Social media algorithms are the backbone of all social networks. They exist to sort the massive volume of content posted every day and show each user the content they are most likely to engage with.
It’s never a good idea to try to game an algorithm on social media, but understanding the most important ranking signals can give you a strategic advantage over your competitors.
Keep reading for a rundown of each major platform’s most important ranking signals and expert tips on how to make your social posts stand out — not just to users, but also to social algorithms.
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What is a social media algorithm?
A social media algorithm is a set of rules and signals that automatically ranks content on a social platform based on how likely each individual social media user is to like it and interact with it.
Algorithms are the reason why no two users will see exactly the same social content, even if they follow all the same accounts.
How do social media algorithms work?
There’s a reason why the main TikTok user feed is called the For You Page. It’s content specifically selected for you, based on the way you have interacted with the app in the past.
But, of course, there’s no human being sitting behind a desk shuffling content into the feed of each TikTok user. (What a job that would be!) Instead, those recommendations are made by algorithms.
The algorithm of every social media platform is different, but they are all based on machine learning and a set of factors called ranking signals. These are exactly what they sound like: signals used to rank the value of each individual piece of content for each individual user.
Ranking signals are individualized because they are often based on your previous interactions with the app.
Social media algorithm examples
To show algorithms in action, here are some examples of how they work in my own social media feeds.
Facebook shows me a constant stream of videos that fall into a category I call “sad animal becomes happy.” A woman adopts a bee with no wings. A horse stuck in the ice is rescued by some guys with a pick-up truck. A police officer saves baby ducks stuck in a sewer grate.
I’ve never specifically liked or followed an account that serves these videos, but every time one appears as a suggested video in my news feed, I watch it all the way through. I often share them through Messenger with my sister. The behavior tells Facebook I want more of this content – and boy, does it deliver.
The Instagram algorithm, on the other hand, serves me an uninterrupted stream of vintage/boho home decor and houseplants.
So far, you’ve seen how the algorithms are affected by user behavior. In the next sections, we’ll talk about how xcontent creators can “communicate” with the algorithms that power social media (and help algorithms surface their content to more users).
Every social platform’s algorithm explained
Now that you know what social media algorithms are and how they work, let’s look at some of the specific ranking signals for each social platform.
We can never know all the details of a platform’s algorithm – that’s their secret sauce. But we do know enough to make some meaningful adjustments to your content strategy so the algorithms work for you, rather than against you.
Here are the most important known ranking signals for each social platform.
1. Instagram algorithm
Known Instagram ranking signals:
Relationships matter. You’re more likely to see content from people you follow, message with, or otherwise engage with. For brands, this means it’s critical to encourage and respond to follower engagement.
Interests rule. This is why I get all that home decor and plant content.
Relevance is key. Relevance is based on factors like timeliness and topic trends.
Popularity pops. The level and speed of interaction with a post, and the level of engagement with an account in general, signal popularity – which can help content land on the Explore page.
While these signals look pretty straightforward, Instagram is known for frequent updates to the algorithm. But there’s a method to the madness.
Eileen Kwok, Hootsuite’s Social Marketing Coordinator told us: “Instagram’s algorithm is always changing and it’s a tough one that all social marketers are hoping to hack. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri said himself that the platform is putting its core focus on video, so if you’ve seen an uptick in your Reels views recently, that may be why! We recommend keeping up with Adam’s weekly video updates to stay on top of new features and hints at what the Instagram algorithm favors.”
Previous interactions. This includes signals like accounts followed and hidden or content you’ve engaged with or marked not interesting.
Behavior on the Discover tab. This factor analyzes content characteristics like captions, sounds, effects, and trending topics.
Location and language. Content from your own country or in your own language may be preferenced.
Trends. Using trending sounds and effects can help make your content more discoverable.
TikToks should feel like TikToks. Use native features like effects, sounds, and text treatments.
Follower count does NOT matter. TikTok’s real distinction is that follower count is NOT a ranking signal.
TikTok’s algorithm is especially important to understand because unlike most social platforms, TikTok is designed to surface new content rather than showing content from people you already follow.
“A good way to find out whether the TikTok algorithm favors your content is checking the percentage of users that saw your videos on their For You page,” says Eileen, who runs Hootsuite’s TikTok account. “A high number means that the algorithm is helping you get discovered by a wider audience by placing your videos in their home feed.”
Video performance. Popular videos get more algorithm love. This is measured through metrics like view duration, likes, dislikes, and click-through rate.
Watch history. YouTube recommends content similar to what viewers have watched before.
Context. Topically related videos or videos that are often watched together are likely to show up in the “suggested videos.”
