Have you been shadow banned on Instagram? Given the countless times I've been asked this question, I'm gonna take a gamble and tell you the same thing I've told everyone else: No, you haven't.
If you're one of those people who wholeheartedly believes in shadow banning and are convinced it's why your engagement has dropped, please, please, read this blog post. Do not skip to the comments and start ranting that it's happened to you. Take a minute to educate yourself on what I talk about here and then we can have a civilized conversation about it 🙂
If you want to understand shadow banning on Instagram, let me take a short minute to explain the concept:
- Shadow banning is the theory that a post you share will be blocked from appearing in hashtag searches
- You and people who are following you will see your posts in hashtags but other people will not
- It is assumed that it only applies to business profiles
- There are theories that using the same hashtags repeatedly will get you shadow banned
Now, if you look at my wording, I chose it carefully. These are theories. There is no categorical proof that this is happening for the reasons suggested.
I'm not saying your posts are always showing up in hashtag searches. They may not be. But we'll talk more about that in a minute.
The problem is that people started noticing their engagement dropped and, of course, there had to be some diabolical reason for it. The concept of shadow banning, allegedly, started on Reddit as a way to control and mute spammers and annoying users. Similar tactics are used on social media platforms by the admins to "silence" certain posts, leaving them visible to the user and their connections, but not visible to others.
I have found references to shadow banning on Instagram dating back to December 2016. It seemed to be most commonly shared in the photographer space at the beginning. The concept (and fear) picked up steam in the spring of 2017, making the concept mainstream. I've been asked about this more times than I can count and have answered questions on this in multiple interviews and blog posts.
Honestly, I held off writing about it here because I quite simply didn't want to give this any more fuel than it deserves. But that was selfish. I know this is something that matters to you and you deserve a thorough and honest answer. So, here you go!
Cleaning up bot services
One of the biggest reasons you are noticing a decline in engagement is because Instagram has forced automated services to shut down. Sites like MassPlanner and Instagress were shuttered at Instagram's "request" and this has drastically slowed the automated engagement that pops up on hashtag content.
This is happening to everyone and has nothing to do with a shadow ban.
Furthermore, this is a good thing. I'm sorry your likes have decreased (uh, mine have too), but now you're getting a more realistic level of engagement with people who actually care about what you're posting.
The Instagram algorithm
The algorithm has been around for a while now but went through an update in early 2017, allowing old, unseen posts to reappear in the feed when you log in. The algorithm is actually helpful to brands if you're using an effective strategy. But if you are struggling to connect with your audience in the first place, the algorithm is not going to help you, as your content will drop lower in the feeds of your audience.
Oh, guess what that means? Lower engagement. But it does not mean shadow banning.
You act like a spammer
To be honest, I know most of my readers do not fall into this category because you understand how to interact on Instagram in a professional and genuine way. However, this blog post will end up in search results and others will read this. So this point is for them.
If you are constantly posting content with only super popular hashtags, tagging people who are not in your posts (all the time), leaving spammy comments like "great pic, we should connect", playing follow/unfollow games, or other annoying behaviors, you're a spammer. And you're going to get blocked and reported. And Instagram knows what you're doing. So your posts are gonna get hidden and blocked. You deserve that.
Too much too fast
If you're posting a lot of content in short periods of time, you may start triggering those spam filters unintentionally. If you have 3 posts a day, all with the same hashtags, yes, you might notice your posts getting removed from hashtag searches. There's enough other content out there, Instagram doesn't need your rapid influx of content adding to it.
Instead, slow it down. Post once a day. Or less. Don't get me started on my less is more preaching 😉
Ok, so these are some of the reasons you may be noticing a drop in Instagram activity. These are all natural evolutions of the engagement and growth on Instagram. It has nothing to do with a shadow ban.
But, let's talk more about this specifically.
The big thing people have noticed, and have screen shots to prove, is that their content will not appear in the hashtag searches of other users who are not currently following them. For example, if I post to #instagrammarketing and you are following me, you will see my post in that search. However, if you are not following me on Instagram, you may not actually see that post, even though others can see it.
So, there's proof that this "is" happening. But I wanted to know more and I've been digging and researching this and gathering information where I can.
In a group on Facebook, this conversation had come up (shocking, I know!). I chimed in, because I can't keep my mouth shut, with my opinion - ie. this whole blog post, only much more abbreviated. One of the other group members chimed in that he had actually spoken directly to a member of the German Instagram team. He asked the employee directly about shadow banning and was clearly told that this practice is not happening.
The original post is in German which you can read here. But the translated key questions are:
1. Does Instagram "shadowbanning" operate? - No.
2. I have read an article on the Internet that says Instagram would operate "shadowbanning". Is that correct? - No.
3. I've discovered a tool on the Internet that allows me to check if my account is affected by shadowbanning. How reliable is this tool? - See the answer to question 1.
4. I have used a hashtag in a post and a friend of mine says that he / she can not see the post in the hashtag search. What is the reason? Am I affected by "shadowbanning"? - No. Hashtag search results or so-called hashtag pages are personalized, ie not always identical for each user.
5. Where is the rumor that Instagram would operate "shadowbanning"? - There was a bug for a short time that caused images and / or videos from some accounts not to appear in some hashtag searches. This bug was fixed in early April 2017.
I would like to draw your attention to point number 4. The hashtag searches are "personalized".
This is new information, but seemingly par for the course as Instagram grows. This is further elaborated in another exchange with a Facebook employee.
