IMPORTANT DECEMBER 2018 UPDATE: In June of 2018, Instagram held a press event to open up about how the Instagram algorithm worked. During the press event, Instagram representatives were asked if the “shadow ban” was real. Instagram denied that there was a shadow ban. I believe them.
Although many often criticize the Facebooks and Googles of the world of trying to hurt small businesses, I truly don’t think there is an incentive for Instagram to misrepresent or lie about such a thing as a shadow ban. That said, I also don’t rule out the possibility that there was an issue or that this was a practice at some time.
I know that some Instagram experts vehemently disagree with me, and that is absolutely fine. However, back in the spring of 2017, I did work with several account owners that literally had all but “disappeared” from public searches on Instagram. Accounts that had been getting hundreds of likes were suddenly receiving single-digit engagement.
I don’t have another way to explain this, other than they were in some way being suppressed. You can call this what you want, but the popular term at the time was “shadow ban.”
As of December 2018, I haven’t known of anyone experiencing reduced engagement at that drastic of a level for nearly a year. I’ve kept this article up, and have gone through and added new notes (as of 12/2018) in italics. If you have questions about this content, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me through my site’s contact form.
The so-called Instagram shadowban has become a controversial topic. In this post we’ll talk about what it is, what it isn’t, how to avoid it, and how to reverse it if you feel you’ve been flagged.
What is the Instagram Shadowban?
The so-called Instagram shadowban is the practice of suppressing certain images from being found in the hashtag searches. For instance, let’s say you post an image with the hashtags #glutenfree and #paleoeats. In theory, if you were “shadowbanned,” any and all Instagram users that did not follow you would not see your post when they searched ANY of the hashtags you used on that photo.
This is what makes shadowbanning so tricky to diagnose. Many people will notice their engagement or rate of new followers is down,* but when they go to check their hashtags, their posts appear just fine. That’s because you can see your own posts, and anyone that follows you will still see your posts.
*I’m not talking 25-50% down, I’m talking about engagement that is shockingly low. Like, next to nothing. Many people experienced significant drops in engagement when Instagram cracked down on bot services earlier this year, but being shadowbanned is different.If your #Instagram engagement is down more than 50% than normal you may be shadowbanned. Click To Tweet
12/2018 Update: In recent weeks, Instagram has cut off access to several 3rd party apps. People are experiencing shifts in engagement (read: lower!), and this is NOT a shadowban.
Instagram Shadowban vs. Hashtag Algorithm
To make this even more complicated and confusing, add in some algorithmic changes that affect the way hashtags work.
Being “shadowbanned” is when your post does not appear for ANY of the hashtags you used on that particular post TO people that do not already follow you.
But there are also some algorithm changes related to hashtags. Just because you use 30 hashtags on your posts doesn’t mean you’ll appear in the search results of all of them. You may only appear in the results for 20. This is NOT being shadowbanned.
Instagram is now providing personalized search results for each user. The “Top 9” posts that you see for a given hashtag may be slightly different than what your friend will see.
Think about it this way: When you search #glutenfree on Instagram, Instagram desires to serve you the #glutenfree content they think you are MOST looking for, not just any old post with that hashtag.
Relevancy just became that much more important. It’s always been important, but some cheaters and short-cutters have been acting spammy with their hashtags. No more.
Why Would a Platform Shadowban?
Let’s operate under the premise that at the end of the day, every business is striving to serve the best interest of their customers. Think of your own position as a business owner or marketer here.
You know that when you operate with the best interests of your customers in mind, your business is likely to grow. When you do not operate with the best interests of your customers in mind, your business is likely to dwindle, and even go out of business entirely.
Instagram doesn’t exist without its users. You may also argue that Instagram doesn’t exist without money from advertisers either. Fair. But what does Instagram need in order to be able to charge for advertising space? Users.
If users are bombarded with crappy marketing messages, harassed by spammers, or see content in the search results that doesn’t match their search intent, they may leave. Instagram has a lot at stake to keep users happy.
Let’s think for a moment if we’ve experienced this on any other social media platforms? I won’t mention any names. But, yes. I have one platform in mind that has suffered greatly because of unchecked spammy behavior.
