How Instagram’s algorithm works, and how to make it work for you

According to Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform Instagram, before the controversial decision to ditch its reverse-chronological feed, users were missing 70 per cent of all posts, and 50 per cent of their friends’ posts. A new algorithm was introduced, reportedly to improve the user experience, but what made that algorithm tick has remained a closely guarded secret.  Until now.

Speaking to a collection of reporters in San Francisco this week, Instagram product lead Julian Gutman explained that there are three main factors which the algorithm takes into consideration when ranking a post. These are interest, recency, and relationship, and understanding them is the key to achieving better online engagement.

Improving your feed

Interest refers to how much the company believes a user will like a post. If that seems like a bit of a fuzzy concept, that’s because it is. Instagram can only judge activity based on what has happened in the past, so a user’s behaviour on similar content is what’s considered. This creates a closely confined field of experience – if a user regularly respond to the same type of content, like puppies and kittens, it’s unlikely they’re suddenly going to respond to suburb reports and property photos. That is, at least according to the Instagram algorithm.

From there it’s on to recency, or how new your post is. Fairly self-explanatory – a post made today should be sitting higher than a post made two weeks ago. This is the only call back to the previous chronological feed, and supports a regular posting schedule to improve your chances of being seen.

The final main factor is relationship, which was a source of much frustration when the new algorithm came into play. Instagram rewards content which promotes conversation. If someone regularly comments on your pictures, they’re more likely to see them in the future. This is where the ‘let us know in the comments’ school of thought comes into play. By encouraging engagement, you’re more likely to build that network of active followers. However, it’s a lot more work than regularly posting the same type of beautiful image, so this is the avenue where most social media users fall down.

It’s not as simple as a,b,c though. There are three additional factors to be considered:

  • The frequency of how often someone opens the app. Instagram strives to show the best posts since a user’s last visit.
  • A user who follows a lot of people will see less of any specific person. This is because the platform throws out a wider net and tries to be more diverse in their offering.
  • Usage is also considered. If a user regularly browses in short bursts they’ll have a different algorithm to someone who is an Instagram deep diver.

The truths and the lies 

There was some myth-busting to be done at the conference too. Instagram confirmed that they won’t be allowing users to revert back to chronological feeds in future, despite multiple requests for this feature. They have said they are listening to feedback and planning updates as such, but that allowing users to switch feed styles would be ‘confusing’.

Instagram also confirmed it does not hide posts on the feed, and that if a user keeps scrolling they will eventually see everything. However, the type of media shared also comes into play, and if a user never watches videos then that content will be shoved right down the bottom of their feed.

Why now?

It’s taken Instagram a while to respond to questions about the algorithm. After the change in 2016, there were predictions the platform would eventually ditch the new feed, due to a particularly frosty reception. Tech experts think the slow almost-demise of Facebook may be pushing Instagram to become more transparent. There was a time at the beginning of the social media giant’s lifespan when a user’s Facebook feed would be comprised of friends and family. However, as more businesses joined the platform, the feed quickly became flush with advertisements and branded content, something which has been a headache ever since. Instagram has faced these criticisms since the algorithm change, and as more and more users choose it over Facebook, the pressure to remain popular grows.

For businesses, this news really confirms what savvy social media experts had already spotted. More engagement, thoughtful content and a regular posting schedule should put you in the best position to master the ‘gram. This does mean social media stands to take more time – you can’t just chuck up a couple of pics of your coffee and expect the hearts to flood in. A quick peek at the users with the biggest followings supports Instagram’s theory – post often, post well and don’t be scared to interact with your followers. And if the experts are correct, watch this space for more insights from the platform about how to make the algorithm work for you.

Show More

Hannah Blackiston

Hannah Blackiston was an in-house journalist with Elite Agent. She worked with the company from January 2018 to January 2019.