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Understanding the Instagram Algorithm: 7 Key Factors and Why the Algorithm is Great for Marketers

The Instagram algorithm, just like the Facebook News Feed algorithm, is so mysterious yet ingenious and brilliant in showing the best content to the most people.

If you are creating great content, more followers — and non-followers — are going to see it.

But how does the Instagram algorithm work?

In this post, we’ll break it all down for you. We’ll go through the factors that could influence the ranking of your content on your followers’ feed and explain why the Instagram algorithm is actually great for marketers.

Let’s go!

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Understanding the Instagram Algorithm to Boost Your Organic Reach

How does the Instagram algorithm work?

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The short answer is… it’s complicated. ?

While we might not know exactly how the Instagram algorithm works, I’d love to help you decipher the mysterious Instagram algorithm (as much as I can). I dug into several sources and distilled my findings into the following seven key factors.

Here’s a quick overview of the seven key factors we’ll go through below:

  1. Engagement: How popular the post is
  2. Relevancy: The genres of content you are interested in and have interacted with
  3. Relationships: The accounts you regularly interact with
  4. Timeliness: How recent the posts are
  5. Profile Searches: The accounts you check out often
  6. Direct Shares: Whose posts you are sharing
  7. Time Spent: The duration spent viewing a post

Instagram Algorithm Factors

Let’s dive in!

1. Engagement: How popular the post is

According to Michael Stelzner, CEO and Founder of Social Media Examiner, when a person or brand publishes a post, social media algorithms would typically show the post to a sample audience and see how the audience react to it. If the audience reacts positively to the post right away, the algorithm would show the post to more people.

This implies that a post with more engagement is likely going to rank higher on your Instagram feed. The types of engagement that the Instagram algorithm considers can include likes, comments, video views, shares (via direct message), saves, story views, and live video views.

If someone you follow has engaged with a post, too, Instagram might also assume that you could be interested in that post and included it within your feed.

Here’s the great news: An Instagram spokesperson told Business Insider that ranking of Instagram posts will not be a popularity contest. Posts with less engagement but which are more relevant to you can still appear right at the top of your feed.

2. Relevancy: The genres of content you are interested in and have interacted with

When the algorithmic timeline was annouced, Instagram mentioned that it would show you content that you’ll likely 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.

This implies that content that is relevant to your interests will likely rank higher on your feed. But how does Instagram know your interests? One way could be to look at the genres of content (e.g. travel, food, fashion, sports, etc.) you have interacted with in the past.

With the level of photo recognition technologies available now, I believe it’s possible for the algorithm to categorize posts into simple genres such as travel, food, fashion, and more — and possibly even more sophisticated genres. The algorithm could also look at the hashtags used.

If there’s a certain genre of content that you engage with more frequently (e.g. food), Instagram might rank content of that genre (e.g. food, restaurants, etc.) higher on your feed.

3. Relationships: The accounts you regularly interact with

In its second announcement about the new feed, Instagram stated the following:

And no matter how many accounts you follow, you should see your best friend’s latest posts.

Just like Facebook, 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 ranks higher on your feed.

Since Instagram is owned by Facebook, Instagram could use data from Facebook to determine your relationships — family, friends, schoolmates, colleagues, etc.

I also believe that the Instagram algorithm studies your past interactions to determine your “best friends”. In a talk about designing and implementing the Instagram algorithm, Thomas Dimson, a software engineer at Instagram, shared how they could have determined the people you care about:

  • People whose content you like (possibly including stories and live videos)
  • People you direct message
  • People you search for
  • People you know in real life

While these might not be the exact criteria used in the Instagram algorithm, they give us a hint that Instagram probably considers the accounts you frequently interact with as “people you care about”. And it would rank their content higher on your feed.

4. Timeliness: How recent the posts are

The next key ingredient in the Instagram algorithm, as suggested by Instagram, is timeliness.

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 wants to show you posts that are recent and, consequently, more relevant.

Something from last week might not interest you as much as something from an hour ago, so Instagram will likely show you more recent posts rather than posts from a few days or weeks ago — even if the older post had received a lot of engagement.

This implies that recent posts likely rank higher in your feed and that the timing of your post is still relevant.

According to Thomas’s talk and my personal experience (admittedly, a sample size of only one), it seems that the Instagram algorithm re-orders only the new posts between your current visit and your last visit.

For example, I visited Instagram at 11 PM last night and again at 9 AM this morning, and there were 50 posts created in between. The algorithm would sort only those 50 posts created and not include posts from before 11 PM last night. Based on my personal experience, if I were to scroll past all those 50 posts, I’d see the same posts in the same order as when I last visited (11 PM last night).

(If your personal experience is different from this, it’d be great to hear from you!)

If this is true, it could mean that the best time to post is when your followers are most active as there would be less competition (e.g. between 9 to 10 AM in the image below).

