Enter the Twitter algorithm, a mathematical formula that works in the background to help ensure that the most important tweets appear at the top of your timeline each time you log in.
Bonus: Download the free strategy guide that reveals how Hootsuite grew our Twitter following to over 7 million users and learn how you can put the tactics to work for your business.
What is the Twitter algorithm?
According to Twitter, “Tweets you are likely to care about most will show up first in your timeline.”
In simple terms, the Twitter algorithm is the system that determines what Twitter thinks you are most “likely to care about,” and therefore what you are most likely to see when you first log in to the social network.
What we know about how the Twitter algorithm works
When it first launched more than 10 years ago, Twitter was a simple reverse chronological list of tweets by people you followed. Each time you logged into your account, you saw the most recent posts, whether they were breaking news or updates about what the people you follow had for breakfast.
That started to change in 2014, when Twitter began to include recommended tweets, accounts, and topics in users’ timelines, exposing them for the first time to content from people they didn’t yet follow.
Then, in early 2015, Twitter introduced a feature called “while you were away,” described as “a recap of some of the top tweets you might have missed from accounts you follow.”
In 2016, Twitter began to apply the same algorithm that powered “while you were away” to slightly reorder more of users’ timelines, and users freaked out, threatening to quit the network en masse. The #RIPTwitter hashtag went viral as people expounded on the reasons why anything other than straight real-time tweets would surely bring about Twitter’s demise.
But Twitter didn’t die. In fact, its user base has continued to grow, gaining 9 million monthly active users in just the first quarter of 2017. The company itself says that the Twitter algorithmic timeline actually increases how often users tweet and retweet.
So, the Twitter algorithm has continued to work in the background, surfacing tweets to the top of your feed based on a number of factors (see below) to help people keep up with the most important and interesting content in their feeds, even when they’re following thousands of people.
Twitter says its algorithm-based timeline boosts tweets to the top of your feed “based on accounts you interact with most, tweets you engage with, and much more.” While that “much more” is a closely guarded secret, and likely evolves constantly, Twitter also reveals that it may show tweets in your timeline—even from people you don’t follow—based on “a variety of signals” like “how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it.”
Some users—mostly those who log into the network less often—will also see a collection of what Twitter determines to be “the most interesting tweets you might not have seen” in a section called “In case you missed it,” which replaces the old “while you were away” section.
One interesting thing to keep in mind is that the Twitter algorithm is much more subtle than those used by Facebook and Instagram. And users can actually choose to turn the Twitter algorithmic timeline off entirely, reverting to a simple reverse chronological feed. All they have to do is switch off “Show me the best tweets first” under their account settings.
Even those with the Twitter algorithmic timeline turned on can see a fully reverse chronological timeline simply by refreshing their feed.
How does Twitter determine the algorithm?
While it is impossible to know all the details of a social network’s proprietary algorithm, here are some key elements we know to be included in the algorithm’s ranking mechanism.
This is one area where Twitter clearly reveals its hand—and it makes perfect sense. Twitter users who regularly engage with your account are likely to see more of your tweets. After all, they’re signaling every time they click on, like, reply to, or retweet one of your tweets that they find your account interesting and want to see more of what you post.
But Twitter users whose Twitter connections engage with you are also more likely to see your tweets, even if they don’t follow you themselves.
The Twitter algorithm also considers how much engagement each of your tweets gets compared to your other tweets. Your most engaging posts are more likely to be boosted than those with little engagement. And if your tweets become really popular across the network, the algorithm will prioritize them even further. High engagement is a sure sign of an interesting tweet, so this is an easy way for the Twitter algorithm to identify valuable content.
Note, though, that only organic engagement factors into the Twitter algorithm, so you can’t use promoted tweets to game this system.
If you only take one step to trying to increase your organic Twitter reach, it should be to increase engagement with your tweets (which, of course, also includes increasing your follower count). Luckily, we have a whole blog post dedicated to explaining how to do just that.
Twitter has indicated a commitment to remaining primarily a reverse chronological service. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made that commitment the clear focus of his response to the #RIPTwitter firestorm:
I *love* real-time. We love the live stream. It's us. And we're going to continue to refine it to make Twitter feel more, not less, live!
— jack (@jack) February 6, 2016
Look at "while you were away" at the top of your TL. Tweets you missed from people you follow. Pull to refresh to go back to real-time.
— jack (@jack) February 6, 2016
Twitter is live. Twitter is real-time. Twitter is about who & what you follow. And Twitter is here to stay! By becoming more Twitter-y.
— jack (@jack) February 6, 2016
That means while the Twitter algorithm boosts the content it judges to be most valuable, overall, tweets still appear in the reverse order to which they were posted. Even with the algorithm in place, it remains important to post at the best times to optimize engagement and reach.
Users who like and engage with Twitter videos will see more tweets that include videos. Users who like and engage with photos on Twitter will see more tweets with photos. And, you guessed it, users who like and engage with tweets that contain links will see more tweets with links.
Again, this is a clear way for the Twitter algorithm to understand what people want to see and give them more of precisely that.
The algorithm that determines what’s considered a trend on Twitter—and listed in the Trends panel—is partly based on location. Does the algorithm that determines what shows up first in your timeline also factor in location?
We can’t know for sure, but Dorsey implied it might when discussing the reasons behind the latest Twitter algorithm change in an interview with Fast Company: “It’s really showing what’s important in the world. What’s important around the topics you care about. And what’s happening around you, locally.”
How to improve your organic reach on Twitter
In addition to an overall focus on improving follower count and engagement, here are some specific actions you can take to help boost your organic reach on Twitter.
Use appropriate hashtags
From daily hashtags to trending topics, hashtags can make your tweets more easily discoverable by people who do not already follow your account. Twitter’s own research shows that tweets with hashtags get 16 percent more retweets.
Use photos and videos
Tweets with images generate 313 percent more engagement than those without. Tweets with videos get 2.5 times more replies, 2.8 times more retweets, and 1.9 times more favorites—which is why Twitter itself says that “video is particularly effective for increasing engagement.” Twitter also highlights polls and contests as high-engagement tweet types.
Keep in mind that the Twitter algorithm will surface posts with photos and videos for people who regularly engage with those kinds of tweets.
Use Twitter analytics to refine your strategy
Developing an effective and engaging Twitter strategy is all about testing, tweaking, and refining on the go. Using real data to learn which of your tweets are performing best allows you to boost engagement and reach over time as you begin to understand exactly how Twitter users want to interact with your brand.
We’ve got another blog post packed with Twitter best practices that can help boost engagement overall, which in turn leads to greater reach.
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