How does Instagram exactly work?
This question has left everyone puzzled including online marketers, ever since there was an introduction of the Instagram algorithm in July of 2016.
In the first 6 years since its launch, Instagram was a simple platform with reverse-chronological posts in the feed from the accounts every user followed. When you signed in to Instagram then, you would see the most recent posts first and it never mattered whether they were from your favorite brand or your best friend.
Instagram algorithm introduction was with the aim to aid serve each Instagram user with the most pertinent content every time they logged in to check their feeds. Research has it that with the algorithm, Instagram users see 90% of the posts from family and friends compared to the 50% before.
Up until recently, the inner-workings of Instagram feeds had remained a puzzle to be filled. However, for the first time, Instagram decided to share 8 key ranking factors publicly, that they have used on Instagram.
In this guide, we are going to break down everything you need to know about your Instagram feed. Additionally, we have outlined the factors that influence your content ranking and we will explain why the algorithm is truly impeccable for any online marketers.
How Does The Algorithm Work?
Instagram has openly explained that there are 3 primary factors, which determine the content every user sees in their feeds. They include; Interest, Relationship, and Timeliness.
Additionally, there are 5 other criteria that play small but very critical parts in your Instagram feed rankings. They include; Frequency, Time spent, Following, Direct shares, and Usage.
Starting with the 3 main factors we will discuss more details below.
Refers to the level to which Instagram will predict how much you care about a certain post in your feed. When Instagram announced the algorithm, they mentioned that as a user, you are more likely to see content that probably fits in your interests.
‘’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’’
The most pertinent content that you are interested in will rank higher on your Instagram feed. You could be wondering how Instagram finds out your interests. Here is how. Instagram has been able observe the genres of the content you have interacted with before. Once again, any curious user would ask themselves how Instagram does that.
As there has been a breakthrough in photo-recognition technologies and tools, they have taken social media marketing to a completely new level. As a user or online marketer, you should believe that it is possible for the Instagram algorithm to group Instagram posts into categories like fashion, food travel and probably even more refined categories by now. The algorithm can also consider the hashtags users put on the posts.
If there is a specific category of content that you have been engaging in more often, let’s say travel, Instagram will rank content of the same genre like hotels and tours higher on your feed.
The ranking of the posts is not for popularity contests though, as explained by one of Instagram’s spokespersons to Business Insider. That said, posts that are more relevant, regardless of having less engagement, would still appear exactly at the topmost part of your Instagram feed.
Timeliness can also be referred to as ‘Recency’. This is how fresh your posts are. As suggested by Instagram, it is one of the main ingredients in Instagram algorithms.
“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”.
One of the Instagram’s core aims is to show you the most recent posts, and as a result, more relevancy. For instance, you might not be interested in something from last month like you would in something from a few minutes ago. For that reason, recent post rather than posts from weeks ago are more likely to appear on your Instagram feed regardless of if the older post received more engagement.
The bottom line is, recent posts will rank higher in your Instagram feed and timeliness really matters. Thomas Dimson, one of Instagram’s very own confirmed that the algorithm normally re-orders fresh posts between your previous and current visit. You can also experience that from your daily Instagram activities.
For illustration, if you last visited your Instagram feed yesterday and 30 posts were made in between, Instagram algorithm sorts the 50 new posts in order of time, if you visited your account today. Your feed will not show the posts from the other day not until you see the 50 recent posts.
This means that the ideal time to post on Instagram, is the time when most of your followers are active. Most of them will be able to see your post as soon as you are done as illustrated with the image above.
Refers to the accounts you interact with more often. When Instagram announced the ranking algorithms back then in June, 2016, they stated that:
“And no matter how many accounts you follow, you should see your best friend’s latest posts.”
In similar terms with Facebook, Instagram also wants users to grab every opportunity by seeing posts from their family and friends. Maybe your friend just got engaged, you were busy and did not get the opportunity to see how it went down. Once they post on Instagram, you are more likely to see the post regardless of you not being active on Instagram when they post it.
You might be wondering how Instagram knows who is your best friend and who is not. The algorithm will study your previous interactions to decide who will be your Instagram’s ‘best friends’. Your ‘best friends’ in this context does not really mean your best friends in real life. Yes, it could be, but ‘best friends’ is used here to describe the people you interact most with on Instagram.
