Buffer Marketing Library Instagram Marketing

How the Instagram Algorithm Works in 2021: Everything You Need to Know

Alfred Lua
Alfred Lua Product Marketer @ Buffer
How the Instagram Algorithm Works in 2021: Everything You Need to Know
Summary

10 min read
You will learn

Summary

We’ll break down the Instagram feed for you. We’ll go through the factors that influence the ranking of your content and explain why the Instagram algorithm is actually great for marketers.

You will learn

  • The most important ranking factors of the Instagram algorithm
  • Answers to Instagram's frequently-asked algorithm questions
  • A marketer's approach to sharing content in the IG feed

The Instagram algorithm was introduced to help surface the best, most relevant content to each user every time they check their Instagram feed. The question is — how does Instagram determine which content meets that criteria?

In this post, we’ll dig into the factors that influence the Instagram algorithm and share tips for increasing your chances of getting your content on more people’s Instagram timelines.

How does the Instagram algorithm work? The 6 key ranking factors

If you’re wondering why there always seems to be a new Instagram algorithm, it’s because the algorithm uses machine learning to customize what shows up in each person’s Instagram feed. The Instagram Explore page works in the same way — it looks at the accounts you have interacted with before and uses those interactions to suggest content it thinks you might enjoy.

But the Instagram algorithm considers so much more than that. Instagram revealed there are six factors that determine what you see in your Instagram feed: interest, timeliness, relationship, frequency, following, and usage.

1. Interest: How much Instagram predicts you’ll care about a post

When the algorithmic timeline was announced, Instagram mentioned that it shows you content that you’re likely to be interested in first:

“The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.”

Instagram looks at your past activity to gauge your potential interest. So, if there’s a certain genre of content that you engage with more frequently (e.g., food), Instagram might rank content in that genre (e.g., food, restaurants, etc.) higher on your feed.

An Instagram spokesperson told Business Insider that ranking of Instagram posts is not a popularity contest. Posts with less engagement that are more relevant to you can still appear right at the top of your feed.

2. Timeliness: How recent the posts are

The next key ingredient in the Instagram algorithm is timeliness. Instagram wants to show you posts that are recent and, consequently, more relevant.

According to a talk from Instagram’s Thomas Dimson, the Instagram algorithm re-orders only the new posts between your current visit and your last visit. For example, if you scroll through your Instagram timeline at 11 pm and then check it again at 9 am the next morning, Instagram would only sort the posts created in between your check-ins.

3. Relationship: The accounts you regularly interact with

Instagram doesn’t want you to miss important posts from your friends and family, such as a post about your friend’s engagement. This implies that content from your “best friends” likely rank higher on your feed.

To determine who your best friends are, Instagram’s algorithm studies your past interactions to see which accounts you engage with most often.

An Instagram spokesperson also told Business Insider that profile searches are a signal Instagram looks at when ranking posts in your feed.

4. Frequency: How often a user opens Instagram

Every time a user opens up the app, the Instagram algorithm tries to show the best posts since their last visit.

If you open Instagram once daily, you see the posts that Instagram’s algorithm feels are the most relevant for that day. However, if you open Instagram hourly, the app tries to show you the most relevant content you haven’t seen before.

5. Following: Content from all accounts a user follows

If you follow thousands of accounts on Instagram, the algorithm must sort through more content in order to decide what to show you each time you open up the app. This means users who follow large numbers of people might see less from each individual account, whereas users who follow just a few select accounts are likely to see more from their closest friends or favorite accounts.

6. Usage: How long a user spends on Instagram

Whether a user tends to browse Instagram in short bursts or longer sessions can also affect what the algorithm shows. If a user prefers short visits on Instagram, the algorithm ensures it shows the most relevant posts first, whereas, for users who prefer longer browsing sessions, it may provide a deeper catalog of fresh content to browse.

Why the Instagram algorithm is a good thing

Social media managers often try to figure out how to beat the Instagram algorithm when they should be leaning into it. Instead of sharing Instagram algorithm hacks that don’t help you in the long-term, let’s talk about why the Instagram algorithm is actually great for users and marketers alike.

When social media platforms move away from a chronological feed, there’s always a public outcry. But chronological feeds aren’t as great as you think. The Instagram creators account reports that “since switching to a ranked feed, the average post is now seen by 50% more followers than it did with the chronological model.”

The Instagram algorithm change to a ranked feed is a win-win. With the help of machine learning, the algorithm ensures that users see content they’re most likely to be interested in, and that means business accounts get more targeted audiences.

As long as you are creating engaging, relevant, and timely content, the Instagram algorithm is actually an advantage to you. It helps to get your great content in front of more people than when posts were arranged reverse-chronologically.

Instagram Algorithm - Feed Before and After
Graphic inspired by Thomas Dimson’s presentation

Instagram algorithm FAQs

Are photos or videos preferred by the Instagram algorithm?

In short, no. Instagram doesn’t give extra weight to either videos or photos within its feed. However, if the data shows that a certain user prefers to engage with videos over photos, then that specific user may see more video content in their feed.

Does posting too frequently impact ranking?

Instagram accounts aren’t down-ranked for posting content frequently. Though Christina d’Avignon, a product designer for Instagram feed, did tell The Verge: “we do make sure your feed feels diverse so we may break up posts.”

Are business and personal accounts treated differently by the algorithm?

As reported by Techcrunch: “Instagram doesn’t give extra feed presence to personal accounts or business accounts, so switching won’t help your reach.”

Will posting Stories or Live videos affect ranking?

Creating Instagram Stories or live broadcasting with Instagram won’t affect how your content ranks within the feed.

5 Ways to make the Instagram algorithm work for you

Instead of telling you how to beat the Instagram algorithm, below we'll explain how to lean into it and use it to your advantage.

