Success Is A Result Of Decisions

And if you think 80/20 like me, very few choices lead to the majority of results. This post is about Instagram, but it’s also about making choices. Why DO we make the decisions we make? The psychology is mysterious. Yet as online marketers, our success … and our jobs depend upon sound decision making.

You may be comfortable making decisions with your gut, but in an analytical world much of the process relies on data. (I’m in the camp of trying flex both instinctual and analytical muscles, and being able to switch, which isn’t always easy)

It’s true, data matters. That’s why there’s analytics, and call tracking and rank checking. We depend on data to be a fingerprint of reality.

But data can be noisy. VERY noisy. Take the lost iOS search traffic for example. How many people thought their SEO efforts were failing when it was actually iOS spoiling the data?

Instagram Has More Users Than Pinterest

Actually, Instagram reportedly has double the amount of active users as Pinterest (which is currently around 200M for Instagram. For context, Twitter is only around 232M active users). Yet Pinterest is often championed as the star child of transactional social networks (meaning traffic from Pinterest tends to be high, and have a good conversion rate).

But you probably wouldn’t know Instagram has twice the users by looking at your analytics. And marketers aren’t praising it with the same fervor as Pinterest. Why?

Your Analytics Is Lying

The whole idea for this post came to be because of a recent embarrassing situation with a client. I innocently suggested they “give Instagram a try”. Only to have them tell me they HAD been using Instagram. For three months. He could even attribute direct sales coming from Instagram. (This is a luxury product too, so I should note just a few sales is a big deal).

The point is, I didn’t see any referral traffic from Instagram in Analytics, so I just assumed they weren’t on it. Boy was I wrong.

How “Links” From Apps Work

Try going to Instagram on your phone right now (let’s be honest, no one uses it on their desktop). Find a profile page with a link, and click it. You get this dialogue (at least on iOS you do);

screenshot of whole foods instagram profile link

(NOTE: Whole Foods is not a client – this is a generic example).

Annnddd… see that “open Safari” prompt? You guessed it. Clicks on Instagram profile links do NOT show up in referrals in analytics. We can verify this with Real Time Analytics.

screenshot of real time analytics

I showed up as direct traffic coming from Instagram

That visitor just entering the site is me. And the source that popped up? Direct. Further, filtering for Instagram under traffic sources reveals an unusually low number;

Three months of traffic - 40 visits from Instagram doesn't seem right.

Three months of traffic – 40 visits from Instagram doesn’t seem right.

But. What if we look at direct traffic and segment by mobile and tablet traffic?

screenshot of analytics, direct traffic by mobile and tablet

Instagram traffic reveals itself

See that spike? That’s the exact week my client started using Instagram. We get NO such spike for direct traffic and desktop. Look at the percentage increase;

screenshot of direct traffic desktop vs direct traffic mobile and tablet


Wowzers! That’s a 171% increase on mobile / tablet.

Stats For My Client’s Instagram Account

I don’t want to reveal the client’s site here – but I can put this into context a bit;

  • As of writing, their Instagram account has 18k followers
  • Their posts regularly get 500-1000+ likes
  • The posts get anywhere from 20-75+ comments (all users, no replies)
  • They’ve only made about 150 posts in the last 3-4 months.

Percentage wise, this isn’t huge click through rate. But that’s not the point. The point is we went from 40 visits showing in analytics, to potentially around 8,000 visits from Instagram.

That’s one heck of an attribution problem. Think of all the brands, whose Instagram accounts are not getting appropriate credit.

screenshot of whole foods instagram account

Whole Foods Instagram – 191k Followers

screenshot of anthropolgie instagram account

Anthropolgie Instagram – 729k Followers

screenshot of starbucks instagram account

Starbucks Instagram – 2.3 MILLION Followers

Instagram Confusion

The lack of default attribution leads to confusion around how Instagram may affect traffic … and the bottom line.

Even the social media expert Gary Vaynerchuck (whom I greatly respect) says that you should more or less treat Instagram like a print ad. That you can’t really “go anywhere” and get outside of it, like it’s a closed channel. I disagree. And I’m sure his agency, Vaynermedia would LOVE to take more of the credit for success with Instagram.

