We already discussed the phenomenon of Instagram pods, or groups of people who upvote each other's Instagram posts to help gain higher visibility. That was good timing too, because this issue of pods and trying to use the Instagram algorithm for your benefit just got a lot more serious thanks to new reports from Instagram travel legend Sara Melotti. Melotti has gone on the record to show just how nasty gaming the system can get, and it's raising a lot of questions about Instagram and how it should be used.
From Pod to Mafia
Travel photos are some of the most popular on Instagram: They tend to show beautiful people in beautiful, exotic locations, and who doesn't like that? They can also make locations, advertisers, and bloggers in the "Explorer" section a whole lot of money, which adds incentive to well, cheat. Specifically Melotti has called out a "Instagram mafia" of sorts in her industry that is turning Instagram into a pure tool of advertising instead of a social site. What does that mean? It comes down to several practices designed to manipulate Instagram's algorithm and the people who use it.
- Bot Farms: Bot farms are a simple and classic way of cheating. You pay a bot service, and they create a ton of fake subscribers that latch onto your account and automatically like every post you make. In theory this raises visibility and makes real people more like to interact with a photo that they see is popular. In practice the benefits aren't quite as clear: None of those bots has a history that Instagram can use to match to similar viewers, and none of them will ever buy a product or share a post.
- Copying Locations: This one is unique to the travel industry, but similar tricks are used in other industries. Basically, influencers pass around a list of cheat sites that are guaranteed to get lots of Instagram likes and comments when you take a certain photo from the right perspective. Everyone then goes to that location, takes the photo, and generally pretends that they "found" or "discovered" this amazing (and oddly photogenic) spot that no one else knows about.
- Selling Spots on Collective Accounts: Instagram collective accounts will charge individual bloggers fees, based on their number of followers, for posting. They don't pick the best or the most interesting or high-quality posts, they just sell slots to anyone who will pay for them.
- Planning Posts Together: Of course, this is what more casual Instagram pods do too, but in industries like travel it's a deadly serious art. They plan within the minute on when and how to upvote, share and comment, and people may be required to participate or they could lose their place in the group.
Boats Instead of Dogs: Is This Event Right?
Some of these practices are understandable: If you were to imitate a particularly successful photo your competitor posted, nothing fishy would be going on. But ethically, not all of these tactics are right – and they certainly doesn't encourage healthy community behavior. Suppose you started using the worst tactics to promote your own photos, and then a competitor with more resources comes along, copies everything you do, and makes your Instagram profile useless: That's not great for your business.
Social media is very much a "rising tide lifts all boats" endeavor. When it becomes dog eat dog instead, a few dogs win for a little while, and then the whole thing falls apart because the audience can no longer trust anything.
This brings us to our final point: Tactics like these, especially when called out, cannot last. People tried to do the same thing to Google, and Google had no problem adjusting its algorithms and handing out penalties to stop it. Instagram has many reasons to discourage this type of behavior, and will likely take steps to fix these issues rather than risk losing popularity. That's the problem with using cheap tactics. Sooner or later, you get called out.