We can also put it like, ‘Best friends’ are the people you most care about on Instagram. They could also be Instagram users whose content you do like (could be from what the post including live videos and stories). Sometimes, these are people you always ‘search’ for on Instagram. Last but not least, they could be the people you ‘direct message’ most. The content from these people’s accounts is most likely to rank higher on your feed.
As confirmed by one of the Instagram’s spokespersons by Business Insider, your profile searches send signals to the algorithm and that is what exactly ranks posts in the Instagram feeds. If you search for specific profiles more often, it shows that you are more likely than not interested in the posts they create on their feed.
The algorithm will, therefore, rank their posts on your feed higher than any other posts so that you will not have to keep searching their profiles to see what they post. This improves your experience on Instagram, doesn’t it?
Thomas Dimson, Instagram’s very own confirmed during his talk that after experiments with the newly incorporated algorithm, statistics show that the total number of searches has gradually gone down. That sent positive signals that users are now seeing more posts that engrosses them without having to worry about hitting that search button.
Additional Feed Ranking Factors
Frequency refers to the number of times you visit/sign in to your Instagram account. Every time you open your Instagram, the algorithm tries to surface you with the most pertinent posts since your previous visit.
If you normally open your Instagram once in a day, you are more likely to see posts that the algorithm thinks are relevant to you for that day. However, if you happen to be an active Instagram user all the time, you will most likely come across new posts you have not seen yet.
If you follow many Instagram accounts, the algorithm will try and sort through more content for it to decide what will pop up on your feed when you open your app. That means, Instagram users who follow thousands of people on Instagram, could see more posts in general, but fewer posts from individual accounts.
However, on the other hand, if you follow a few people, the algorithm has little content to work with. This means you will have little posts in general, but you will be able to see most posts from individual accounts.
3. Time Spent
Refers to the duration you usually spent viewing a post. Just like Facebook, Instagram feed shares same algorithms with both having the aim to display posts in the feed that you most likely than not care about.
Facebook had initially discovered that when users spent a meaningfully good time on a certain post in any News Feed, more than other posts, then that is a sign of relevant content to them. To be more specific, Facebook said:
“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”.
While there is no confirmation about this factor being used for Instagram, it would not be a surprise if Instagram decided to include this algorithm. That is why you will more likely get similar posts on your feed like the ones you spent most of your time on.
Refers to how long a user spends on Instagram. The length is measured in short and long burst sessions that the user makes while surfing through the Instagram feeds. If as a user, you usually prefer short visits, the algorithm will make sure you see posts that are relevant first.
On the other hand, users who like longer surfing periods could get a quite deeper catalog of new content on their feeds to surf.
5. Direct Shares
Instagram made it quite easy for users to re-share posts they view on their feed with their followers. According to Instagram on Business Insider, direct sharing is another way Instagram observes to comprehend what really falls in the line with what interests you. It is done in two ways.
First, by sharing other people’s post, it portrays a picture of your interest in their general posts. The algorithm will automatically consider this, and will rank the more posts from the same account on your feed.
Secondly, the Instagram algorithms will consider the users you shared the post with. If we have to travel back to our third primary key ranking factor –relationship, the action of sharing a certain post with others automatically sends signals that you really care about them. That makes it easy for the Instagram to rank the posts of people you share your post with, higher on your feed.
Myth-busting Insights you need to know
Generally, the eight key ranking features of the Instagram algorithm is what has been revealed so far. However, it is also important to understand instances where the algorithms do not work. Instagram busted some myths revolving around the algorithm and the platform in general.
1. There Is Never a Shadow-Ban
Initially, there have been rumors going around that Instagram would block accounts for using repetitive or too many hashtags. The worst part was that once blocked you would not get any notifications regarding the block, hence the word ‘shadow-ban’.
However, during press briefings, Instagram confirmed that nothing of the sort exists. In fact, to quote they said ‘’ you’ll see everything posted by everyone you follow if you keep scrolling’’
It is still very important to use the hashtags responsibly and authentically nevertheless. Lest you use use too many unnecessary hashtags on a single post.Use hashtags that are only relevant to your post/content. In addition, you should not buy followers or even use bots for posting comments.
2. Frequent Posters Are Not Down-ranked
Posting more often will not down-rank your account. However, if you post most times in succession, other users content will most likely separate your posts rather than them appearing in order.