And yet, every, Instagram, analytics, tool measures only within Instagram. Likes, comments, engagement. Which is great. But isn’t that a whole lot like SEO’s measuring only rankings and leaving out traffic and conversions?

Getting Referral Data For Instagram

I have a few recommendations to help shine a light on your Instagram referrals. None are without their own flaws, but I’d suggest picking the one that’s best for your brand.

1. Segment Direct Traffic by Mobile / Tablet Only

This is the method I used above that revealed a spike in direct mobile/tablet traffic for my client, right at the time they started using Instagram. This is the least scientific way to measure it, but also the least invasive to your Instagram profile. You can also “track” it historically, depending upon how noisy your direct mobile / tablet traffic is.

2. Use Campaign Tagging + Bitly

This is currently my favorite method, although I have not tested it extensively. Fortunately, I’d just been reading this essential guide to campaign tagging by Annie Cushing. So campaign tagging was at top of mind. You CAN actually add URLs with campaign parameters on them, but they look terrible;

screenshot of dan shure instagram profile

So I’d recommend shortening it into a custom bitly link (or you can use your link shortener of choice);

This of course not only gives you proper referral data in analytics, but also some click data in bitly. Won’t complain about that.

I used real time analytics to confirm this was working. I clicked my bitly URL from my Instagram profile on my iPhone and got this;

Apparently the only visiter to my own site … is me. 🙂

Note that for tagging, I recommend using the tag builder and I chose;

  • source – instagram
  • medium – social
  • campaign – profile

The con to this method of course is the lack of showing a “real” domain name in the profile. Some brands may not want something that looks “un-official.”

3. Create An Instagram Only Landing Page

The last option, is to create a landing page only accessible via Instagram. It is an “orphaned” page not linked to from anywhere else. This way you can assume a visit to this page must have originated from Instagram.

I actually found that Distilled had written about this option here and searching Google I found this clever blogger who had come up with the same idea.

In general I like this idea if it matches your preferred user experience. But there is the chance your landing page will get “out there” on the net – in social or get back links – and then your data is corrupt. You could segment your traffic to this page, but it could get hairy.

Instagram Is More Than Just Selfies, Folks

Selfies have gotten a little out of hand

Selfies have gotten a little out of hand

There are two amazing things to me about Instagram right now;

  • The potential for getting visibility on that platform right now is insane. Unlike it’s higher power Facebook, there are NO limits to the reach your posts currently have. And with some clever uses of hashtags and interacting you can get in front of a decent number of eyeballs.
  • “Selling” is totally kosher. That’s right. I see post after post which is an obvious product placement, event announcement, sale announcement or basically selling in one way or another. As long as you do it in a subtle, entertaining or artistic way users love it.

If you’re any sort of B2C company, and you’re NOT on Instagram it’d be a huge mistake to not at least test it out. Here you go, here’s plenty of resources to get you started.

Ultimately Not Ideal

I admit. I don’t think I have the complete answer here. Ultimately, I think the answer needs to come from within Apple or Analytics. Just like with the lost iOS search debacle, they should really be more attentive to how this affects analytics data. I know Google is working to better track and understand users activity across apps and websites.


(Image linked to CC source)

But until a more reliable system is in place, the responsibility falls on us to pick up the slack. No matter how temporary a bridge it might be, it’s better than nothing.

(Featured Image Source: Solidether on Flickr)

PS – You can find me on Instagram at danshure. No selfies, promise.

About Dan Shure

Hi! I'm Dan Shure. I write all of the posts and host all of the podcast episodes you'll find on the Evolving SEO blog. Say hello on Twitter @dan_shure!


  • April 25, 2014 Reply

    Cesar Recendez

    nice post. most people don’t understand that “direct” traffic just means no referring domain was captured–but that can happen for a whole variety of reasons. i often hear it referred to as “typed or bookmarked” which gives people of false sense of how many people are actually bookmarking their site. Maybe it’d best if GA and other analytics tools started labeling direct traffic “everything else” or “we don’t know where the hell that came from”. 🙂

    Another tip: instead of bitly you can use a vanity url that points to your tracked url–so it’s more consistent with your branding.

    • April 25, 2014 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Thanks Cesar! Definitely, the notion that direct is someone coming by memory or a bookmark or something is incomplete. Thanks for the vanity URL tip!

