Instagram announced its move to an algorithm-based feed in March 2016. Since then, users have been trying to figure out exactly what signals the Instagram algorithm uses to order posts in your feed.
Luckily, the mystery has been solved. Instagram spilled the beans on how the algorithm works in June 2018.
Speaking to a group of reporters in San Francisco, Instagram staffers explained the details of the Instagram feed algorithm, and shut down some rumors while they were at it.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Instagram algorithm change for 2018.
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Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps an adventure photographer used to grow from 0 to 110,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.
How the Instagram algorithm works: 3 key factors
For the first six years of its life, Instagram was a simple reverse-chronological feed of posts from the accounts each user followed. When you logged in to Instagram, you’d see the most recent posts first. It didn’t matter if they were from your best friend or your favorite brand.
When Instagram introduced the algorithm, people were not happy. A Change.org petition called “Keep Instagram chronological” gained 70,000 signatures in just 24 hours. But Instagram says that since the algorithm was implemented, people have been liking and commenting on more photos, and “generally engaging with the community in a more active way.”
In fact, Instagram now says users see 90 percent of the posts from their friends and family, compared to 50 percent before the Instagram feed algorithm was introduced.
The algorithm uses a few key signals to make sure that happens, and combines them using machine learning so that no two feeds are exactly the same. If you follow the same accounts as someone else, but you interact with the content in different ways, the Instagram algorithm will make different predictions about what content you want to see.
That means your feed is always unique to you.
Here are the three main signals the Instagram algorithm uses to rank the posts in your feed.
This is the algorithm’s guess on how much you will care about each post in your feed. It’s based on how you’ve interacted with similar posts in the past, and may also be based on the content of the post itself.
What this means for brands: Engagement is key here. When users engage with your content, they signal to the algorithm that they want to see more of your posts.
Share engaging visuals paired with compelling captions that encourage followers to interact. Put the most important words up front to draw followers in and encourage them to keep reading.
Instagram may no longer be fully reverse-chronological, but the algorithm takes into account that people want to see timely posts each time they log in.
In fact, Instagram announced in March 2018 that it was updating the algorithm “to ensure that newer posts are more likely to appear first in feed [so] your feed will feel more fresh, and you won’t miss the moments you care about.”
What this means for brands: Figure out the best time to post on Instagram for your brand to make sure your posts are “recent” when your followers are online. This will require some testing and digging into Instagram insights.
Going beyond whether you follow someone, this factor analyzes the depth of your relationship with the person or brand based on how often you tend to engage with their posts. If you often like and comment on someone’s posts, or you’re often tagged in them, you’ll see more of that person’s content in your feed.
This helps ensure that you see content from people you have close relationships with even if those people do not have enough followers of their own to get a substantial amount of likes and comments.
For example, your mom’s posts will never get as many likes as Kendall Jenner’s (thank goodness). But since you probably like and comment on your mom’s posts often, and you may tag each other in your photos, the Instagram algorithm understands that you want to see what she is posting, even if no one else is engaging with her content.
Recode reports that the Instagram algorithm may also use some information from Facebook to determine relationships.
What this means for brands: It’s important to develop ongoing relationships with your followers. Consistent engagement is more valuable than sporadic engagement, so know what your followers want to see—and engage with—and give them more of that content.
Use Instagram Insights to track which posts perform best and then model that content to craft a profile that inspires a loyal and active following.
The three main signals above form the core of the Instagram algorithm, but it incorporates some secondary factors as well:
- Frequency: If you open Instagram multiple times per day, you’ll always see quite recent posts. If you only open the app once a week, you could see posts that are a few days old.
- Following: If you only follow a few people, the algorithm doesn’t have much content to work with, so you might see more of each person’s posts. If you follow thousands of people, you might not see posts from everyone, and you won’t see too many posts from any one person.
- Usage: How you use the app sends signals about how much content the algorithm should surface. If you tend to only look at the app for a few moments, the algorithm will top-load your feed with priority content.
6 myth-busting insights you need to know
That’s what we know about how the Instagram algorithm does work. But it’s also important to understand how the algorithm does not work. Instagram busted a few myths about the algorithm and the platform in general.
1. There is no shadowban
Rumors have long circulated that Instagram would partially block accounts for using too many hashtags, or repetitive hashtags. Worse, you would not receive any notification about the block—hence the term “shadowban.”
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However, in its press briefing, staffers said the shadowban does not exist. According to TechCrunch, Instagram says “you’ll see everything posted by everyone you follow if you keep scrolling.”
That said, it’s still important to use hashtags authentically and responsibly. Only use hashtags that are relevant to your content, don’t use too many hashtags on one post, and don’t buy followers or use bots to post comments.
(Posting repetitive comments or content goes against Instagram’s community guidelines—and that actually could get you banned.)
