How the Instagram Algorithm Works
Back in the good old days of 2016, the Instagram algorithm showed posts in chronological order. This made things simple for creators and digital marketers since we could assume that most of our followers would eventually stumble across our content, as long as we posted regularly enough.
Since then, Instagram has gone the same way as other social media platforms, using a mysterious algorithm to determine who sees what. And Instagram likes to keep some aspects of that algorithm close to its chest. But sometimes they let a few things slip. And most of us have figured out some tricks along the way too.
If you are looking to grow your Instagram audience and reach, you need to work with the Instagram algorithm to make sure your content gets seen. And that means you need to know how the algorithm works for each of the feeds available through Instagram and how to optimize your content accordingly.
How the Instagram algorithm works for Instagram’s feed
Instagram wants to keep its users happy, and that means prioritizing the posts that it thinks they will be most interested in at the top of their feed. To achieve this, Instagram uses three main factors to determine where – and whether – your post will appear for each of your followers:
Your past relationship with your followers is a key factor in whether they will see your posts in their feed or not. If they’ve previously liked, commented, or shared your posts, they are more likely to see future content from you.
Although Instagram now hides the number of likes for some users (and may decide to roll this out more widely), likes are still an important form of engagement when it comes to how the algorithm decides who is shown your posts. But comments, shares, and views are increasingly carrying a higher weight – and rumor has it that saves will become more important too as likes are hidden for more users.
Since Instagram also wants to show users posts from people they care about, it matters whether they’ve engaged with other content from you, such as your stories and reels. Those who know you in real life or have exchanged direct messages with you are more likely to see your feed posts too.
What does this mean for you? Firstly, you should pay close attention to which types of posts get the most engagement from your followers. If your audience prefers video over images, or memes over photos, using that information to give them more of what they want should ensure they continue to engage with your posts and will see them high up in their feeds.
Secondly, the quality of your content is increasingly important. Posting very regularly to your feed won’t help you if your followers don’t engage with your posts. It is better to take the time to create posts and captions that will genuinely engage your audience.
And finally, take the time to respond to comments and DMs to encourage your followers to continue to engage.
Your own past relationship with your audience isn’t the only factor that Instagram uses to decide what they are interested in.
Instagram will also put your posts higher up in your followers’ feeds if they engage with other accounts that post content like yours. It assumes that they will want to see similar content to posts they have enjoyed previously.
It isn’t entirely clear how Instagram decides which posts are similar. Hashtags may play a role here, as may having an overlap in followers. Certainly, the content type does matter – if a user engages with a lot of video posts, Instagram will prioritize showing them other videos before showing them images.
Keeping an eye on other accounts that post similar content to yours or have a similar target audience might help you to decide what to include on your own feed to maximize the chances of more people seeing your posts.
You could also consider collaborating with other creators who occupy a similar niche to you. Working together might help you to boost both your audiences.
And, as before, paying attention to which posts get the most engagement is a good way to determine your audience’s interests and continue to get your content onto their feeds.
Instagram’s feed may no longer be chronological, but time does still play a factor in where posts will rank on a user’s feed. That’s because Instagram wants to show users the most up-to-date and relevant content whenever they open the app.
If you have a business account, you can use Instagram’s analytics to find out when your audience is online. By posting at the times that your followers are on the app, you are more likely to appear in their feed and have your posts seen by as many people as possible.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t also experiment with other times of day on occasion as not all of your audience will be online at the same time. Keep track of when you posted your most successful content to maximize the reach of future posts.
The three factors above are the main ones that determine who sees your content on their feed. But some other things affect this too. Since they are mainly to do with how your followers use Instagram, there’s not much you can do to optimize here, but they are worth being aware of anyway:
- Following: if your audience follows a lot of accounts, they are less likely to see your content in their feed than people who only follow a handful.
- Frequency: the more often your followers open the app, the more chronological their feed will be, as Instagram will try to show them the most up-to-date posts since their last visit.
- Time spent scrolling: the more time your followers spend scrolling down their feed, the more likely they are to see your posts.
