instagram algorithm

The "Instagram Ranking Explained" Explainer for Creators (+Advice)

Thanks to the platform's transparency, we’ve pulled a few key points about how the Instagram algorithm works and looked into how creators might benefit.

Jun 12, 2023 6 min readFlow
Photo of Tamilore Oladipo
Tamilore Oladipo

Content Writer @ Buffer

Most people’s understanding of algorithms is hand-wavy at best. Different experts will give you different answers, but the truth is only the people who build the algorithms truly understand them. That’s why this update from Instagram’s CEO, Adam Mosseri, about how ranking (a.k.a. The Algorithm™) works on the platform is such a big deal.

Thanks to the platform’s transparency, we’ve pulled a few key points and looked into how creators on the platform might benefit.

Key points about the Instagram algorithm

Did you know there’s no singular “algorithm” powering the app? Different parts of Instagram have different standards of how most people use it, so they all have different algorithms. As the article says, “People tend to look for their closest friends in Stories, use Explore to discover new content and creators, and be entertained in Reels.”

The platform has also added additional features within features (Close Friends in Stories, the different Favorites & Following feeds) to allow users to personalize their experience further.

This elementary introduction to the inner workings of the app is extended as the article shares more about how the algorithms of four of Instagram’s main features work.

Feed

First of all, the article reveals that in-feed content (the stuff you see once you open the Instagram app) is ranked, in rough order of importance, by:

  • Your activity. (What type of content do you regularly engage with? Do you comment on more posts? Are you a liker and leaver?)
  • Information about the post.
  • How popular it is and the location/time of post. (How many likes does the post have? When was it posted? Where was it posted from?)
  • Information about the poster.
  • Your interaction history with the poster. (Have you engaged with this person’s content before?)
  • Your preferred format. (Do you like more photos in carousels than videos? You’ll be served more of those)

Additionally, to clarify why even with all this, you may see content from people you don’t follow, the article also mentions that “With Feed, we consider recent posts shared by the people you follow [and engage with], as well as posts from accounts you don’t already follow that we think you might be interested in.”

Essentially what you see is not about who you follow, but what Instagram believes you will engage with based on your activity.

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Interacting with your followers is a great way to ensure they see your posts in your scroll

Stories

Have you ever wondered why specific Stories are so far behind no amount of right-tapping will let you see them? Well, Instagram Stories’ ranking might have the answer, they are prioritized by:

  • Viewing history. (Do you always open certain people’s Stories without fail?)
  • Engagement history. (Have you liked a Story or sent a DM through it to the poster in the past?)
  • Closeness. (Are you likely friends, family, or otherwise close with the poster?)
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Tag your audience if they show up in your Stories to signal closeness and encourage them to engage with your Story with visual cues like GIFs or stickers

Explore

The content on your Explore page is likely very different from mine – here’s why:

  • Information about the post with a focus on popularity. Popularity is determined by a high engagement rate or a quick flow of comments, likes, shares, and saves.
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Popularity matters way more in Explore than in Feed or Stories
  • Your past activity tells the Explore page algorithm which content you’ll see – so if you’ve ever gone on an endless scroll of back-to-back cozy gaming Reels, you know what to expect.
  • Your history of interacting with the poster, even if you don’t follow them.
  • Information about the poster.

Interestingly, the article mentions Instagram’s Recommendation Guidelines, which prevent content that may feature potentially offensive or sensitive content from showing up on the Instagram Explore page.

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Keep an eye on Instagram’s Recommendation Guidelines to make sure your content is never in violation.

Reels

Instagram Reels are, unsurprisingly, optimized for entertainment, and its algorithm prioritizes that. The article states that because most Reels come from accounts you follow, the ranking is similar to the Explore page as it determines what you might like, then serves it in order of how interesting you might find it.

  • Your activity (past likes, comments, saves, or reshared Reels).
  • Your history of interacting with the creator.
  • Info about the Reel, such as popularity, audio track, and visuals.
  • Info about who posted, such as their number of followers and level of engagement.

Also, to find which Reels are considered entertaining, you might see a survey or two asking whether you find a Reel interesting or worth your time. The algorithm learns from the feedback to better serve more relevant content.

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More than any other short-form video platform, Reels prioritizes aesthetically pleasing, snappy content that skews more entertaining than educational – something to remember as you repurpose or cross-post content

So, how can you take advantage of these ranking factors to succeed as an Instagram creator?

4 tips for creators to succeed in Instagram’s algorithm

Aside from providing a look at the factors that determine content rankings, here are some of the practical ways to apply this knowledge to your content creation process.

Engagement is the not-so-secret sauce for Instagram success

The update tells us that your audience's interactions with your content affect its ranking, particularly time spent on a post, comments, likes, and shares. And this applies across all the algorithms.

So, your posts should always encourage interaction. Make your audience feel like you’re speaking directly to them by personalizing your visuals and messaging. Or add a simple “like and comment” in your visuals or the caption.

Edit your content using the native, in-app tools

A particular phrase jumped out in the article, “[Instagram is] currently experimenting with new notifications to help creators understand when the reach of their reel may be limited due to a watermark, and plan to expand to more people as we learn what’s most effective.”

Offering that feature indicates that the algorithms are trained to spot things like watermarks and maybe even filters in a video. This doesn’t mean you must create a video from scratch every time you want to publish on any short-form platform. But you have to consider which platform is the highest priority, create your content there and publish everywhere else.

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You can edit out watermarks using this tool! Or better yet, download your TikToks without any watermarks directly from the app.

Use all the features available for your content

Instagram has many features and wants you to use as many of them for your content as possible. For example, in-Feed posts with tagged locations are one of the signals that its algorithm uses to rank content. And video content that uses trending audio is more easily spotted and boosted in the Reels algorithm.

Beyond that, even adding relevant hashtags can affect how your content is ranked. So, use the in-app editing tools (especially if Instagram is your primary platform), filters, and features (like the in-app green screen), and add any information that can help your post along.

You can also use Instagram’s collaboration feature to work with or highlight other creators and accounts, benefitting from each others’ audience and the algorithmic boost. The only feature you don't have to worry about is whether your account is a Creator or Business account – this doesn't affect your ranking, according to Instagram.

Stay within the guidelines

It’s cool to be a rebel – except when it comes to Instagram. It’s common to come across a post saying, “I think I’ve been shadowbanned.” Shadowbanning is when your engagement suddenly dips, and your audience says they don't see your content.

This drop in visibility and engagement could happen for any number of reasons but is usually because of a violation of either the Community Guidelines or the Recommendation Guidelines. You might have published content that can’t be recommended because it might be offensive or sensitive. And if your content is flagged enough times, it can affect the rest of your posts.

Thankfully, Instagram allows you to see one of the causes through its Account Status feature. A recent update means that you can now see if your account is eligible to be recommended or “Suggested” to non-followers. It also mentions that creators will be allowed more transparency into whether specific posts are eligible and offered the ability to edit or delete the content or appeal its exclusion.

Focus on creating original, engaging content – not gaming the algorithm

This updated look at the Instagram algorithm(s) is exciting but a flash in the pan for most creators. Instead of trying to appeal to the algorithm, focus on creating content relevant to your audience.

So instead of trying to create the content that any given algorithm is likely to prioritize, experiment with formats and check your Instagram analytics for broad trends. This will help you gauge what content is working based on how your audience is interacting with. And bonus, the more interactions you have on the content you enjoy creating, the better your chances of growing.

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