How does the Instagram algorithm actually work?
It’s a question that’s caused a lot of confusion for everyone since Instagram moved away from a chronological feed.
But the good news is that once you understand how the Instagram algorithm works, you can use it to build a killer strategy and grow your following!
We’re demystifying the rumors and covering everything you need to know about the Instagram algorithm in 2020!
Table of Contents:
- How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Your Feed Posts in 2020
- Important Facts about the Instagram Algorithm
- How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Instagram Stories
- How the Instagram Algorithm Works on IGTV
- How the Instagram Algorithm Works on the Explore Page
- 6 Extra Tips for Beating the Instagram Algorithm
How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Your Feed Posts in 2020
There are 6 key factors that influence the Instagram algorithm for feed posts:
It’s also important to note that the Instagram algorithm is constantly changing.
Instagram recently went on record in January 2020 to address a bunch of rumors about its controversial algorithm.
For example, you may have thought that Instagram rolls out a new version of its algorithm every few weeks, but this isn’t true.
The Instagram algorithm is actually changing all of the time, based on the huge amount of data it gains every minute of every day.
The algorithm is powered by machine learning, which means that any new behavioral patterns or trends will be factored into how the algorithm works.
Discover exactly how the Instagram algorithm works in this video with Later’s Head of Marketing and resident Instagram algorithm expert, Taylor Loren:
#1: The Instagram Algorithm Predicts How Much You Care About a Post
Your Instagram feed isn’t just based on who you follow, it’s also based on who and what you like.
The more the Instagram algorithm thinks you will “like” that post, the higher it will appear in your feed.
This is based on “past behavior on similar content and potentially machine vision analyzing the actual content of the post.”
So basically, what you see in your Instagram feed is a combination of all of your Instagram behaviors. The friends you interact with the most, who’s stories you watch, people you are tagged in photos with, and of course, the type of posts that you like and comment on.
What Engagements Are Most Important to the Instagram Algorithm?
When it comes to feed performance, we know that the algorithm prioritizes content that receives the most engagement.
But what are the most important engagements?
According to Instagram, the most important engagements for feed ranking are comments, likes, reshares, and for video posts, views, which is really helpful to know as you plan your content and captions.
Although it’s not listed as a key engagement indicator at the moment, it could also be worthwhile to optimize your content for saves — especially as Instagram trials hiding likes in more countries.
#2: The Instagram Algorithm Determines Your Relationship with Followers
The Instagram algorithm wants to prioritize showing you posts from your friends, family, and accounts that you care about.
So in order to show you what you want (what you really, really want), the algorithm uses interactions from you to piece together who is closest to you.
For example, if you comment on a lot of someone’s photos or are tagged in photos with them, this signals to Instagram that they probably fall into your “friends and family” category.
Thomas Dimson, a software engineer at Instagram, shared how Instagram could theoretically figure out who you care about the most, based on how you use the app:
- People whose content you like (possibly including stories and live videos)
- People you direct message
- People you search for
- People you know in real life
This gives you an idea of how your behavior on Instagram affects what content you see in your app. For example, have you noticed that after you recently follow someone, you’ll see a lot of their content in your feed? But if you don’t engage with it, then you’re signaling to Instagram that you might not be that interested anymore.
This is why showing up on Instagram consistently — whether that’s by posting to your stories or feed every day — is so important! It keeps you top of mind with your followers, helps your engagement, and helps your posts be seen by the algorithm.
Tip #1: Spend More Time Posting Consistently To Instagram
When you post consistently good content to Instagram, you’ll not only improve your engagement but it’s a signal to the algorithm that you’re a quality account!
And the more frequently and consistently you post, the more likely your audience will see and engage with your content.
When it comes to how often you should post, your ideal posting frequency will depend on you or your business’ goals and the amount of time you can dedicate to your Instagram marketing efforts.
Social media expert Neil Patel explains, “If you make a habit of posting several times a day and then transition to only a few times a week, you will start to lose followers and generate less engagement per post.
“This means that the best posting frequency for Instagram is the posting frequency that you can consistently maintain for the rest of your natural life.”
So it’s important to commit to a posting schedule that you can not only maintain, but also fits in with your workflow so you’re never compromising on quality or posting for the sake of it.