Additionally, you cannot be sure if your followers will view all your posts. Even if they do, you will not even be sure they will see them in the chronological order of your posting.
If you will be sharing many photos, consider amalgamating them into a single post or even use Instagram Stories.
3. Videos Do Not Rank Higher
Initially, most users thought that posting most videos would boost the placement of your content on Instagram. Instagram later confirmed that those were mere rumors and not true at all.
In fact, across the platform, the algorithms treat videos and photos equally. However, users who spend more time watching and engaging in video content will see more videos in the feed. The same case happens to people who focus on photos.
For this reason, as an Instagram user, you should always understand what type of content your followers like. This will make you deliver the relevant content that will align with their line of interest.
4. Using Instagram Stories Will Not Boost Your Ranking
According to Instagram’s product designer Christina d’Avignon on Redcode, using more of applications than others will not favor any accounts whatsoever. To quote, she said, “ We don’t favor accounts that use different parts of the app more than others. The only way to get your content higher ranked is to produce great content.”
Therefore, you can only use the Stories and live videos to boost your overall engagement while at the same time sending a powerful relationship and interest goals.
5. Verified & Business Accounts Do Not Rank Higher
Most people tend to think that once your account is verified, you will be ranked higher. That is not the case. According to d’Avignon, every Instagram user is treated the same way.
“We treat everyone the same,” she said on an interview with Redcode
However, a business account will give the user access to special features that are not available to users of personal accounts. As explained before , the tools which access the Instagram analytics and also allows you to run Instagram ads are very important but are only available for business accounts.
If you want to market your products perfectly, you should consider switching your personal account to business account.
6. The Chronological Feed is Gone for Good
Most people have not moved on with the fact that the reverse-chronological feed is gone and gone for good. They still hope it will be back and become an option. Maybe that could be put into consideration at some point but as it stands, Instagram confirmed that algorithm and the ONLY algorithm is here to stay.
Why Instagram Algorithm is Ideal for Marketers
The amount of Instagram users grows every new day and that means the number of daily posts will rise as well.
As a user, the more people you follow on Instagram, the more the total number of posts you will see on your feed. Naturally, this means that the impression of each post will definitely fall, unless all Instagram users spend more time on the platform browsing and looking for more additional posts.
The reality of the matter is that not all users see new posts when they visit Instagram. Research and studies done by Instagram observed that users did not reach out to up to 70% of posts on their Instagram feeds. The study also revealed that users missed 50% of posts from their friends averagely. This was before they came up with the algorithm.
However, reports show that after incorporation of the algorithm into the platform, all active users see 90% of their friend’s post. That is quite a positive change putting in mind that Instagram boasts of approximately a billion plus users and more than half of them are active and make daily posts on their feeds.
As a user, if you keep posting relevant, engaging, and timely content, the algorithm will be very advantageous for you. This will help you stretch out to more followers than initially when posts were arranged chronologically.
If we look at it from another perspective: without the algorithm, one fast way to get the attention of the followers would be to have multiple posts in a day. Suppose all brands follow this kind of strategy, the total number of posts on Instagram would dramatically rise. This will in turn proportionally decrease the organic reach of any post regardless of it being a valuable post.
With the algorithm introduced, brands have been motivated to post what is purported to be their only best content. Brands that have the most quality content overall will attract attention with ease now, more than initially, before algorithm.
An Extra Tip For You
The Explore feed on Instagram uses a certain algorithm that displays the content basing on Instagram users’ past behaviors and interests. This is the best place to observe and learn more about relevant content to help you stretch out to more people.
How to Make Instagram Algorithm Work in Your Favor
- Create great content
- Know your followers
- Stay engaged
- Write encouraging captions
- Make it clear what your post is all about
- Let your followers know how to turn on their notifications for your account
Wrapping It Up
Instagram marketing is one of the most ever-changing topics and that makes it more exciting. Instagram algorithms ever since their introduction have made a significant impact on Instagram. That said, many brands have found a way to make the algorithm work in their favor regardless of having had breakthrough strategies before the introduction of algorithms back then in 2016.
A small number of brands experienced a drop of organic reach to their followers but generally, the algorithms have revolutionized Instagram marketing to a completely new level.