When it comes to digital marketing for business, Instagram is one of the top five most used social media platforms in the advertising world, behind Facebook and WeChat. But it has a strong competitor that has been evolving rapidly over the last few years – Tiktok which inspired them to change and add some new features last year.
Instagram has changed a lot over the years – starting with its main aesthetics, its logo and branding and then the most important change of them all happened – when the platform switched from chronological to the algorithmic way of showing content. A lot of influencers felt like they were losing their audience at the time and many people felt the drop in their reach but eventually, everything became better and more consistent.
By learning how Instagram’s algorithm works in 2021, we will be able to explore the endless possibilities of this platform and create engaging pages with great organic traffic.
Here is your complete guide to understanding and ultimately hacking the Instagram algorithm for 2021:
What is an Instagram algorithm?
So let’s start with simply explaining what the Instagram algorithm actually is. The new Instagram algorithm dictates the order of the posts that users see when they’re scrolling through their feed. Based on specific signals, it prioritises the best posts, pushing the most relevant ones toward the top and giving them the most visibility, while other content ends up being placed further down. Sounds simple right? Well yes and no…
It is essential to know that Instagram algorithm is like a live organism, it learns every day and it changes regularly. Instagram rankings are always based on new data and user trends, so you just have to be aware of those changes and adapt to them accordingly. In order to understand how it works, you must know its purpose.
The main purpose of Instagram algorithms is not to hide some posts and keep you away from information. It’s actually quite the opposite. Its purpose is to show you the images created by people you care about the most.
Engineers from Instagram realised that with the growth of the content production, their users are missing around 70% of the content from the pages they are following. That is the reason why they are constantly working on creating the best possible experience for their users. Their idea is to show you posts that could be most valuable to you based on your previous activity. No matter where you are, they want you to know what your friends, favourite artists or influencers are doing. That way, every person has a custom-made feed for themselves.
So how does the Instagram algorithm actually work?
Let’s begin with your feed – according to Instagram, there are 6 key factors that influence the Instagram algorithm for feed posts:
- Interest – Your Instagram feed isn’t only based on who you follow, it’s also based on the accounts and types of posts you’ve liked historically.The more the Instagram algorithm thinks you will ‘like’ a certain type of post, the higher it will appear in your feed.
- Relationship – The Instagram algorithm wants to prioritise posts from your friends, family and accounts that you care about the most. So in order to show you what you want to see, the algorithm uses your interactions to piece together who is closest to you. This is determined by which posts you interactive with the most with likes, comments, who you search for and even through your direct messages. (don’t worry, your messages are still private and encrypted but the algorithm will know who you are interacting with).
- Timeliness – Not only does the algorithm pay attention to how much engagement your Instagram post gets, it also looks at how long ago the content was posted. Instagram’s algorithm cares about when you posted, because it always wants to serve you the latest, most interesting posts. By finding your personalised best time to post on Instagram, you can hack the algorithm to increase your reach and get more likes and followers. You can do this by looking into your professional dashboard and understanding your audience more closely.
- Frequency – How often do you use Instagram? 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, your feed will be sorted into what Instagram thinks you’ll like, instead of chronologically.
- 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. This is where the importance of real followers lie. While there are many services out there to buy fake followers, this would actually do your account more harm than good for your algorithmic ranking. Quality over quantity will always prevail!
- Usage – If you spend a lot of time on Instagram, you’re going to see more posts as Instagram digs deeper into its catalog, but if you spend enough time on Instagram, you can even run out of new content to see. Once this happens, the algorithm will serve you suggested content from new accounts – based on your previous interactions. 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.
What about Stories?
Typically, Instagram Stories that appear at the start of your feed are from accounts that you engage with the most, whether that’s through likes, comments, story views, reactions, or DMs.
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 favourite accounts. If you regularly engage with an account, their new stories will be bumped to the front of your feed every time they post – even if you’ve watched all their stories from the previous day.
So with this in mind, it’s a good idea to post as consistently as you can to Instagram Stories. By posting to Instagram Stories more often, you have a better chance of reaching viewers as they browse their daily stories – and the more views you gain, the better your ranking will be.
Do Saves make a difference?
Instagram saves are a strong indicator that your content resonates with your audience and that they find it valuable enough to save if for later. Although it’s not officially listed as a key engagement indicator at the moment, it has been widely reported that saving a post is the new ‘super-like’ and can boost your algorithms. While we have seen no official evidence to back this up, you should always try to optimise your content for saves.
With Instagram testing the removal of likes in some countries, success metrics for Instagram feed posts are moving away from public likes in favour of the private ‘saves’ metric instead. So if you want to grow your account, you may want to focus on getting people to save your Instagram post!
Is there an algorithm on the Explore Page?
The Explore page and the feed algorithm are quite similar – they both deliver content that Instagram thinks you’ll be most interested in, based on your prior interactions. However, your Instagram feed will be made up of content from accounts you already follow, whereas the Explore feed will consist almost entirely of content from new accounts.
The Explore page is constantly evolving, with new topic categories and advanced search functionalities being introduced all the time. For example, you can now search by keywords, as well as hashtags, to discover feeds of relevant content.
This suggests that the Explore page algorithm takes into account way more than just the tags on your posts, such as the actual visual content and words in your caption. The Explore page algorithm is essentially trying to serve people the best, relevant content. So by continually sharing great content with strong captions and niche hashtags, you’re already contributing towards your Explore page ranking.
How does it work for Reels and IGTV?
For IGTV videos and Instagram Reels, the algorithm prioritises content from the accounts you interact with the most, as well as the type of posts you typically engage with. Beyond the home feed, Instagram serves suggested IGTV videos and Reels in relevant Explore pages, including the new Reels tab. This is based on what Instagram thinks you will like, based on a machine learning model.
So how can you give your IGTV videos and Reels the best chance of being seen by new (and existing) audiences? Well, the trick is to give them as much of a helping hand as possible. For IGTV videos, you can share a 1-minute preview to your Instagram feed – increasing initial exposure and providing a positive signal to the algorithm.
For Reels, always share them to your main Instagram feed, and include several hashtags to boost their discoverability.
How to improve your ranking with the Instagram algorithm
- Embrace Instagram’s latest features – Looking for a fast-track way to gain favour with the Instagram algorithm? Make sure you embrace Instagram’s latest features! Instagram will always give their latest features (such as Reels) a helping hand to help drive adoption, so it’s a good idea to jump on the latest trends and take advantage of this extra boost.
- 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. Take a look at our monthly social media calendars and utilise the national holidays by running regular polls.
- Drive conversations with engaging captions and comments – Instagram has confirmed 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 engaging captions. Try asking your followers to share their thoughts or feelings on a post, double-tap if they agree, or tag a friend in the comments.
- Optimise your Hashtag strategy – 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. A good hashtag strategy won’t just reach more people, it’ll reach people who are relevant for your business and most likely to engage with your content.
- Cross-promote your Instagram content – 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, IGTV and Reels. Thanks to these different publishing channels, you can strategically use them to drive different audiences to your most recent content.
- Keep on top of 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.
- Use Instagram analytics to see what’s working – Tracking and monitoring how your content is performing on Instagram is one of the most reliable ways to take on the Instagram algorithm. Having 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. Dive into your Instagram Analytics to find out which photo, video, or stories performed best.
So after all of this, remember that the most important thing about using any tool is to make our life easier and enjoyable. Try not to stress too much if all of your efforts are not as successful as you expected. Competition is enormous on Instagram and the best way to get in front of your audience is to remain as human and polite in every interaction as possible.