Big brands like @GoToSkincare can maintain posting twice, or even 3 times a day thanks to a dedicated media team, graphic designers and plenty of quality user-generated content to choose from.
But don’t let that discourage you — even if you only decide to post once every 3 days, a smooth pattern of consistently good content will be rewarded.
To help make sure you’re posting consistently, you’ll want to get acquainted with how to schedule your Instagram posts.
For example, with a free Instagram scheduler like Later, you can plan and schedule all of your photos, captions, and hashtags from the web.
This will save you a lot of time (and sanity), and leave you plenty of extra time to focus on other important areas of your Instagram marketing strategy.
PLUS: With an Instagram business profile, you can automatically publish posts to Instagram with Later’s Auto Publish feature, no push notifications required!
Now you don’t have to interrupt your busy workday or stop what you’re doing to post to Instagram, just schedule your posts and let us do the rest.
Plan and schedule your Instagram posts in advance with Later for free — it’s the easiest way to stay on top of your Instagram game!
Tip #2: Use Instagram Features Like Notifications and Facebook Page Manager
Treat comments like a conversation — you want to make sure you’re always replying and engaging with the comments on your feed to alert the algorithm you have a “relationship” with your follower. And if the comment doesn’t require a response, show them some love with a heart!
We know, keeping track of all your Instagram comments is hard. It’s easy to miss comments in the Instagram app, especially if someone is commenting on an older post.
Instagram continues to roll out new features that make it easier than ever to keep the conversation going with your audience.
A great way to make sure you’re staying on top of comments is to create more focused-notifications in your Instagram settings.
Just go to your account settings, navigate to “notifications” and select ‘Off’ for all options excluding ‘Comments’:
Now, your Instagram comments won’t get lost in the clutter so you can always make sure you’re responding promptly to your audience.
PLUS: you can finally reply to Instagram Direct Messages from your desktop!
With Facebook’s new unified Pages inbox, you’re able to respond to messages from both Facebook Messenger and Instagram!
With access to the new feature, you’ll see options for both “Messenger” and “Instagram Direct” when you open your Facebook Pages inbox.
Receiving a healthy influx of direct messages on Instagram and Facebook is a great indication that your audience is engaged with your brand and the content that you’re posting.
But splitting your attention between both Facebook and Instagram messaging platforms (and other platforms too!) can be time-consuming and difficult to monitor. Now, you’ll be able to quickly respond to comments and inquiries from a single location!
This is sure to speed up your workflow, facilitate better communication with your audience, and ultimately, drive more engagement!
Tip #3: Use Later to Keep Tabs On Your Instagram Comments
Later’s Conversations feature saves you time and can help you keep track of all your Instagram comments. You can reply from your computer instead of your phone, and even view your conversation history with a user.
To reply to an Instagram comment in Later, just select the comment, post, or Instagram user you’d like to respond to. Then enter your response, click the Reply button, and you’re done!
To get engagement, you have to give it. By replying to your comments, you’re not only showing your readers love, but you’re also increasing your chances of increasing your posts’ visibility.
Find out more about Later’s Conversation feature (available on all Later Business Plans!) in this blog post!
#3: The Instagram Algorithm Factors in Timeliness
Not only does the algorithm pay attention to how much engagement your Instagram post gets, but it also how long ago the photo was posted.
Instagram’s algorithm is starting to care a lot more about when you posted, instead of just the content or engagement on the post, because it always wants to serve you the latest, most interesting posts. This was brought up around the holidays last year when a lot of people were still seeing Christmas posts even though it was past New Year’s.
By finding your personalized best time to post on Instagram, you can hack the algorithm to increase your reach and get more likes and followers.
If you post at a time when most of your followers are online, you give yourself a better chance of racking up those likes — quickly!
Tip #4: Find Out When Your Audience Is Most Active
Using your Instagram Insights, you can use the Activity metrics to work out the times of the day when your audience is most active online:
But these peak times can often vary throughout the week — for example at weekends your audience might be most active in the mid-morning, while during the week it could be on their commute home or down-time after work.
Later analyzed 12 million Instagram posts and found that the best time to post on Instagram is between 9am-11am EST.