2. Frequent posters are not down-ranked
Posting often will not result in your account being down-ranked.
However, if you post several times in a row, those posts will likely be separated by other content, rather than appearing one after the other. You also can’t be sure your followers will see all of your posts, and you definitely can’t be sure they’ll see them in order. If you’re sharing multiple photos, consider consolidating them into one post, or using Stories.
3. Videos do not universally rank higher
It was thought that posting videos would boost your content’s placement. Instagram has now said that’s not true. Across the platform, the algorithm treats photos and videos equally.
However, users who tend to watch and engage with videos will see more videos in their feed. Users who scroll past videos and focus on photo content will see more photos.
This is another case where it’s important to understand what your followers are looking for so you can deliver the right content to align with their interest signals.
4. Using Instagram Stories will not boost your placement
Neither will using Live video or Boomerang.
“We don’t favor accounts that use different parts of the app more than others,” product designer Christina d’Avignon told Recode. “The only way to get your content higher ranked is to produce great content.”
That said, if your audience tends to watch and engage with Stories, you should post to Stories. If they love live video, you should post live video. Giving users what they want will boost engagement overall and send powerful interest and relationship signals.
5. The chronological feed is gone for good
People have been slow to give up hope that the chronological feed might come back. Rumors have spread that chronological sorting might become an option. But Instagram says the algorithm—and only the algorithm—is here to stay.
6. Verified and business accounts do not rank higher
“We treat everyone the same,” d’Avignon told Recode.
That said, a business account gives you access to features not available to personal accounts, like access to analytics and the ability to run Instagram ads, so you should consider switching to a business profile.
How to make the Instagram algorithm work in your favor
You now understand what the algorithm is—and what it does. Here’s how you can start putting that knowledge to work.
Create great content
Sounds obvious, right? But it’s worth repeating. If you consistently deliver quality content that aligns with your followers’ expectations of your brand, you’ll encourage engagement that boosts those interest and relationship signals.
That gives you an advantage over those who are just churning out a large quantity of lower-quality posts.
Check out our complete guide to using Instagram for loads of great tips, strategies, and best practices for creating quality content on Instagram.
Know your followers
Engagement is key to success in an algorithm-based world. But it’s important to remember that not every audience will find the same things engaging.
That means you have to know your specific audience and understand what is most appealing to them, and what kinds of photos and captions are most likely to inspire them to interact with your posts.
You can gain some great follower intelligence from Instagram Insights, including gender, age, and location information. You can use those details to help create audience personas that will go a long way towards helping you make meaningful connections that boost interest and relationship signals over time.
The location information will also help you determine the best time to share your content on Instagram to maximize the effects of the recency signal.
For more on sharing great content, check out this short video from Hootsuite Academy.
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If you want followers to interact with your posts, giving you an important boost in the interest and relationship algorithm categories, you can’t treat Instagram as simply a broadcast medium. It’s a social network, so you’ve got to get social. There’s no reason for followers to like or comment on your posts if those signals of appreciation seem to get lost in the void.
Being engaged is not difficult, but it does take some time. Respond to followers’ comments on your posts. Use social listening to monitor Instagram for mentions of your brand and respond to appropriate posts with a like or comment. You may event want to ask for permission to re-gram fan posts that feature your products.
Write captions that encourage engagement
Another way to encourage engagement and send those powerful interest and relationship signals is to write captions that encourage followers to interact with your posts. Try asking a question, for example, or asking followers to share an experience similar to the one you write about in your post.
For example, if you share a recipe, you could ask followers to share their favorite way to use some of the same ingredients. If you share a product shot of a running shoe, you could ask followers about their favorite running routes. Don’t ask followers to tell you how great you are—look for authentic ways to start a conversation, and be sure to jump in with replies of your own.
Make it clear what your post is about
Including relevant hashtags and location information may help the algorithm understand what your post is about, allowing you to benefit from your followers’ interest signals.
For example, if you’re a clothing brand, your followers may be generally interested in fashion. They may tend to like, share, and engage with posts including hashtags such as #ootd or #streetstyle. Adding these hashtags to your own posts (when relevant, of course) may boost the interest signals and give your post an algorithm advantage.
Let followers know how to turn on notifications
Instagram has a feature that allows you to be notified every time one of your favorite accounts shares new content. If your followers switch this notification setting on for your account, they will automatically be alerted when you post, so they never miss a share.
You don’t want to harass your followers or plead with them to turn on notifications, but the occasional mention of this feature could help keep your biggest fans fully engaged. Try something friendly like the following:
“Did you know you can turn on notifications so you never miss one of our posts? Just tap the three dots icon on our profile page and select Turn on post notifications to make sure you never miss a thing.”
Learn more about the notifications feature and 56 other tricks you might not know about in our post on Instagram hacks.
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