Instagram Shadowban Rumors
If you are reading this article, chances are you have already been researching this topic and have a lot of conflicting information swirling around in your head. Let me assure you, no one knows exactly what is going on. Instagram hasn’t used the word “shadowban.” When asked directly, they will speak in generalities about working to always create the best experience for their users.We're dispelling 3 common #Instagram shadowban rumors: Click To Tweet
Rumor #1: Your account can be completely banned. No one will ever find you again.
In talking about the “shadowban,” it is at the POST LEVEL not ACCOUNT LEVEL. If you have personal experience with this, it may appear that your entire account is banned, but it really is multiple images that are being suppressed. Maybe as many posts as you have time to go back and check. (This happened to a colleague of mine and you can read on to learn how we reversed it!)
Rumor #2: It only affects people that have used bots in the past.
In many research interviews that I’ve conducted with various Instagram account owners affected by the shadowban, this does not hold true. Some very honest and “by the book” account owners have had issues, and we’ve had to look into alternative causes. (Keep reading for more on that.)
Rumor #3: You can use an online “post checker” to confirm if you’ve been banned.
There are a few free tools out there that claim to run your image through their own algorithm and check to see if it is showing up on each individual hashtag feed that you’ve used. I have not found these to be accurate.
If You Think You’ve Been Shadowbanned
80% of the people that are noticing a drop in engagement are NOT actually experiencing the Instagram shadowban. Most engagement dips are due to the (recent-ish) significant reduction in bots and changes to the algorithm. However, if all of a sudden you are getting scarily low engagement, like 75-90% lower than normal, I would recommend you start some sleuthing.
This isn’t a complete answer to reversing a potential shadowban, but more a framework to give you the tools to problem solve.
First, find 3-5 friends or accounts that do not follow you, and use them to check the posts you suspect have been shadowbanned to see if they show up in any of the hashtags that you used.
Always examine your recent Instagram activities and consider if you have done anything that could potentially look spammy to Instagram, or could put you in conflict with providing a great user experience to Instagram users.
How to Lower Your Risk
Only use hashtags that are highly relevant to your post. Don’t try to put your content in places that don’t really make sense to those who are searching those tags. When people are searching, they want to find exactly what they are looking for, not kind of, pretty much what they were looking for, but not exactly.
Don’t use the exact same group of hashtags every day for months on end. I am guilty here. So guilty. Have at least 2-3 groups of hashtags that you can rotate between.
Simply don’t use high-spam hashtags. Search each hashtag you are using. If you see a lot of junk consider replacing that hashtag with something that yields higher quality results. What is junk? Posts where they captions are constantly pushing products, begging for followers, get rich quick schemes, or promising a follow for a follow.
Do not check-in to places or locations that you weren’t really at. If you have a national or international brand, you might be trying to use geographic locations to reach specific groups of people… but unless the photo was taken in that spot, or you were in that spot when you posted, don’t make it up.
Don’t act like a bot. You don’t need to go crazy liking and commenting on thousands of photos each day. Definitely show up every day and engage in the platform, but don’t act like you are automated.
What to Do if You Suspect You’ve Been Shadowbanned
If you believe you have somehow triggered yourself and are being shadowbanned, here is what you should do:
- I hope this goes without saying, but if you are using any bot services. STOP. If you’ve used them in the past, you need to revoke API access.
- Remove all of your hashtags from past posts. For one person I worked with, this is what we believe “reset” her account. It was time consuming to go through almost 300 posts… but obviously worth it!
- Delete geo-locations off of your posts if you weren’t physically there or the photo wasn’t really taken in that place.
- Going forward, switch up your hashtag group every few days. Or use 2-3 groups that you rotate between so you aren’t using identical hashtags every day.
12/2018 Update: Instead of going through these four steps, I would recommend you contact me and we take a look together before you take matters in to your own hands! I’m happy to help you get back on track.
What other Instagram shadowban rumors have you heard that you need real answers to?
Molly Marshall teaches small business owners and online entrepreneurs how to systematically and simply grow a profitable online presence through social media. Get your FREE Instagram Strategy Guide now!