Everything You Need to Know About Social Media Algorithms

Ah, social media algorithms.

For some marketers, they’re like little data puzzles just waiting to be solved.

But if you’re like most businesses trying to tackle social media, they’re a sort of boogeyman. The great “unknown” that’s holding your content down.

Algorithms might seem helpful and mostly harmless to the average social customer, helping sift through content and deliver only “relevant” content rather than random posts.

However, marketers that don’t fully understand what algorithms are or how they work will find themselves facing a constant struggle.

The good news? Social algorithms aren’t as mysterious or spiteful as you might think.

In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about social media algorithms and how to rise above them to show up in more people’s feeds.

What are social media algorithms, anyway?

Let’s kick things off with a kitchen table social media algorithm definition.

Social media algorithms are a way of sorting posts in a users’ feed based on relevancy instead of publish time.

Social networks prioritize which content a user sees in their feed first by the likelihood that they’ll actually want to see it.

Before the switch to algorithms, most social media feeds displayed posts in reverse chronological order. In short, the newest posts from accounts a user followed showed up first. This is still an option on Twitter to set your feed to chronological order…

…and the same rings true on Facebook.

By default, social media algorithms take the reins of determining which content to deliver to you based on your behavior.

For example, Facebook or Twitter might put posts from your closest friends and family front-and-center in your feed because those are the accounts you interact with most often.

Chances are you’ve been recommended videos to watch on YouTube, right? This is again based on your individual behavior, digging into what you’ve watched in the past and what users like yourself are watching. Elements such as categories, #tags and keywords also factor into recommended content on any given network.

Why are social media algorithms so controversial?

This all probably seems straightforward so far. What’s the big deal about algorithms, then?

Well, much of the reason why algorithms are so controversial is because of their impact on reach.

Spoiler alert: algorithms aren’t necessarily perfect. Not by a long shot.

There are plenty of instances of algorithms seemingly “hiding” content on Facebook at random despite being optimized to a T. On the flip side, there’s a well-documented phenomenon on YouTube of videos surging to millions of views out of nowhere after being recommended to seemingly random viewers.

Oh, and algorithms are constantly evolving, attempting to work out the kinks and provide the best user experience possible. As a result, marketers have to consistently adapt to ’em. This means consistently experimenting with content and changing up marketing strategies.

Why do social media algorithms exist?

There is a ton of content floating around in the social space. Like, thousands of posts, photos and videos published per minute.

Without social media algorithms, sifting through all of this content on an account-by-account basis would be impossible. Especially for users following hundreds or thousands of accounts on a network, so algorithms do the legwork of delivering what you want and weeding out content that’s deemed irrelevant or low-quality.

In theory, that is.

There’s also the belief that social media algorithms exist to push brands to pay a premium for social ads. The belief is that if brands can’t reach their audience organically, they’ll turn to ads instead. Obviously, this means more money for social networks.

This point-of-view might seem cynical or even paranoid, but social marketers know that changes in how social media algorithms prioritize paid and organic content can have a huge impact.

Regardless of why social media algorithms exist, the fact remains that they aren’t going anywhere. For brands, this means learning what algorithms “want” and likewise what might cause content to be viewed as low-quality or irrelevant to their audience.

How do social media algorithms work?

Algorithms are as simple as they are complicated.

Sure, the function of an algorithm is to deliver relevant content to users.

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But under the hood, algorithms involve machine learning and data science. They’re capable of parsing data and ranking posts based on criteria that, quite honestly, the average marketer will probably never truly understand.

That said, algorithms aren’t giant question marks, though.

Sometimes networks are transparent about what’ll help content rank and be seen as high-quality on their platform.

Take the recent Facebook algorithm changes, for example. Facebook explicitly laid out some ground rules for accounts looking to stay in their algorithm’s good graces: prioritize meaningful conversations over transactions, stop engagement baiting and publish more native video content.

Earlier this year, Instagram clarified some points about their algorithm as users continue to call for a chronological order feature.

Networks are traditionally vague about the specifics of their algorithm and understandably so.

However, through experimentation and trial-and-error we can sniff out changes to any given algorithm. For example, some marketers suspect that the Instagram algorithm is starting to crack down on brands that are too explicit about social selling and transaction-specific posts.

Determining how algorithms work requires both experimenting firsthand and listening to what networks are saying themselves. It can be a tedious process, but a necessary one.

How to decode (and outsmart) social media algorithms

Marketers often look at social media algorithms as roadblocks.

But rather than try to fight with algorithms, it’s more prudent to understand how to craft the sorts of posts that algorithms want to see.

Between trial-and-error and what we know about the current crop of social media algorithms, there are actionable steps marketers can take to optimize their posts. The key is finding a balance between what an algorithm wants and creating compelling content for your audience.

