When someone suggests a place to eat or go on holiday, increasingly I search on Instagram rather than Google to get an idea of what that place is like. And I’m not alone. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in social search as our behaviour to find information is changing. Although other platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat also have search functions, it’s Instagram with its endless stream of beautiful scenery, delicious looking food and cute dog memes that is leading the way.

Instagram now has 800 million active monthly users making it a crucial channel for brands to consider. The platform is competing with traditional search to provide users with a richer, more personalised experience, generating content not just from big brands and publishers but other users too.

Because content appears in ‘real-time’ users can get the latest information on a place or event. Want to find out what the weather is really like for your weekend away in Tallinn? Search #tallinn or search by location to see the latest photos and videos of people there now. From their content you can see what the weather’s like (and work out what you need to pack), as well as where to visit to get the best shots for your own feed. You can even save down the images and videos you really like into ‘Collections’. These Pinterest-like boards help organise your favourite content into topics, so you can easily find all those restaurants you saved to eat at. Much more accessible than Google image search and constantly checking the weather forecast.

The rise of Instagram’s popularity and importance of having something ‘Instagrammable’ is having an impact on business too. This is especially true in the food industry. How many times have you whipped out your phone to take a snap of your food before tucking in? Restaurants have cottoned on to this trend and are adjusting both their menus and décor to ensure they have an Insta worthy environment. Phil Eeles Co-Founder at Honest Burgers captures this sentiment, ‘on Instagram you can’t just take something that’s bang average, people want to see something that’s special. We ask ourselves, would people take a photo of that?’ Being the latest food trend on Instagram, whether it’s deep fried mozzarella in a burger, a rainbow bagel or a freakshake, has the power to have people queuing out the door. Phil adds ‘especially in London, restaurants get famous for doing one thing and doing it well’.

Instagram’s shift from a platform for sharing filtered photos with your friends to a powerful visual search engine is immense. But as a brand how should you be using this platform as part of your strategy? Before you start it’s important to understand the reason behind its popularity. Part of this is visual context. Content on Instagram is aspirational, it gives us a glimpse into the life we’d like to lead. Seeing a bag or bikini in the context of an everyday setting helps us picture it in our own lives. Although well produced brand advertising has tried to do this for years, Instagram has elevated this a step further, helped by the integration of user generated content.

Featuring content from your customers in your brand feed adds authenticity and trust. If someone like you (or someone you aspire to be like) has bought that top or those sunglasses and likes them enough to post a photo of themselves wearing them, maybe you should buy them too. Tagging the owner of the original post says this is a real person with a real opinion, not a model who’s job it is to promote that product.

Brands such as Daniel Wellington have really taken advantage of this. The watch brand invites users to tag their photos with #DWPickoftheDay for a chance to be featured in their feed. In fact, their feed is predominantly made up of beautiful user generated content from all over the world. A pretty effective (and cheap!) way to get great content of their product. And with shopping integrated on the platform users can tap on the image to find product details and a link to purchase, without having to leave the app to search on Google. This visual advocacy holds more weight than a written review. People don’t want to see shiny brand advertising, they want real authentic content.

Aside from the content itself, how do you make the most of all those users searching on the platform? Brands should be tagging their posts with a relevant hashtag and location to help users discover their content. Doughnut brand? Using #doughnuts and tagging the local branch as your location is an obvious place to start. But checking out what competitors and their customers are using to appear in wider relevant searches is also important. Monitoring and evolving your tagging strategy can help you increase the visibility of your content. The beauty of search on Instagram is that consumers can discover your content just by searching location, hashtags and trending topics. You don’t have to spend months, or even years, struggling to get onto page 1 of Google.

Search on Instagram has the power to generate a huge amount of brand visibility and business. It’s focus on authenticity and personalisation has captured the attention of users who are looking for inspirational content from not just brands, but people like them. It’s changing how we search, and how businesses consider their products and marketing. Yes, it might only apply to more visual industries (at least for now), but in those spaces it’s offering an exciting alternative to traditional engines such as Google.