But, every brand, business and target audience will behave differently, so it’s worth spending the time to find these optimum posting windows!
If you want to skip the math and instantly know when your best times to post on Instagram are, you can use Later to work it all out for you!
Later’s Best Time to Post feature automatically calculates your 7 top posting times based on how much engagement your posts have gotten historically.
Because this feature is built into Later’s Instagram scheduler, it’s super easy to find out when you should schedule Instagram posts for maximum engagement.
If you’re on one of Later’s business plans, (which start at just $19/month) your best times to post will be highlighted in your weekly content calendar, making it super easy for you to automatically schedule Instagram posts for when your audience is most active!
While those are the top 3, the Instagram algorithm uses a lot of other factors to determine what to reveal to users:
#4: The Instagram Algorithm Uses Frequency to Sort Your Posts
How often do you open the Instagram app? If you’re a frequent scroller, your feed will look more “chronological” since Instagram tries to “show you the best posts since your last visit.”
If you check the Instagram app less often, then your feed will be sorted more to what Instagram thinks you’ll like, instead of chronologically.
#5: The Instagram Algorithm Keeps Tabs on Your Following
How many people do you follow on Instagram? If you follow a lot of people, then Instagram has more options to choose from, so you probably won’t see all of the posts from every account.
#6: The Instagram Algorithm Calculates Your App Usage
If you spend a lot of time on Instagram, you’re going to see more posts as Instagram “digs deeper into its catalog.”
However, if you only spend a few minutes in the app each day, then you’re going to just get the day’s highlights from the algorithm.
More Important Facts About the Instagram Algorithm
Ready to separate the fact from the fiction?
In a series of stories from the new @creators account, Instagram walked viewers through the most common questions regarding the algorithm and provided the answers we’ve all been waiting for.
#1: Photos and Videos Are Treated Equally
Instagram put a big rumor to bed in their recent Q&A, confirming that the algorithm has zero bias when it comes to photo and video content.
Essentially, the Instagram algorithm will prioritize the type of content that a user engages with the most — so if they regularly spend more time engaging with videos, the chances are they will see more video content in their feed.
This is interesting for brands to note, as video content automatically attracts a longer viewing period due to its extended format.
Video also gets 4X more real estate on the Instagram Explore page, which is a huge advantage when it comes to attracting more engagement indicators.
TIP: Experiment with more video content in your feed to see how this impacts your engagement levels in 2020. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Instagram Video for a head start!
#2: Fake Interactions Don’t Count
Thanks to Instagram’s machine learning algorithm, fake interactions (such as using bots or comment pods) will likely always be identified and ranked as such.
In their recent Instagram Stories Q&A, Instagram shared that the best way to build sustainable engagement is by being authentic and transparent on the platform.
In short? Trying to cheat the system doesn’t work, no matter how elaborate your scheme is!
#3: All Comment Lengths Count as Engagement
One of the longest-running myths about the Instagram algorithm is that it doesn’t count comments that are less than 3 words in length.
The reality is that all comments are taken into account, even if they only contain an emoji or two.
Comments are an important engagement indicator for the Instagram algorithm, so with this in mind, it’s a good idea to reply to your comments on a regular basis.
Not only will this keep conversations active on your posts, but it also shows your audience that you’re listening — which can be great for promoting future interactions.
TIP: Struggling to stay on top of all your comments? With Later’s Conversations inbox, you can view all of your most recent Instagram comments in a feed on your desktop computer, so you’ll never miss an Instagram comment on an organic post again — even if it’s on an older post!
Get access to Conversations now by upgrading to a Later business plan, starting at just $19/month!
#4: All Account Types (Personal/Business/Creator) Are Treated Equally
Want to switch to a Business Profile, but worried it might affect your engagement?
Don’t be! Instagram has confirmed that all account types are treated equally when it comes to the algorithm.
In fact, it all depends on the individual user. If they regularly engage with your content, the odds are you’ll rank higher in their Instagram feed.
#5: The First 30 Minutes Doesn’t Determine Your Ranking
“The first 30 minutes after posting is the most important for engagement on Instagram.”
This has been a huge rumor in recent years, and one that Instagram has finally put to bed.