Although no two algorithms are the same, here are some general algorithm-outsmarting strategies that work across all social channels.

Ask questions and encourage comments from your audience

For starters, social media algorithms treat engagement (think: likes, comments and shares) as a sort of snowball effect.

That is, the more engagement a piece of content gets, the more likely it is to be rewarded by the algorithm.

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to encourage engagement is by asking questions of your followers. Serving as a sort of call-to-action, question-based posts are an easy way to encourage interactions and connect with your audience at the same time.

Tag other accounts in your posts

Simply put, tagging other accounts serves as a sort of invitation for other users to check out and hopefully share your content. If you’re mentioning another business, brand or customer, make sure you tag their account accordingly.

This same logic can be applied to tag-a-friend posts where followers are invited to tag friends-and-family in response to a question or comment. These types of posts should be used sparingly so they’re not treated as engagement bait, but are especially useful for major promotions such as giveaways.

Tack on the right hashtags

Hashtags essentially make your content searchable and therefore extend a post’s reach by attaching it to a category. As far as social algorithms go, hashtags assign a category to your piece of content to make it more likely to appear to users interested in that tag.

There’s plenty of debate in regards to what’s “optimal” in terms of tags, but you can check out our guide to hashtag analytics to learn more. As a rule of thumb, tacking on a tag or two is fair game across all networks for the sake of categorizing your content and campaigns.

Optimize your post timing to encourage engagement

Remember what we said earlier about the snowball effect of engagement?

Timing is a huge factor in determining how much engagement any piece of content gets. For example, posting when your audience is most likely to be active means that your posts are more likely to be seen and replied to.

Based on our research, the best times to post on social media vary from network to network. That said, there’s no denying that timing has a significant impact on engagement rate.

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To ensure that you’re tapping into these times, a third-party social scheduling tool like Sprout is a must-have. Additionally, Sprout features such as ViralPost automatically hone in on posting times that’ll result in maximum reach and engagement.

Figure out your publishing frequency

No matter what network you’re publishing to, you should strive to be an “active” participant.

In other words, social media algorithms tend to reward accounts that post on a frequent basis rather than every now and then.

This is why it’s important to come up with a content calendar that allows you to regularly post to each respective network. You can likewise cross-post your content across networks (think: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) to squeeze more out of your content creation efforts.

In many cases, it makes sense to cross-post your content to squeeze more out of your creation. For example, check out how Vegemite takes this post on Instagram…

…and “double-dips” it on Facebook where it gets even more engagement.

Tools such as Sprout’s social publishing suite make it a cinch to schedule and fine-tune your content across all social networks in one place.

Publish more video content across all networks

As a growing trend, all networks’ algorithms reward native video content (think: video published to that platform, not an external link).

Whether it’s a Vine-style looping video or a mini-commercial for your business, any type of video is fair game. Facebook has been explicit about the need for brands to produce video, as has the Twitter algorithm.

Mind how you present your links and craft your captions

Very rarely will you see posts promoting a link and nothing more score much engagement.

There’s a reason for that. Social media algorithms don’t want to see accounts just drop links and walk away: doing so is spammy.

Instead, it pays to provide context to your links and promotions. Rather than be purely transaction, spice up your captions with some commentary or even some humor. Meanwhile, let your link serve as your call-to-action.

As a side note, try to tone down transactional terms (think: “BUY NOW”) which could potentially flag your posts as being too salesy. There’s nothing wrong with promoting products or sales via social, but how you package them to your followers matters for the sake of reach.

When in doubt, experiment with different types of content

With few exceptions, posting the exact same types of content over and over will cause your followers’ interest and engagement to drop.

To keep followers on their toes and ensure you’re staying in the good graces of any given algorithm, experiment with different types of content.

For example, see how the following types of content stack up against each other:

  • Image-based posts versus text-based posts
  • Long-form versus short-form videos
  • Content with links versus content without links
  • Posts with one hashtag versus posts with multiple hashtags

Experimenting first hand can give you the most insight in regards to what performs well and what doesn’t.

And on that note…

Measure your social media performance via analytics

Without analytics, it’s impossible to know how the various social media algorithms are treating your content.

Tools such as Sprout can clue you in on clear connections between your top-performing posts and each social network. Spotting trends and spikes in engagement, you can determine for yourself what to post (or not) based on your engagement rate. The more data you’re able to gather, the better.

And with that, we wrap up our guide!

Do you know how to rise above social media algorithms?

Love ’em or hate ’em, social algorithms are here to stay.

But knowing what algorithms are and how they work is crucial for growing your social presence long-term. Anything you can do to stay in the good graces of each network’s algorithm is a plus.

With these tips and tools like Sprout Social, doing so doesn’t have to feel like an uphill battle.

We want to hear from you, though. How do you feel about social media algorithms? Let us know in the comments below!

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