  • May 1, 2014 Reply


    Nice post Dan! While reading this article the idea of URL tagging definitely the best fix for the current problem. I am surprised that we have a similar solution to tracked down the direct traffic. The only downside of instagram is only one landing page that can be tracked. Marketers or SEOs should choose the best landing page that has the ability to convert or else instagram users will just adds to the bounce rate of a certain website.

  • May 2, 2014 Reply

    Luiz Centenaro


    Thanks for the post, most of the instagrams accounts I work on are just starting out, had a few months gone by with no referral traffic I would have surely been demotivated. Annies Guide to campaign tagging is a great resource, and I am looking forward to sharing some Instagram statistics.

    • May 2, 2014 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Definitely share any stats you come up with!

  • May 3, 2014 Reply

    Mike Valera

    Nice find! I like the campaign tagging and bitly combination best. Going to implement this for a few clients. Thanks for the heads up!

  • May 5, 2014 Reply

    Jenn Herman

    Thank you so much for this! I recently wrote a blog post about how Instagram traffic is of higher quality than other social media sites. The “downside” was that when I pulled my IG analytics from Google Analytics, they were such low traffic numbers compared with other sites – even though they had extremely high values in other data. I had a very sneaky suspicion about what you’ve written here but haven’t had the time to dissect it more myself. I also really like your suggestions for alternative ways to “track” traffic from Instagram. This is all really good info!

    • May 6, 2014 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Cool, thanks Jenn!

  • June 7, 2014 Reply


    This is interesting, I have been using both Instagram and Pinterest for a while now and I am finding the functionality and effectiveness of Instagram is so much better than Pinterest. I find Instagram can be used easily on the go, its geared better for mobile and is a great way to create a buzz over a project I could be working on using hashtags. Seems like the stat’s favor it as well which is re-assuring. But like you have mentioned… keep testing.

  • July 15, 2014 Reply


    Great post Dan, Very interesting indeed. The way you explained it very nice. Both can be useful, But I still prefer Instagram over Pinterest

  • July 29, 2014 Reply


    Good post, well done on covering the main idea but theres still a little more possible..
    I won’t give all the answers out but theres a very simple way to do this without the need of vanity/bitly urls.

    Look into the http headers sent from mobile devices after clicking an “Open with Safari” button, it actually give you a bit of data which is unique to each app. This works on iOS, Android devices although the ID’s are different. From there its very simple to configure this workflow

    In-App Click to Web Browser > Parse Unique App Header Data > Add to appropriate source/referral

  • August 5, 2014 Reply


    Hi Dan,
    Thank you so much for this article, Instagram analytics having been quite frustrating to work out. We’ve overcome the issue somewhat buy using a different URL which directs back to our main page so we can track where the traffic is coming from. We are also using Iconsquare which provides some useful insights.

  • August 15, 2014 Reply

    Mithra Ballesteros

    Every week, I’d check Analytics and came to the conlusion I was flailing away on IG for nuthin’. Until finally today I dug a little. Yes, Google has her faults but she did lead me to you, so I’m happy! Excellent article. Interesting solutions too.

  • October 27, 2014 Reply


    Dan, that was SUCH a valuable read, how refreshing! Thank you!

    • October 28, 2014 Reply

      Dan Shure

      You’re welcome 🙂

  • November 6, 2014 Reply

    Eran Weinberg

    Hey Dan,

    Great article. We also wanted to track IG traffic and had the same issues to consider. The solutions I thought of were also campaign links, bitly, or another landing page. I personally didn’t like how campaign links looked, bitly links did not look good for branding, and a landing page just for instagram is too much work.

    The simple fix we did was add a /?in after the URL, for example we can track

    To track it we look at all the traffic going to the page /?in and we can see all the data related to uniques vs repeat visitors, time spent, etc. We use for all our analytics, so we also get to see all user activity (in real time as well). We then set conversion goal tracking for anyone who comes in from /?in and completes registration.

    If anyone has better suggestions I would love to hear!


    • November 6, 2014 Reply

      Dan Shure

      That’s honestly the best solution I have heard of to balance branding etc! I know it still shows as “direct” but you can analyze it as a unique page. Clever! And thanks for saying high on Instagram.