Like TikTok, YouTube is less about who you follow and more about what the algorithm serves up for you to watch. As of 2018, 70% of YouTube watch time was based on algorithm recommendations, and as of 2022, homepage and suggested videos are most channels’ top sources of traffic.
Website quality and ownership. Pinterest judges the quality of a website based on the popularity of Pins that link to it, and prioritizes content from the website owner.
Engagement levels. Evaluated for both individual Pins and for the Pinner’s account.
Since Pinterest works a little differently from the other social platforms, we’ve got a post on Pinterest SEO instead of one focused specifically on the algorithm. It shares lots of juicy details you can use to make your Pins more discoverable.
In case that brings up even more questions, we’ve also got a blog post all about social SEO and how it’s different from social media algorithms.
How to make social media algorithms work for you: 7 tips
You now know why social media algorithms exist and how they differ across platforms. Here are some overarching tips for scoring points with social media algorithms in general.
1. Post relevant, high-quality content
Content relevance and quality are ranking signals for all the social algorithms. That’s because the entire point of algorithms on social media is to show people content they’re likely to be interested in. Spoiler alert: People are not generally interested in content that can be deemed irrelevant or low quality.
What “quality” means can differ depending on the platform. While you might want to use a high-end camera for your Instagram feed content, you’ll almost certainly shoot your TikToks on a mobile device. Quality is really about matching the content you create to the expectations for the platform. Take advantage of features like stickers and sounds to make the most of each social tool.
Clickbait was a real problem in the early days of social media. As a result, all the platforms have trained their algorithms to essentially downvote content that appears misleading or spammy.
Make sure your headline, caption, and hashtags are accurate and clear.
3. Understand the trends
Trending topics keep people scrolling and engaged, so the social platforms want to serve up more of that content.
You don’t want to leap on every trend that comes along. But if something emerges with real potential to align with your brand messaging, it’s worth putting some of your best social minds on it. Use tools like Google Trends to see what’s trending online in general, and a social listening program to understand what’s happening in your industry specifically.
Also watch for ways to incorporate trending sounds and effects for short-form video like TikToks and Instagram Reels.
4. Know the best times to post
Many of the algorithms include recency and early engagement as key ranking signals. That means you need to know when your audience is most likely to be online and actively engaging with each social platform.
For general recommendations, check out our post on the best times to post on every social network. But remember that while these times are a good place to start, they won’t necessarily be most effective for your followers.
To get custom recommendations for the optimal time to post for maximum engagement based on your own followers’ behavior, check out the best time to post recommendations built into Hootsuite.
As we just said, engagement – especially early engagement – is a key ranking signal for all the social media algorithms. One easy way to get more engagement is simply to ask for it.
We’re not suggesting you plead with followers to like or share your posts. Instead, create content that naturally encourages followers to engage, both with your content and with each other.
One tried-and-true way to encourage engagement is to run a social media contest. But, of course, you don’t want to run a contest in every post.
Another great way to boost engagement is to ask a question or start a debate.
When you create especially informative content, encourage followers to share with others who could benefit from the resources, or to save the post for their own future reference.
6. Experiment (a lot)
Working with the social media algorithms is part science, part art, and a tiny bit of magic. While we can give you tips to help send the right signals to the algorithms, there’s no universal formula for success.
That means you need to try new things, see what works, and refine your strategy over time. All good digital marketers know the manta “Always Be Testing.” It’s the only real way to learn what’s working right now, for your brand, in real time.
And don’t let the idea of running complicated experiments discourage you — testing doesn’t have to be complicated. Nick Martin, Social Listening and Engagement Team Lead at Hootsuite shared some great advice that even beginner social marketers will find easy to follow:
“Take mental notes as you scroll through the main feed of whichever network you’re on: What sort of content are you seeing being shared? Which posts are highly engaged with? The posts that you see are fed to you by the algorithm of that network and those popular ones are the types of posts that you should consider taking inspiration from. On Instagram, that might be Reels, on Twitter maybe it’s linkless posts. Test different types of content and track to see which ones get the most reach and engagement. Those top-performing posts will be the content types that 1) are favored by your audience and 2) will be favored by the algorithm.”
Social platforms are leaning hard into video. Posting more video content aligns your brand’s social strategy with the direction the platforms are headed.
In particular, Meta platforms provide lots of opportunities for uses to discover short-form video content (i.e., Reels) from brands and content creators they don’t follow. Reels are an important way to reach new users and send relevance signals to the algorithms.
Make your social media marketing strategy work with algorithms and save time managing all your accounts using Hootsuite. From a single dashboard, you can schedule and publish content, engage your audience, and measure performance. Try it free today.