That’s right, posts are not prioritized by the algorithm just because they get more engagement in the first 30 minutes.
The algorithm will still serve your content to the users who regularly engage with your content, which means it can still gain traction — even after the first 30 minutes of posting.
However, it’s still a good idea to share your posts when your audience is most engaged.
Scheduling your Instagram posts for optimized times is a good way to reach your audience when they are most likely to comment and like your content — rather than when they’re half asleep, or more focused on a busy workload.
It can be tricky to know exactly when your audience is most active, and this is often specific to a brand’s demographic, location, and area of specialism.
As we mentioned above, Later’s Best Time to Post feature automatically calculates your 7 top posting times based on your best performing posts from the recent month.
If you’re on one of Later’s business plans, which start at just $19/month, your best times to post will automatically be highlighted in your weekly content calendar, making it super easy to schedule your Instagram posts for when your audience is most active!
How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Instagram Stories
Typically, the Instagram Stories that appear closest to the beginning of the row on your home feed are from accounts that you engage with the most, whether that may be through the user’s posts or stories!
So no surprise here, the very top of Later’s Instagram Stories feed is our own @taylor.loren and @cameronu — both on our Marketing team, and profiles we’ve built “relationships” with on Instagram because we like, follow and engage with each other’s content!
The Instagram Stories algorithm also puts a lot of focus on timeliness as it wants to make sure it’s always showing you the latest stories from your favorite accounts. That why some accounts that post regularly enough, will always appear at the top of your feed if you watch and engage with them!
As you can see, the Instagram algorithm knows I’d like to see the latest from my favorite Instagram influencers (even if I’ve watched all their previous posts from the day!), Supergoop (I LOVE their products), and my IRL best friend (hi, Liz!).
And if you were ever wondering how Instagram ranks who’s viewed your Instagram stories, and why the accounts that appear top of your “viewed” list sometimes end up top of your stories feed, we have a blog post all about it!
Hint: it isn’t who’s been stalking you!
Here are some tips to making sure your Instagram Stories content always appears top of your followers feeds:
Tip #1: Spend More Time Posting Consistently To Instagram Stories
As the Instagram algorithm continues to change and impact users’ engagement, it’s no surprise more and more users are spending time on Instagram Stories, rather than their feeds.
By posting to Instagram Stories more often, you have a better chance of appearing at the top of the stories feed on a follower’s homepage – giving you multiple chances throughout the day to be discovered!
Plus, this signals to the algorithm that you’re continuously posting quality content your audience is interested in.
Luckily, you can now schedule your Instagram Stories with Later so you never miss a chance to connect with your audience again!
With Later, you can storyboard your content, add captions or links, collaborate with your team, and visually plan and schedule Instagram Stories right from your desktop!
Note: You can add links or captions to your scheduled stories, which will be copied to your phone when it’s time to post. This helps you drive more traffic and sales by taking the time to write compelling captions and CTAs from your desktop.
Ready to start posting Instagram Stories more often so there’s always new content for our audience to engage with? Start planning and scheduling your Instagram Stories with Later — available on all Later paid plans!
How the Instagram Algorithm Works on IGTV
While IGTV is still relatively new, we’re still learning how the algorithm works, but we can expect it to be based on the same criteria as posts.
Instagram curates videos for you based on your interests and who you follow, and you can also watch trending videos on the “popular” channel! And just like you can with Instagram Stories, you can also share IGTV videos with your friends through Instagram Direct.
Right now, there are 3 IGTV categories: For You, Following, and Popular.
- “For You” is a collection of videos that Instagram thinks you will like, made up of people you follow and Instagram’s own machine learning.
- “Following” is a collection of videos from all the people on Instagram that you’re already following. Which is a good time to mention that if someone follows you on IGTV, they’ll be following your regular Instagram account too!
- “Popular” features all of the trending videos on IGTV, most likely ranked by popularity
So how do you make sure your IGTV videos have a better chance of being seen by new (and existing) audiences?
Tip #1: Use the IGTV Preview In Your Posts to Boost Engagement
Previously, IGTV videos lived only in your IGTV channel, which made it a bit difficult to garner engagement and views.