    • March 2, 2015 Reply

      Luiz Centenaro

      Thanks for the idea Eran, going to try this out now.

  • December 23, 2014 Reply

    Piers Ede

    Dan, this was an absolutely awesome article. Just discovering this problem now and Googled for a solution and it seems you have totally nailed it. One thing is: has anyone got in touch with Instagram about this. If I was Kevin Systrom or one of those guys, I’d be seriously worried about the implications of this….

    • December 23, 2014 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Thanks and really glad this helped! I think the issue is on the iOS end of things. Most mobile apps ask “do you want to open Safari” – so not just an Instagram issue unfortunately!

  • March 2, 2015 Reply


    i have done it buy buying an extra domain and forward it via http to ? MYDOMAIN.COM/?
    I really dont like to click on any short-urls, you never know where it goes.

    any other idea?

  • March 3, 2015 Reply

    Quinoa Apparel

    The best solution I found is this one:
    You use utm tags of course in order to have stats in GA, but then, instead of using any shortening tools, just do a redirect on your own server. For exemple : redirect to the url with all the utm tags.
    Like thats, you have your how url in your profile and your brand is safe 🙂

  • March 6, 2015 Reply

    Gretchen Harnick

    Thanks Dan. Testing it out now! Great ideas.

  • March 26, 2015 Reply

    Sofie Glad

    QUALITY PIECE. The safari pop up is key. I started marketing for my fashion business on Instagram because it is such a visual platform and quickly learned that direct links = Instagram links (at least in my case, when I knew I had the most loyal following on IG and was putting my time and effort into posting there above all other channels).


  • April 12, 2015 Reply

    Ruan Holsteyns

    Great article Dan! Very helpful!
    Unfortunately, I can’t use the same bitlinks for different social media platforms. (Other campaign link, same short link)
    Do you have any suggestions?
    Kr, Ruan

  • August 11, 2015 Reply

    Rodney Lacambra

    Great article Dan! I’ve implemented exactly how you created the campaign URL from URL Builder, however when I visited Google analytics. It seems that traffic generated by instagram appears to be “Not set”.

    Do you have some idea bout it?

    Let me know what you think. thanks much Dan


    • August 13, 2015 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Hmmm … you’re sure everything is tagged correctly? Here’s what I’d do. Test it by going to Real-time analytics. Click on your instagram URL builder link and see if it shows up in real-time analytics correctly.

  • October 17, 2015 Reply

    Bernard Scott

    Instagram won’t directly help with SEO, because they don’t have any real crawlable web presence.

    It could be a good secondary SEO tactic, as it’s a great social media follower-builder. Since you can push Instagram posts to Twitter and Facebook, and we know those two networks influence rankings, it could help you there.

  • November 4, 2015 Reply

    Andy LeSavage

    Hi Dan,

    Great article about the importance of data coming from Instagram. It seems that brands are just now looking to optimize the traffic coming from such a great driver of referrals. I wanted to hear your thoughts on a product we built that enables brands to link each individual picture to a specific URL and can help track and increase conversions. Please let me know your thoughts about!

    Thank you,


  • November 20, 2015 Reply


    Hey Guys,

    thanks a lot for the article, it’s very interesting!

    I think I found a good way to keep your URL + get data from the referral source. Here is what I did:

    1) Create a URL with tracking codes with the URL builder, like mentioned
    2) Create a nice URL for your Instagram profile =>
    3) Create a 301 redirection in wordpress from your nice URL to the URL with tracking codes
    4) and voila!

    Let me know what you think, but for me it works great 😉

  • March 28, 2016 Reply


    Very nice post. Thanks a bunch

  • March 31, 2016 Reply

    Anna Skye

    I used the WordPress plugin PrettyLinks to make a unique redirect URL that I only use in my Instagram profile. So I can track how many people click on the URL listed in my Instagram profile. The page I direct them to has a call to action to subscribe to my email newsletter and a familiar grid of beautiful images linking to my best blog post content.

    • April 3, 2016 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Good tactic, thanks for sharing!

  • January 5, 2017 Reply



    I’ve put a build tracking link in my profile. Now i can see my IG traffic on my Google Analytics account but i cannot see the number of sales. Does a built tracking link track it ? or just sessions ?



Leave a Comment

Error: Please check your entries!