Feed sorted only within vists

(Image from Thomas’s slide deck)

5. Profile Searches: The accounts you check out often

An Instagram spokesperson said to Business Insider that profile searches are a signal Instagram looks at when ranking posts in your feed. When you search (regularly) for certain profiles, it likely indicates that you are interested in the account’s posts and might not have seen them on your feed.

Instagram might then rank their posts higher on your feed so that you don’t have to search for their profiles to see their posts, improving your Instagram experience.

Thomas from Instagram also mentioned in his talk that when they experimented with the new algorithm, the number of searches went down. They took it as a good sign as it meant that people are seeing the posts they are interested in without having to search for their favorite profiles.

6. Direct Shares: Whose posts you are sharing

Instagram has made it really easy for users to share a post they see on their feed with their friends. According to the Business Insider article, direct shares through Instagram is also another signal Instagram looks at to understand your interests.

There are two parts to this. One, sharing a post shows that you are probably interested in the posts by that account. The Instagram algorithm would then consider this when ranking posts on your feed.

Two, it sounds like Instagram would also consider the people you have shared the post with. Going back to factor two, relationships, the act of sharing a post with another person informs Instagram that you care about the person so Instagram might rank her posts higher on your feed.

7. Time Spent: The duration spent viewing a post

It’s possible that the Instagram feed algorithm shares some similarities with the Facebook News Feed algorithm since the aim of both algorithms is to show you the posts that you care about the most.

Facebook discovered that if “people spend significantly more time on a particular story in News Feed than the majority of other stories they look at, this is a good sign that content was relevant to them”, even if they didn’t like or comment on it. More specifically, Facebook said the following:

Based on the fact that you didn’t scroll straight past this post and it was on the screen for more time than other posts that were in your News Feed, we infer that it was something you found interesting and we may start to surface more posts like that higher up in your News Feed in the future.

If this factor is included in the Instagram algorithm, when you spend more time on an Instagram post than other posts, Instagram will surface posts similar to that Instagram post higher up on your feed.

While there isn’t confirmation about this factor, it wouldn’t be surprising if Instagram included this factor in its algorithm.

8. Others

There are probably a whole bunch of other signals that the Instagram algorithm considers, and the algorithm changes constantly to give its users the best experience possible. (For context, Facebook’s algorithm takes into account hundreds of factors.)

Stef Lewandowski of Makelight put together a list of other signals that the algorithm might consider:

  • How regularly you open the app
  • How regularly you post
  • How many likes an image has in total
  • What an image’s recent like-rate is
  • How old the image is
  • Whether the post is a video
  • Whether an image is from a “business” account versus a personal one
  • How active the image poster has been today – how many comments and likes have they made?
  • How many of an image poster’s images you’ve commented on or liked recently
  • How many hashtags the image has

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Why is the new algorithm great for marketers?

As the number of users on Instagram increases, the number of posts will likely increase, too.

When users follow more people, the number of posts in their feed will increase. The natural result of this is that the impressions (or organic reach) of each post will fall — unless every user spends more time on Instagram looking at all the additional posts.

The reality is that people usually don’t see all the new posts when they visit Instagram. A study by Instagram themselves found that, on average, users miss 70 percent of the posts on their feeds when the posts were arranged in a reverse-chronological order.

But as long as you are creating engaging, relevant, and timely content, the algorithm is actually an advantage to you. It will help to surface your great content to more of your followers than when posts were arranged reverse-chronologically.

Instagram Algorithm - Feed Before and After

(Graphic inspired by Thomas’s slide)

Here’s another way to look at it: Without this algorithm, one quick way to get your Instagram followers’ attention would be to post many times a day. If most brands follow this strategy, the number of Instagram posts would increase dramatically, and the organic reach of each post would fall proportionally — even if it’s a quality post.

With this algorithm, brands are encouraged to post only their best content, and the quality of their content will determine their reach. Brands with the best content overall will stand out more easily now than without the algorithm.

Here’s a bonus: The Explore tab also uses an algorithm to surface content based on the user’s interests and past behaviors. It is another brilliant way for your great content to reach more people!

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10 ways to increase your Instagram organic reach

While the Instagram algorithm might be rather mysterious and complicated, it is a brilliant way to help brands with great content reach more of their followers than before.

Once you have learned about the Instagram algorithm, we thought you might be interested in getting some actionable tips to increase your organic reach through the algorithm. If you want the tips, simply hit the button below:

Get the tips now

It’d also be great to learn from your experience as I’m sure I’m missing many other key factors of the Instagram algorithm. What other factors do you think the Instagram algorithm considers when ranking posts?


You might also enjoy these Instagram marketing resources:
How Instagram Stories Work: A Powerful New Way to Engage
Instagram for Business: 30 Tips to Grow Your Audience and Stand Out on Instagram
Instagram Ads: The Incredible How-To Guide with FAQ and Tips

Image credit: Unsplash

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