How the Instagram Algorithm REALLY works

When Instagram changed their feed from a chronological one to an algorithm based one in 2016, the reasoning was so that the user could see the accounts that matter to them. 

Instagram is focused on the USER. 

But that left a lot of influencers scrambling to figure out how to get their content seen by their followers. Before the change, you had just as much chance at being seen as an account larger than you. ( For example: if an account followed you and you had 10 followers and another had 500,000, if you posted first, that account would see you first because the timeline was chronological).

Now, Instagram’s algorithm is based primarily on YOU. Your history, your likes, your interactions.

How the Algorithm Works

The algorithm is actually a series of algorithms - basically mathematical formulas that analyze your behavior in the app and use this info to show you posts that you will like. This system works throughout the app, including search, explore, hashtags and the accounts it recommends that you follow.  

The results is that some posts get more “exposure” than others based on how interesting the algorithm views them as. If the algorithm decides that your post is not interesting, then that post can become basically invisible on your follower’s feeds. 



Because Instagram’s main goal is always to keep users on the account as long as humanly possible. 


Things that influence the algorithm

The first key to understanding and working with the algorithm is to understand what the algorithm is looking at and why.  

Instagram is looking for  'Quality and relevance.'

The goal is to place posts that each individual user is most likely to enjoy at the top of their feeds. 

Instagram is also using all of those demographics that you fill out when you sign up for an account to good use. Like a post about babies would do well for women who like other posts about children. But not so well for a teenage boy who basically likes fast car photos. 

Remember the last module when we talked about knowing who your audience is? THIS is why!!

 So what things do we KNOW that we can do to get our content seen, shared and engaged with?

  • Engagement within the first minutes the post is published. How popular your post is with the people who are first shown it in their timeline or Explore - in terms of likes, comments, saves, shares and clicks.
  • How old the post is. Newer content is seen as more relevant, so as the hours pass, your post is shown to fewer and fewer accounts.
  • Your account stats. This includes things like: how many DMs did you get today? How many comments have you had within the last 24 hours on your posts? How many clicks, follows, unfollows, emails? How active have you been?
  • The Users’ account stats. Do they check the app often? How often have they engaged with your content before? How recently? Yesterday? Last Week? How many of their friends have seen your posts? Did they search for you? Have they ever saved one of your posts?  
  • Percentage of followers who are inactive/spam accounts. A larger number of inactive followers means an increased risk that your photo won't be seen. If the algorithm initially shows 10% of your following your image, and half of them aren't genuine, you're immediately at a disadvantage.
  • Performance of past postsIf you've recently had several posts perform really well to a group ( say moms) Instagram will expose you more to that group.

  • Time spend on post/profile/stories. People who spend a lot of time on your post pages, or on posts similar to yours, are more likely to be shown your posts.
  • Visual data. Instagram uses DNN (deep neural network) technology to try and digitally 'read' a photo and get an idea of what's shown. It can spot faces, colors, patterns, shapes.  
  • Meta data. This is all the data contained within your photographs, as recorded by your camera - when it was taken, where, what sort of camera you used, how you edited it.  

  • Number of clicks. It seems that as important as actual engagement in the first hour is the number of actual clicks. This might be he number of people who see your post on Explore or a Hashtag grid and click through from there - without reading the caption or knowing who posted it. This sort of engagement suggests a photograph is genuinely interesting, and is much more difficult to fake or buy.
  • "Authentic communication". Facebook already does this, prioritizing posts they see as informative or entertaining above all else. The same is happening on the gram with posts using the hashtags like #sponsored or #ad being suppressed by the algorithm.  
  • Time spent by viewers on post. The longer you keep them looking/reading, the more sure IG is that a post is genuine.
  • Your engagement with others. Instagram makes judgements about what you post based on what content you interact with. If you like a lot of posts about beauty, Instagram assumes you post about beauty too. If you however post about Travel, that can get confusing for the algorithm. 
  • Captions, tags, @-mentions, location tagsAll clues to help the algorithm understand what you're sharing.
  • Which hashtags are used. Who else frequently uses these tags, how these tags overlap, how often the same tag is used.

So what does it mean?

Remember, Instagram thinks that it is helping you. Trying to find out what your post is about and then showing it to people who will most likely like it. If they like it, it then shows it to even more people. If that audience doesn’t respond like Instagram thinks they will, it stops showing the post. Basically, Instagram gives up. 

This is where we come in. Our job, is to give Instagram as many prompts as possible about what your account is about and who to show your posts to.