How the Instagram Algorithm Works and What You Can Do About It
To understand how the Instagram Algorithm works, it’s important to understand how Instagram itself works:
Instagram wants to show you content that delights you because delightful content will keep your attention on the app for longer and increase the likelihood of you coming back to the app more often. Your attention is what they sell to advertisers to make money, so every single part of the app is designed to maximize the attention they get from you, and their algorithm is no different.
The Instagram algorithm evaluates the engagement metrics that they consider are indicative of how delightful a piece of content is. This is how it works whenever you upload a new post:
- Your new post is shown to a small percentage of your total audience.
- It measures how fast and how often that small percentage of your audience engages (looks at, likes, comments, shares and saves) with your post.
- It compares the engagement of your new post to the engagement of previous posts of yours, on similar days and times.
- If it is getting less engagement than your average, the post is shown to a smaller percentage of your audience and it’s shown farther down on their home page = less people see your posts and discover your page.
- If it is getting more engagement than your average, then a larger percentage of your audience sees it and the higher it appears on people’s home feeds, as well as having a higher likelihood of being shown on other Explorer Pages = more people see your posts and discover your page.
People “hack” the algorithm because they know which engagement metrics it evaluates (i.e. how fast and how often your audience looks at, likes, comments, shares and saves your new posts). So, they change the way they use the app to favor those metrics and “trick” the algorithm into believing their content is more delightful. By doing this, they are ranked higher on people’s home and explorer pages, which means that more eyes see their content and discover their page. This doesn’t mean their content is necessarily “more delightful”, they just understand how the algorithm evaluates content and they use that knowledge in order to be surfaced to more people. If you are a business on Instagram that earns an income by being discovered by more people, this knowledge can be a very valuable.
So now that you know how the algorithm works, what should you do about it?
Post at times that your audience is actively using the app:
If you post at random times during the day when fewer of your followers are on Instagram, your content is less likely to be engaged-with early on and the algorithm is more likely to downgrade you. The most effective free tool I’ve come across to help you figure out what times your audience is on the app is Squarelovin. Here’s how their analytics look:
Maximize both your visual value AND your content value:
People evaluate your post based on a) how GREAT it looks and b) how informative/entertaining/insightful/cute/caring its content is. To increase the engagement your posts receive, which will rank you higher in the algorithm, you should always post GREAT photos and create content that gives your audience value. Every audience and account is unique so what’s valuable will be different for everyone, but an objective way to measure this is through your Instagram Insights engagement page. Here’s how you do it:
Go to your Instagram Insights page, tap into the POSTS section and tap in the Filter section at the top within that page.
Here, filter All posts by Engagement within the last 6 months and Apply.
At the top of this feed you’ll see the posts which get the highest engagement from your audience. These are the posts that your audience gets the most visual and content value from, and it’s the type of posts you should improve upon and do more of in the future. You can also scroll all the way down this feed to see the content your audience engages with the least. This is the type of content you should most likely stop or do less of in the future because your audience doesn’t respond to it as highly.
The better you get at executing content your audience finds valuable, the higher your engagement will be and the more highly your posts will be ranked by the algorithm.
Create human content, not branded content.
When was the last time you got super excited about a post from a business page? Brands and businesses rank in the lower 25% of engagement on Instagram. Does that surprise you? What has been traditionally thought of as good “marketing” content doesn’t work on Instagram. Buzzwords, glossy editorial photos, expensive marketing campaigns and posts about how good your brand or business is make you sound like a salesy robot, and very few of us enjoy interacting with a salesy robot. Create content that gives your audience value, instead of content that tries to get value from them. Most importantly, be empathetic, put yourself in your audience’s shoes next time you post. Your engagement metrics will show you what people enjoy.
Continually test new content, measure results and improve over time!
The best way to increase your engagement over time is through understanding what content gives your audience value, and the best way to do that is through testing. Test new types of content every week and measure the engagement (likes, comments, shares, saves) each new type of post gets. Keep the content that does well and aim to improve it. Drop to the content that doesn’t receive good engagement and keep testing. Through plain-old trial and error, you’ll eventually find the type of content that your audience loves. And creating content people love is what you’re aiming to accomplish if you want to grow an Instagram account!
A simple way to do this is by creating a weekly performance spreadsheet where you keep track of the likes, comments, shares and saves your new content tests receive:
Here, you’ll be able to objectively measure which new test posts perform better, and over time, identify trends when it comes to the type of content that delivers the most value.
Don’t use bots!
Instagram is greatly incentivized to reduce the number of people who use bots to “hack” the algorithm so they’ve developed technology to differentiate between bot engagement and real engagement. In fact, the algorithm is likely already downgrading accounts that use traditional bot tactics (like automated likes and comments from bot accounts) to increase their engagement numbers. Like empty calories, empty engagement is something you want to avoid.
Know that the algorithm will change, but Instagram won’t.
Instagram exists to do one thing: Maximize the time you spend using Instagram. The algorithm will change whenever they consider they have new/better metrics to measure people’s delight from a piece of content, because the more delightful content you find on the app, the more likely you’ll be to use it for longer and keep coming back more often. Whenever it changes, keep measuring your metrics and pay close attention to the differences between the posts that the algorithm favors (get more Reach) and the ones it doesn’t (get less Reach). Those differences will likely be great first clues into understanding how the new algorithm evaluates delight.
If you have any insights, corrections or recommendations when it comes to how the Instagram Algorithm works, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! I put together a monthly Instagram Growth Hackers Meetup and it would be awesome to hear about your experience.