- New followers: when someone first follows you, Instagram is more likely to show them several of your past posts near the top of their feed. This is good news as it gives you a chance to start that relationship building straight away.
And Instagram says that one thing that doesn’t affect your posts’ reach is the type of account you have. So, whether you have a business, personal, or creator account won’t matter to the Instagram algorithm.
2. How Instagram’s algorithm works for stories
Your followers will see stories from the accounts they engage with most first, so the more engagement you have had previously from a follower, the more likely they are to see your stories at the top.
For stories, engagement includes views, reactions, and messages. But Instagram will factor in the engagement your followers have had with the rest of your content too. The more someone interacts with your account, the higher up their story feed your stories will appear.
Time is a factor for stories too, but your newer content will still skip to the top of the story feed for engaged followers even if there is older content from other accounts that they’ve not yet seen. That’s part of the reason why you’ll usually see accounts publishing new stories more often than they post to their grid.
Consistently posting quality content to your stories will ensure that your audience engages instead of swiping to the next story. And the more they engage with your stories, the more likely they are to see them in the future.
You can also invite engagement by using Instagram’s stickers to invite your audience to participate. Questions, polls, and quizzes are all good ways to encourage your followers to engage with your stories, as well as allowing you to find out more about them and the type of content they enjoy.
3. How the Instagram algorithm works for the Explore page
While your posts show up (hopefully) in the feeds of people who already follow you, Instagram’s Explore page is where users who don’t follow you have the opportunity to discover your account.
On the Explore page itself, the algorithm prioritizes content based on the individual’s interests. If they’ve recently engaged with posts similar to yours, then your post might be shown on their Explore page.
Users also have the option to filter by topic or search for a particular hashtag or location. When they do this, they’ll be shown either the top accounts (based on engagement) or the most recent posts, depending on which option they choose.
To increase your chances of appearing on the Explore page, use hashtags and geotags strategically to help new followers find you. But don’t forget to optimize your posts for your current followers too – the more they engage with your content, the more likely it is that the Instagram algorithm will show your posts to more people via the Explore page.
Posting regularly can help new people find you too, as your content is then more likely to appear when they search via hashtag or location.
4. How reels and IGTV are affected by the algorithm
The algorithm treats video content like reels and IGTV similarly to how it treats posts to your grid. This means that users are more likely to see your videos if they interact with your account regularly or engage with other accounts like yours.
Instagram tends to prioritize new features to encourage take-up, so making use of reels is an important factor in increasing your Instagram reach. There’s even a new tab specifically for reels in Explore.
Instagram itself has said that creators should aim to make use of all the available content types to see the best engagement levels.
You can share previews of your IGTV videos on your feed, as well as posting reels to your feed. Sharing reels to your stories is also an option, but if you do it will act like a normal story, disappearing after 24 hours. It also won’t be shared to Explore, so it is normally better to treat reels as a feed post instead.
Engagement and relationship building is key to making sure that Instagram’s algorithm will allow your posts, stories, and videos to appear to as many people as possible.
Since the algorithm also cracks down on any attempts to hack it by buying follows, using bot accounts, or otherwise faking engagement, the best way to build your reach is to consistently create genuinely interesting content that makes your followers want to like, share, and comment.
Don’t post and run either. Factor in the time to reply to comments and DMs, as well as commenting on other people’s posts to build those relationships that will keep your followers engaged.
Strategic use of hashtags and location tags can also help you to be discovered by more people via the Explore page. As can making use of all the different content types, including stories, posts, IGTVs, and reels.
Finally, you can maximize the effectiveness of your content by cross-posting it. Share your IGTVs and reels in your feed, share new posts in your stories. Don’t forget to save stories to your highlights too so that new followers can easily find useful content.
It is no quick fix, but ultimately Instagram’s algorithm encourages you to create authentic and high-quality content – which is exactly what will help you to build and maintain a loyal audience. Put the needs and desires of your followers at the heart of your engagement strategy and the algorithm should work in your favor.
Written by Branko
Branko is the Co-Founder of Social Snap and HB-Themes. He focuses on pixel perfect design and frontend development.