June 5, 2018

There has long been theories and speculations about how the Instagram algorithm works. Unfortunately, Instagram did very little to publicly explain how the algorithm works – until now. Instagram just recently invited a number of journalists to find out how exactly how it all works.

To be fair, if you’ve read my blog posts, watched my videos, or attended any of my live events, the information released by Instagram isn’t new at all. In fact, it’s validation of the things I’ve been telling you for over a year now.

I wrote about the Instagram algorithm in this post, and got a little heated about the topic in this article. I talked about the Instagram algorithm when trying to put the rumors of shadow banning to bed in this post too. I’ve also posted more than a couple videos on my YouTube channel about the Instagram algorithm, algorithm updates, and shadow banning.

So, yes, I’ve been talking about this for a while. Which is why the news this week from Instagram was so hugely satisfying!

You see, Instagram came out and essentially validated everything I’ve been saying about the algorithm for over a year. From how it works, how content is ranked, and what is and is not a factor in the ranking was all discussed and clarified.

First of all, I do want to give major kudos to Instagram for coming out and publicly addressing this stuff. I do think a lot of it has to do with the current landscape around privacy. But, Facebook has frequently provided insights into their algorithm, and as Instagram grows, it only makes sense that Instagram would need to start sharing this information as well. Not to mention, I’m sure the wonderful people at Instagram are just as tired as I am of hearing about shadow banning  So what better way to shut it all down than to actually address it once and for all.

And on that note, since these articles have popped up this week debunking shadow banning, it’s been really fun to watch all the people who adamantly believe in shadow banning… they’re suddenly all very quiet!

Alright, so I’m going to dive into clarifying the points Instagram made about how the algorithm works. But if you’d rather watch or listen to my video on this topic (yes, I get a little “heated” about half way through and the rant starts flying! lol), you can watch that here:

The Three Major Instagram Algorithm Factors

Instagram shared that they use THREE major factors to determine how content is ranked in each individual user’s feed.

  1. Interest. Instagram is looking at the content you interact with to determine what you want more of. If you always like or comment on content from certain accounts, that’s a high level of interest. If you always like a certain type of content (like dogs, or cars, or food, or whatever), then more of that type of content will appear higher in your feed. (Yes, Instagram uses artificial intelligence and other factors to determine what is in the content and determine if you have an interest in it). Similarly, if you always watch videos, video content will rank higher in your feed versus someone like me who doesn’t watch videos so videos rarely appear high in my feed. Interest or relevancy is based on the prediction of how likely you are to actually interact with the content placed in front of you.
  2. Timeliness. The recency of the posts from those you follow now has a more important factor. A few months ago, this was not a significant factor in the algorithm which is why you would see content from 3 or 5 days prior, or even stuff from more than a week prior. But a couple months ago, Instagram tweaked the algorithm to put more emphasis on recency of posts to ensure you see content that is more fresh. And, no that doesn’t mean it will be chronological!
  3. Relationships. This comes down to who you interact with the most. Which accounts do you always comment on or like their posts? Or which accounts to you regularly visit via their profiles? These indicators mean you probably really want to see their content, and chances are these people are your friends or family – so their content will appear higher in your feed.

It’s Individualized

Again, I’ve been saying this forever! The Instagram feed is extremely personalized for each individual user. Even if you and I followed the exact same accounts, we would get different feeds because we would interact with the content from those accounts in different ways.

On Instagram, the overall popularity of a post has very little impact on the placement in individual’s feeds. This is very different from how the Facebook algorithm works!!! Please understand this! If a post is super popular with that account’s audience but you, as an individual, rarely interact with that account, the overall popularity doesn’t have a major impact on putting that content higher in your feed. It may rank a little higher but the three criteria mentioned above are significantly more important than a post’s overall performance.

Other Factors on the Algorithm

Ok, yes, there are other factors that impact the ranking of content in your feed. And let’s be clear, none of these are surprising. In fact, they’re all pretty common sense.

  • Frequency. How often you use Instagram and log in will determine how much of the content in your feed gets sorted. For example, if you log in every hour, that’s not a lot of content that needs to be sorted. So it will look pretty chronological and you’ll see pretty much everything. But if you only log in once a week, that is an awful lot of content that’s been uploaded by everyone you follow so that content will get some serious ranking and sorting to put the most relevant content at the top of your feed.
  • Following. Ok, duh! Obviously, if you follow more accounts, that means there’s a lot more content in your feed. The more content there is, the more it will be sorted and ranked. So, following less people means you see more stuff from the people you care most about. Kinda obvious, right?
  • Usage. This ties into both of the above points. If you’re on Instagram for hours a day, the algorithm will dig further into the content sources to give you fresh content at the top of your feed. If, however, you only log on for 10 minutes a day, you’re just going to see the highlights that Instagram thinks are most relevant to you. It’s like watching the evening news: if you watch the first 5 minutes, you get all the days highlights. But if you keep watching the whole broadcast, you get all the stories and the juicy little extras they throw in throughout the segment.

Let’s Kill Some Rumors!

Just to make life a little more fun, Instagram also clarified various rumors out there about the app and its algorithm. Not gonna lie, this is where I started doing happy dances that Instagram finally addressed many of these things.

  • Instagram will not go back to being chronological. So give it up. Get over it. It’s algorithm based now. Can we move on? Ok.
  • There is no preference for videos versus photos in ranking. It’s dependent on each individual user and how they consume your content.
  • Instagram DOES. NOT. HIDE content! NOTHING is hidden. Unlike Facebook (where content is actually suppressed), Instagram simply sorts all of the content in your feed. If you scroll far enough back, you will see every post from every person you follow.
  • Interactions with Stories and Live videos has no impact on the home feed – or vice versa. These are essentially separate areas of Instagram and one does not impact the other. So, if someone watches every single one of your Stories but never interacts with your regular content, your regular content will be buried lower in that person’s feed.
  • There is no punishment for posting frequently. I’ve talked repeatedly about why less content is actually better (see the other algorithm posts I linked to above), but if you wanna post a whole bunch of content on Instagram, they aren’t going to stop you or punish you.
  • THERE. IS. NO. NEGATIVE IMPACT for switching to a business profile. Your reach will not decline. You won’t be singled out and punished. Again, it’s not Facebook. Let’s move on.
  • Shadow banning DOES NOT EXIST. Using specific hashtags, or the same hashtags, or whatever other bulls#!t excuse is floating around at any given time, will not result in your posts being hidden in hashtag searches. Again, I’ve talked about this extensively if you want more info on this.

So there you have it! Straight from Instagram themselves, this is how the Instagram algorithm works. It’s not that confusing and it’s not that manipulative. Yes, we can assume there are other factors at play – all algorithms have many many data points to look at. But this is the basis for how content is sorted on Instagram. If you keep this in mind, use a strong hashtag strategy, and create quality content you audience actually wants, you’ll do just fine.

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