To get views on your videos, you had to use captions on regular posts, or link your video on your stories and actively direct your followers to click over to IGTV.
In an effort to fix this problem (and save IGTV), Instagram has introduced the option to share a 1-minute preview of your IGTV video to your Instagram feed!
This means, your IGTV videos will now live in the grid on your Instagram profile too, with a little IGTV icon in the right hand corner:
Now, if the preview in your feed gets tons of engagement, it will not only lead viewers to your video in IGTV, but also signal to the algorithm that you’re producing quality videos for IGTV for your audience, and that others might even like it too!
Check out our post, The Ultimate Guide to IGTV to learn more about optimizing your content on the platform and getting more views!
How the Instagram Algorithm Works on the Explore Page
The Instagram Explore page operates under its own algorithm, and Instagram has been working hard to make the page more personalized to each individual user.
Overall, the Explore page and the feed are quite similar — they both deliver content that Instagram thinks you’ll be most interested in, based on your interactions.
When you tap to view your Instagram Explore page, it will look totally different than what may show up on your best friend’s Explore page, because it’s specifically tailored to help you find new content that you’ll enjoy, based on what you already like to see on Instagram.
Earlier this year, Instagram launched topic channels on Explore with the aim to give users a new way to discover content around their specific interests on Instagram.
The Instagram algorithm is constantly learning from your behaviors on the app, like what accounts you follow, what posts you like and comment on, and what Instagram Stories and IGTV content you love to watch.
Staring with a ‘For You’ channel (which has a mashup of posts tailored to your wider interests), you’ll then see channels on topics you might like, such as Art, Sports, Beauty or Fashion.
My personal Explore page dished up a “get ready with me” IGTV video (my latest obsession), health foods (I’m always looking for new recipes on Instagram) and some fashion and beauty-related posts — seems about right. It also includes some stories from users it thinks I may enjoy based on what kinds of content they post.
Luckily, getting your posts onto the Instagram Explore page isn’t rocket science!
By optimizing your Instagram marketing strategy and making your posts algorithm-friendly by following the tips mentioned above, you’re continuously working to get on the Explore page too — especially if you’re using hashtags!
The hashtags results page also follows the Instagram algorithm rules listed above. If you’ve ever searched for a hashtag on Instagram, you’ll notice a grid of “top posts” that appear at the top of the results page.
Like the Explore page, these posts are selected based on several of the factors listed in this post, including engagement (how many likes and comments the post received), the popularity of the hashtag and how quickly your post receives engagement. This will appear the same for every user searching a specific hashtag, while the Explore page is tailored to your individual interests.
Tip: If you’re a brand looking to get on the Instagram Explore page, it’s more important than ever to focus in on your niche topics and use hashtags to help categorize your posts!
Check out our post, The Ultimate Guide to Getting on the Instagram Explore Page to find out how you can get your content in front of new audiences!
6 Extra Tips for Beating the Instagram Algorithm
Knowing exactly how the algorithm works is a huge advantage for anyone looking to grow their following and build a strong brand on Instagram.
With this in mind, here are 6 extra tips to gain an advantage with the Instagram algorithm in 2020:
#1: Encourage More Interactions with Instagram Stories Stickers
Instagram Stories stickers are a great way to encourage audience engagement — and the more engagement your posts get, the higher they’ll be boosted by the Instagram algorithm!
There are lots of Instagram stickers, but the best ones for driving engagement are the poll, emoji slider, and question stickers.
Poll and emoji slider stickers are a quick and easy engagement win, and can work for almost any business or brand.
Question stickers may not be as quick to take part in, but they can be just as good at driving genuine engagement with your audience, which is highly valuable for the Instagram algorithm.
#2: Drive Conversations with Engaging Captions
Instagram has confirmed that likes and comments are super important when it comes to feed ranking — so it’s a great idea to encourage as many as possible for your posts.
One of the best ways to do this is by writing good captions that drive engagement.
As entrepreneur Elise Darma mentions in our free How to Write Engaging Instagram Captions workshop, including a call-to-action in your Instagram caption can go a very long way when it comes to driving more interactions.
This could be as simple as asking your followers to share their thoughts or feelings, double-tap if they agree, or tag a friend in the comments.