One lovely and persistent lady, over at the Pierce Social blog had direct communication with a rep from Facebook on the topic of missing content on hashtag searches. Her whole exchange is documented here and is worth the read. For a quick recap, "It appears hashtags now use an algorithm that specifically affects business accounts and personal accounts that they have flagged as business related".
Essentially, the Facebook rep agreed that there is a filtering of the content that appears in the hashtag searches. They used the term "intended functionality" where high-volume or top-performing posts are more likely to appear in a hashtag search.
And while I don't decline to believe this person from the mothership, I should also point out that the hashtag Kaitlyn mentions in her blog post shows me ALL results for that branded hashtag, and I'm not following her account. So, while this algorithmic sorting of hashtags is probably true, there may also be additional factors at play, including time of search, popular activity on that hashtag at a given time, recent search history, and other factors I can only assume are involved.
Ok. So these responses from Facebook and Instagram don't directly dispel the concept of shadow banning. They do give it a bit more of an explanation though. And one that I believe we have to accept.
Instagram is growing at unprecedented rates. They are, obviously, moving towards a paid platform to encourage business accounts to pay for reach and exposure. Duh! As a part of this plan, hashtags will be filtered and sorted to maximize Instagram's goals. I would not be surprised to see sponsored content sections/posts in the hashtag searches in the future.
Oh, and not to totally freak you out, but there is another hypothesis out there from Liz Dean at The Social Media Posse that Instagram hashtags could go away altogether in the future! How's that for a prediction?! If you read the article though, it further elaborates on this concept of filtered content and algorithmic sorting, customized for each user. If this expands to a complete takeover, then it's possible to see how hashtags may become irrelevant. But don't panic! This won't happen any time in the immediate future and it's not something that would happen overnight. You'll have time to adjust and adapt your strategies.
I do want to take a moment to remind you about the value of hashtags to reach new people and build your audience. This really is a key function that you cannot afford to ignore. With or without shadow bans, or algorithms, or whatever other excuse you have, hashtags work. But you must use them properly and effectively.
If this is something you want more help with, please rely on the resources I have for you. You can read Use Hashtags to Find Your Target Audience on Instagram or How to Get Your Post to an Instagram Top Post for my best actionable tips that drive real results with hashtags. There is also my Instagram membership community - where all of this information has already been shared and discussed among the members.
On Pt #4 “…a friend of mine … can not see the post in the hashtag search” We have tested this in every instance using smaudience. The post is actually in the Instagram backend data feed (the api), just that is it not shown on the IG app for those users. Instagram is curating the list of feed based on the niche of the logged in user. The Explore tab is definitely tailored to the user based on their reading & engagement behaviour. I believe IG is (slowly) implementing this in the hashtag feed.
Thank you for this added insight Andrew! The algorithmic sorting is definitely starting to appear more and more in hashtag searches.
Every time I think I’m being Shadowbanned, I remember that my previously higher engagement mostly came from bots. Vanity metrics boost our confidence, but at the end of the day, I’m not here to help a bot, I’m here to help a real person. Thanks for the reminder, Jenn <3
Yes, Tanya. Those bots made it seem like we were performing better than we thought – which actually hurts our brands since we’re going off fake interactions, not real engagement from our actual audience. These more realistic numbers will better help us craft the right content for those who matter most 🙂
Jenn, thanks for such a great article,
New visitor to the blog, found it via a listing on Zest, and so glad I did – so much terrific information.
Shadowbanning. It’s like the Boogeyman right? Seems like it was invented as a way to appease egos IMO. You know, like my stats have tailed off so much, but I’m shadowbanned so that’s why. Wow.
Brings us all nicely to the fact it’s about content and people, not numbers. Last thing we need is IG to turn into some click-bait hell, hey?
Keep up the fab work, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your great articles 🙂
Hi there! I’m so glad you found me too 🙂 And I hope you’ll continue to enjoy blog posts I share here. I do focus a lot on Instagram, but also cover a lot of other social media topics that I hope you will find valuable.
And, yes, it totally is like the boogeyman and is a happy excuse for many to grab onto to in order to explain away other causes they’d rather not deal with 😉
Great insights! I’ve been trying to hack the Instagram algorithm with different experiments and indeed realised that when I posted 5 pictures within 2 hours with same caption / same hashtags that only the first one got over 700 likes. Then decreased to +-80 likes. Even days after after posting similar content, the engagement won’t increase. I thought I got shadow banned but now I get it. I do think it’s important to vary your hashtags though…
One more question, do you think the engagement of each post depends on who likes your pictures? Do you think if someone big, like a huge influencer likes your post, it will show to their audience? I’ve been doing some experiments but couldn’t figure out yet!
Let me know your thoughts! Thanks
Maura, I don’t think that a popular person liking your post has any significant impact on the reach and performance of that post. The algorithm is sorted on individual interactions with your content more so than the popularity of the post or the popularity of individuals who engage.
Here is madame-story from germany. I read with lots of interest this blog post. It is so funny, how small germany is. I do know both Germans you mention in person. No i think i understood a little bit more. At the moment all the instagrammers here are going crazy sbout shadow banning. Maybe i can cool them down. Thanx for the blog post
Thanks Judith! Hopefully this information will help relieve some fears for those you know.
Great article!! Thank you so much for the information. I do have a question – if this theory is true, if we have been flagged as a “spammer,” can this be lifted? Or this something that will forever affect our Instagram?
Hey Anna! Being a spammer has levels of offense. A one or two-time offense will be fine after 24 hours. If you continue to engage in spammy behaviors, you will continue to get flagged and your account will get longer suspensions up to the point of being shut down. So just be good and you should be fine!
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