1. Embrace the latest features

Driving the adoption of new features is important for Instagram, so it makes newer features more prominent in the app. It’s important to note that this does not mean that the Instagram algorithm automatically favors any specific post type. It does, however, give new features a prime location, such as putting Instagram Stories at the very top of the screen or, more recently, moving the Instagram Reels icon to the center of your menu bar.

2. Vary your post types

Using a variety of post types — single image, carousel posts, IGTV, Reels, Stories, and Lives — is key to successfully navigating the Instagram algorithm.

It’s a common misconception that the Instagram algorithm favors video over photos. In reality, the algorithm will favor whatever each individual user interacts with the most. For example, if someone tends to like and comment on Instagram Reels more often than on other post types, Instagram’s algorithm will favor Reels for that person.

It’s a common misconception that Instagram favors video over photos. In reality, the algorithm will favor whatever individual user interacts with the most.

Sharing your content in different forms helps you reach a wider range of people. Plus, it’s a great way to repurpose your content. Not everyone watches a video, so you can turn your video content into a carousel post. Or you can appeal to Instagram Stories lovers by re-sharing feeds posts in your Stories.

Below you can see how we've been making an effort to diversify the post types we use on Buffer's Instagram account:

A mix of IGTV, carousels, Reels, and single-image posts in Buffer's Instagram feed.

3. Post at the best times for your business

Timeliness is one of the key algorithm ranking factors. But there's no one-size-fits-all best time to post on Instagram.

To find your best time to post, you need to consider two things:

  1. When your greatest number of followers are active on the platform
  2. When your brand is most relevant for them.

This two-pronged approach is something Emma Ward, marketing manager for the New England smoothie bar The Juicery, has down to a tee.

Emma will post about promotions, or news when most of its followers are online and she'll post about The Juicery's products first thing in the morning (around 7.30-8 a.m.) when they are most relevant to its followers’ daily schedules.

If you're looking to uncover the best time to post specifically for your business, Buffer's Answers feature gives you three posting time suggestions so that you can schedule your Instagram posts and maximize your reach.

Buffer's Answers feature uses data from your previous posts and followers' activity to calculate your best times to post.

This is one of Emma's favorite Buffer features, “The predictive ‘best time to post’ feature in Buffer's analytics is a game-changer," she says. "Especially for my smaller accounts, I really look to this tool to see suggested times based on when our followers are online and when they’re engaged.”

4. Create a hashtag strategy

Because users can search for and even follow hashtags, adding them to each post increases your chances of reaching a wider audience. Plus, studies show that posts with hashtags receive higher engagement than those without.

Save time with Buffer Hashtag Manager, which allows you to save groups of hashtags to easily add to posts later with the Instagram first comment feature. With our Hashtag Manager, you can create unique groups of hashtags for themes you use often. For instance, a shoe company like Luna Sneakers might have separate hashtag groups for their running shoes versus their fashion sneakers.

Buffer’s Hashtag Manager allows you to create and save groups of hashtags to add to Instagram posts.

Branded hashtags — like #lovemylunas and #lunarunning — are a great way to keep your company on people’s minds. Branded hashtags not only help with brand awareness, but they also make it easy for you to find customer-produced content.

4. Focus on authentic engagement

Instagram’s algorithm rewards engagement. So, instead of wasting energy on Instagram algorithm hacks that only give you short-term results, focus on the connections you build with your audience.

Make sure you reply to direct messages and comments on your posts. The more you interact with your fans, the better.

But it’s really easy to miss new comments among the likes, follows, and mention notifications on Instagram. To help, Buffer has engagement features that surface any unanswered comments on your Instagram posts and help you to quickly reply to as many comments as possible.

Another simple way to encourage engagement is to use interactive stickers, such as polls, questions, and sliding scale rankings, on your Instagram Stories. And don’t forget about user-generated content. People love seeing their own photos or videos shared on brand pages.

Snack company Pipcorn lets customers sing their praises by re-sharing customer content in their Instagram Stories.

5. Use analytics to see what's working

As we mentioned above, Instagram has shared: “The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content."

And one of the best ways to understand what your audience enjoys seeing and is interested in is to dig into your Instagram analytics data.

Using Instagram Insights you can check out which of your posts have had the most interactions. You can also sort posts by most comments, likes and saves too if you'd like to dig into more specific engagement metrics.

With Instagram Insights you can sort posts by various engagement metrics.

Buffer's analytics will also help you to uncover your highest-engagement posts in just a few clicks:

Recent Instagram posts sorted by Engagement Rate in Buffer.

Once you have a list of your most engaging Instagram posts you can start to identify what commonalities they might have. For example:

  • What types of posts are they?
  • What's the style of the creative?
  • How is the caption structured?

With this data, you can begin to reverse engineer what your audience is most likely to engage with and build a strategy to help get the most out of Instagram's algorithm.

Instagram’s algorithm is all about providing the best experience

If you focus on building connections with your audience and producing great content, you don’t need to worry about Instagram updates and Instagram algorithm changes.

“Authenticity and transparency are key to building sustainable engagement on Instagram,” says the Instagram Creators account, “Trying to game the system may provide a short-term benefit, but it is not a recipe for success long term...Make sure that you are creating content that is keeping your followers and community engaged and constantly coming back for more!”

Ready to level up your Instagram marketing? Get started with a free Buffer account.

A version of this post was originally published in April 2017 and updated in 2019. This version has been updated to reflect Instagram updates in 2021.

Brought to you by

Did you find this article helpful? You might also like our all-you-need social media toolkit.

Get started for free now
On this page
Try Buffer for free
Brought to you by

The all-you-need social media toolkit

160,000+ small businesses like yours use Buffer to build their brand on social media every month

Sign up for free
  • No credit card required
  • Cancel anytime