SEO strategy case study: Instacart
This case study highlights Instacart’s strategic SEO choices and how it could unlock new growth.
Picking the right SEO strategy is not a one-time decision. Growth is a series of S-curves, and every time a local maximum is reached a new strategic SEO decision needs to be made to unlock incremental growth. One great example of a company that made several smart SEO strategy decisions is Instacart.
When the world shut down in March 2020, Instacart brought bananas and batteries to millions of Americans. Already the largest grocery delivery service in the US, sales blew the roof off. While industries like ecommerce reverted back to their pre-pandemic baseline, online groceries didn’t. Instacart added +14% revenue Y/Y in 2021 and outgrew the online groceries (+8%) and e-commerce (+6%) market. [x]
But it’s not all sunshine and rosé. Instacart slashed its valuation in March 2022 by -40% down to $24 billion, citing tough market conditions. Even though the company is growing, coming off the pandemic boost is painful. The company is expected to go public but hesitates. It’s likely that Instacart was profitable during the pandemic and now its numbers are unattractive to the already sensitive public market. [x]
Instacart also faces tough competition. Uber Eats made Uber profitable in 2021 and raked in revenue of $8.3b compared to Instacart’s $1.8b. On top of that, grocery chains start to build their own delivery service and compete directly with Instacart.
Now, Instacart is transforming its business model and provides grocery chains with storefronts, ads and insights. Fending off competitors and gaining market share is no small feat. In this case study, I show Instacart's smart strategic SEO decisions and one big opportunity in front of them.
Instacart's aggregator growth
Instacart is a marketplace aggregator with an inventory of stores and products. The SEO growth levers are very different compared to a company that has to create the content itself (more about that in a lean minute). The capability to target more keywords scales with Instacart's offering.
In January 2020, Instacart widened its user acquisition funnel by letting Google index its /products subdirectory, which quickly drove most of instacart.com’s organic traffic. Even though plagued by core algorithm updates, you can see the strong organic growth in early 2020 (chart below) that stretches deep into the first half of 2022, meaning organic visibility is not just driven by the pandemic boost.
Grocery keywords have a lot of search volume. For example, “Popsicle Ice Pop Spongebob” has 27,000 monthly searches in the US alone.
Instacart goes after these grocery queries with product landing pages that are clearly optimized for search. They contain all the relevant information a user would search for and more:
CTA (“buy now on Instacart”)
This is the classic aggregator approach well executed, but instacart.com’s SEO growth has hit a plateau. The big question the company needs to answer in the context of growing competition and pressure to generate higher margins is “how to break through the local maxima?”
I noticed that Instacart has two potential solutions in the oven and a third one that it's not going after but has the ingredients for.
Two subdirectories are quickly gaining visibility: /categories and /ideas (screenshot below). This is were Instacart is investing in new growth levers. The impact is not significant, yet, but can grow to a meaningful size.
The /categories directory houses over 16K category pages with the classic product overview, from frozen desserts to flatbreads. What makes this strategic decision so interesting is that Instacart taps into local SEO by ranking for near me queries (screenshot below).
As covered in previous articles, near me queries have become incredibly popular and pose a real opportunity for SEO. Against intuition, there are lots of near me queries for groceries as well.
The /ideas directory, however, is an interesting strategic shift because it steps into integrator territory: a content hub with guides, tutorials, and recipes.
This is a very different approach from aggregating products, stores, and categories because Instacart creates the content itself. This comes with different growth mechanics but makes a lot of sense from a product perspective because the content addresses real user needs and questions.
Using Clayton Christensen’s Jobs To Be Done model, we can derive that people don’t buy groceries just to stock them in their fridge but to cook dinners, celebrate birthday parties or achieve fitness goals. Covering these problems and offering a solution ties directly into Instacart’s core: buying groceries. It creates brand awareness and offers a point of conversion because buying groceries is the next logical step after reading a food prep guide or blueberry muffin recipe.
Instacart has one big SEO opportunity in front of it that could unlock further growth.
The opportunity: recipe search
Recipe search is typically dominated by food bloggers and publishers like Thekitchn, Delish, or Allrecipes. Why? Because it is (was?) a profitable niche with a low barrier to entry. In theory, everyone can write recipes, which is why it has become commodity content.
From a logical point of view, recipes could come from three types of sites:
Kitchen utensil sellers
Those are the three types of players for which recipes make sense because the next step is to either buy a recipe book, utensils, or ingredients (groceries). Instacart could tap into this area but doesnt: Instacart has recipes in the store section but doesn’t let Google index it (blocked in robots.txt) and is currently not using recipe Schema.
The recipes are licensed from publishers, so there is a real chance that part of the deal is to not rank them in Google search. But Instacart could build out its own recipes and leverage them for search. From the outside this looks like a huge missed opportunity.
The traffic and business opportunity from ranking in recipe carousels could be significant. It’s a strategic SEO decision. The competitive advantage here is that instacart.com provides very relevant results because users can take the next step on the same site (buy ingredients) and Instacart doesn’t have to monetize through ads like publishers.
To spin this even further, Instacart could partner with celebrity chefs like Masterclass and match the recipes with the local store's inventory. Such partnerships would add to Instacart's brand credibility, and could be a good backlink play. They could build a competitive advantage and differentiate its content by forging exclusive partnerships.
Instacart is an exciting example of an aggregator that’s leveraging SEO well and expands into several directions. To break through its current traffic plateau, it has to make strategic SEO choices to venture into Integrator playbooks and open new growth levers in the recipe space.