Manager Rodrigo Schmidt illustrated the usefulness of location-specific info, detailing a story of a recent trip to New York:
"I landed here on Sunday. On trending places, it favors what's trending nearby first. And I saw a number of parks around me that were trending. For Madison Square Park, there were a lot of pictures of barbecue and a concert going on. I was like, 'Oh, this looks like fun.' I just went and spent a couple of hours there. And I wouldn't have known about it otherwise. It's not something I would find on TV, it's not something I would find in the news."
Trending Places will also help users uncover popular topics and issues, giving users a glimpse into the happenings during trending events. The feature could help news organizations uncover relevant event coverage - images from within a natural disaster, for example, can provide a more tangible perspective into what's happening on the ground.
2. Curated Content
Instagram is also introducing curated content streams, collections of photos arranged via theme, like 'Extreme Athletes' or 'Glimmering Islands'. Instagram's editors will build these collections by scanning through Instagram feeds and finding popular trends, giving users a window into a whole new range of content around specifically focused interests. The collections will be updated twice per week with new groupings of visually enticing content.
3. Trending Hashtags
In the middle of the new search screen, trending hashtags will be highlighted, giving users another way to locate new and popular content. While people have always been able to search for hashtags, the addition of a feature panel will expose more users to what's happening, similar to how Twitter lists trending hashtags alongside the news feed.
Instagram's traditional search functionality has also been beefed-up with results from relevant accounts, hashtags and places now appearing all together. Searching for 'Wrigley Field', for example, will return image results for any associated official accounts, any photo's tagged with related hashtags, and any images that have been taken at that location.
The search upgrade is significant, and increases Instagram's utility as a real-time content platform - and no doubt it will lead to more users finding more content beyond their own streams. There are limitations, of course - not everyone enables location tracking and the only significant text available on Instagram is captions, which can't be searched, limiting keyword search capacity to hashtags. Yet, even with those restrictions, the possibilities of enhanced Instagram search are promising, and could become a major issue for Twitter.
Evolving in Real-Time
Instagram is currently the fastest growing social media network on the web. The platform increased its user-base by 50% last year, jumping to 300 million monthly active users by December. Twitter, by contrast, has struggled to boost user numbers, currently sitting on 302 million monthly users. The continual evolution of Instagram has it positioned to overtake Twitter among the top social networks, if it hasn't done so already, but where Twitter has always held an advantage is in real-time coverage. Twitter is the real-time network, where the world goes to get the pulse of what's going on. With this update, Instagram is threatening that hold, and considering Instagram's growing audience, they may have the advantage of attention.
Now that's not the end of the world, it's not to say that Twitter will lose out entirely - and Twitter has a significant advantage in regards to trackable data in the form of tweets - but if this upgrade does gain traction and does boost the platform's capacity as a real-time news source, that could be a significant blow to Twitter's overall standing. In future, if Facebook were to perfect image recognition (which they are constantly working on), the combination of Instagram's search functionality and audience could make it an irresistible news source.
Interestingly, the addition of curated content is similar to Twitter's recently announced 'Project Lightning', which is aiming to achieve the same goals as Instagram's search upgrade in getting more people exposed to more on-platform content.
The Next Level
How successful and resonant these new features are remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Instagram is evolving, and is working hard to advance the platform to the next level. With a growing user-base and increasingly useful features, the app looks set to continue its growth for the foreseeable future. Of course, there's always the risk of over-monetization, of advertisements impacting user-experience, but Instagram, with input from Facebook, is well aware of this concern. They've opted not to monetize any of the new search features at this stage, and are taking a steady approach to ad targeting and focus. Done right, Instagram is on track to be a major force in social media and social marketing for years to come.
The update's being rolled out in the US, initially, with other regions to follow - no word as yet as to when or if the updates will be applied to the web version.