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Understanding Instagram’s Algorithm

  • Rob Colon

Instagram’s latest algorithm update + how to enjoy to the fullest.

A few times each year, Instagram updates their algorithm, AKA the wizardry that organizes your feed, helps you find new content, and determines how many (or how few) users see your content. The algorithm is usually a source of stress for business owners, whose primary complaint is that “if you aren’t paying for ads, your posts aren’t getting seen.” While this may be true for parent company Facebook, this couldn’t be farther from the truth about Instagram!

How Instagram’s algorithm creates your experience

The content - photos and videos - that you engage with, the accounts that you follow, and the hashtags you follow and use determine how your Instagram feed is displayed. Whether you follow 50 people or 5000 people, you’re only seeing a small fraction of what your following is sharing.

Each time you like or comment on a photo in your feed, the Instagram algorithm recognizes this engagement and prioritizes photos by that same person and that have similar subject-matter over the rest of your following’s posts. I engage frequently with 10 - 12 people, so I see their posts first, at the top of my feed, whenever I open the app.

Your Explore Page is curated just for you.

In addition to content posted by the users you follow, your Explore page is a cornucopia of photos, video, and Instagram Stories that the algorithm is certain you will like. Instagram uses machine learning to analyze your behavior within the app, and customizes the content it choose for you, especially inside the Explore feed, based on all of your activity.

Say you recently followed a few illustrators, following a trail of “Similar Accounts” and discovering new artists. Your Explore feed will shortly update to include not just more artists, but illustrators who are publishing similar-style work and may even be profiles you viewed, but chose not to follow.

To learn more about the Explore page, read our [latest post on why you definitely want your business page showing up in the Explore page]!

How the algorithm delivers (or doesn’t deliver) your content to your followers

Just as the algorithm customizes your feed based on the accounts you engage with the most, and the content you seem to like best, Instagram determines whether or not they will deliver your content to the people who follow you based on the same principles. If a users continues to engage with your posts after they’ve followed you, and especially if they engage with similar-content and similarly styled posts from other users, your posts will continue to land closer to the top of your followers’ feeds.

Seen a dip in engagement lately? Or feel like you can’t break through? Lack of engagement from your followers leads Instagram’s algorithm to believe that you aren’t creating quality content, and therefore pushes your posts lower down on everyone’s feed. This can happen if you are inconsistent in your posting, publishing at inopportune times, and if your content is - unfortunately to say - not very good.

If you’re worried your content isn’t up to par, visit our comprehensive [guide to taking better Instagram photos].

Try these tips to increase engagement on your posts and boost their standing in your followers’ feeds:

1.  Publish quality content consistently. By improving your photography, keeping a consistent style and subject-theme, and posting regularly (almost everyday, if you can manage), you’ll surely see a boost in engagement.

2.  Engage with those who engage with you. While it’s nice to have friends and family consistently supporting your posts, building a community outside your immediate network is crucial to your growth and success on Instagram. When a new person follows you, head over to their profile and like a few of their photos. When someone comments on your post, comment back and visit their page to show some love. I’m not suggesting you ‘follow back’ every person who follows you, but build trust and community within your network to improve your sustainable engagement.

3. Write captions people will actually read. Some of us are scrollers, some of us are readers. Regardless of your personal Instagram style, put thought into your captions for the people who will read them - which are more users than you might think!

How the algorithm delivers your content to new people and non-followers

Growing your Instagram following might be the best thing you focus on for your business + brand this year. Instagram’s algorithm is one of the most powerful advertising tools when used correctly. Think of it as a word-of-mouth robot that knows 800 million people and only shows your content to people who will actually care about it, because they’re proven to have cared about similar content in the past.

If you haven’t heard this enough yet, I’ll reiterate: HASHTAGS. Think of hashtags like a community - by applying the hashtag to your photo, you’re entering your photo into the pool of posts by hundreds, thousands, or millions of people. Anyone who clicks on that hashtag has the opportunity to see your post. While Instagram allows you to use up to 30 hashtags, we’re starting to see that using only a few targeted, specific hashtags that relate to communities in which you’re cultivating a network, are most effective (and attractive) for regular posting.

Learn more about hashtags in our Hashtag How-To post.

Geotag your photos, as specifically or as vaguely as you want. Have you ever surfed the geotag (the location that appears at the top left hand corner of an Instagram post) and marveled at all the different perspectives, angles, and photos users have shared? By geotagging your posts, users who are interested in that specific area will see your post in the location feed, and potentially discover your profile.

The Explore page is where the algorithm shines, as it is an aggregate of posts (which expand into specific topic-like feeds) based on a user’s direct interests. If a user is interested in your style, craft, business, product, or lifestyle, they are the users you want to see your posts. By increasing the overall engagement of your posts, you are increasing the chance that your post is featured on the Explore page of a user who doesn’t follow you (yet). There isn’t a way to track if you’re featured on the Explore page, but we’ll share how once the option is released!

Amelia Bartlett is a new knitter, long-time crocheter, and enthusiastic writer and photographer. You can follow her through her website, Instagram, and on Steemit, where she shares a variety of content on everything from woman-run business practices to hand-blended teas!

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