Looking to level-up your conversational captions? Check out our blog post: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Good Instagram Captions!
#3: Cross-Promote Your Instagram Content for Maximum Engagement
If you’re looking for a quick and easy engagement win to help boost your algorithm ranking, cross-promoting your Instagram content is a great place to start.
As Instagram has grown, so too has the number of channels that you can share content: feed, stories, and most recently IGTV.
And thanks to these different publishing channels, you can strategically use them to drive different audiences to your most recent content.
This could be as simple as sharing an enticing preview of an IGTV video to your feed, or even adding a feed post to stories with a “Tap Here” GIF.
#4: Optimize Your Hashtags to Reach Relevant Communities
Adding hashtags to your posts is one of the most effective ways to reach more people on Instagram, which means more “views” for the Instagram algorithm to take into account.
And with a good hashtag strategy, you won’t just reach more people — you’ll reach people who are relevant for your business, and most likely to engage with your content.
One of the best ways to gain valuable hashtag inspiration is by looking at what successful brands in your network are doing.
Look at brands with similar content, products, or target audience — and carefully assess their content strategy.
Hone in on their top-performing posts in particular, and highlight the hashtags that could be applicable to your brand for future posts.
TIP: One of the best ways to save time and stay organized with your hashtags is by using Later’s Saved Captions feature.
With Saved Captions, you can create templates to save your most commonly used hashtags.
When it’s time to schedule, simply select one of your Saved Captions to add it to your post.
And best of all? It’s free to all Later users!
#5: Dive into Your DMs
Much like comments and likes, direct messages (DMs) are a strong engagement indicator for the Instagram algorithm.
You may have noticed that the accounts you DM most often are bumped to the front of your Instagram Stories feed — the Instagram algorithm is doing it’s best to serve you content it thinks you want to see.
One way to use this to your advantage is to regularly invite your audience to DM you with their questions or feedback — or by regularly sending “quick emoji reactions” to relevant Instagram Stories.
#6: Use Instagram Analytics to See What’s Working (and What Isn’t)
Now that you know how the Instagram algorithm works, it’s time to level-up your strategy by incorporating some of our tips, and tracking and monitoring how your content is performing on Instagram!
Taking on your Instagram strategy with a better understanding of what’s working (and what isn’t) will help you come up with a finely tuned marketing plan, saving you time and effort in the long run.
But diving into your Instagram Analytics means more than just finding out which photo, video, or story performed best. Truly understanding how your content performs – by tracking key metrics over time – is key to knowing how you stand against the Instagram algorithm.
Instagram Insights, the app’s inbuilt analytics tool, gives you some great metrics and data on how your posts, stories, and IGTV are performing. Just tap on the three lines in the top right-hand corner of your profile page and select Insights:
From here, you can navigate to your Content tab. To see how your individual posts and stories’ performance, you need to select each individual post to learn more about the metrics such as how many likes, comments, impressions or reach your post received:
If you’re looking to save time, Later Analytics pulls your Instagram performance to your Later dashboard so you can quickly and easily see your best performing content, as well as changes to your follower demographics and automatically calculates your engagement rates!
With Later’s new Instagram Analytics, you can learn more about how your posts are performing and discover which type of content gets the most Instagram engagement!
Optimize your Instagram content and grow your engagement by comparing which post types or photos are performing best, and applying those learnings to your Instagram strategy!
Plus, when it comes to Instagram Stories Analytics, you’ll be able to analyze up to 3 months’ worth of Instagram Stories data, instead of just a 2 week time period in the native Instagram app.
Upgrade to a Later paid plan for access to Instagram Stories analytics and all the other Analytics features, like automatically calculated engagement rates, audience demographic metrics, and Linkin.bio tracking.
Whatever tactic you choose to focus on to improve your algorithm ranking in 2020, the most important thing is to keep engaging with your audience at the heart of your strategy.
Building a genuine relationship with your followers is the most powerful way to “hack” the algorithm and, most importantly, it will work wonders for your brand too.
Ready to get organized and plan out your Instagram content in advance? Start scheduling with Later, the #1 Instagram marketing platform trusted by over 2 million businesses! Sign up now – it’s free!
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