How the Instagram Algorithm Works in 2018: Everything You Need to Know | Tech News

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How exactly does the Instagram feed work?

That question has puzzled marketers ever since Instagram first introduced its algorithm in July 2016.

The Instagram algorithm was introduced to help surface the best, most relevant content to each user every-time they check their feed. Until now, though, the inner-workings of the feed have been kept under wraps, but recently Instagram shared the six key ranking factors publicly for the first time.

In this post, we’ll break down the Instagram feed for you. We’ll go through the factors that influence the ranking of your content and explain why the Instagram algorithm is actually great for marketers.

Let’s go!

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How does the Instagram algorithm work?

Recently, Instagram invited a small group of journalists to their San Francisco office to put an end to the rumors and share how the Instagram feed ranking algorithm really works.

Instagram revealed that there are three main factors that determine what you see in your Instagram feed:

  • Interest
  • Timeliness
  • Relationship

There are also three additional criteria that play a smaller part in your Instagram feed rankings:

  • Frequency
  • Following
  • Usage

We’ll discuss each factor in a little more detail below.

The 3 most important Instagram feed ranking factors

1. Interest: How much Instagram predicts you’ll care about a post

When the algorithmic timeline was announced, Instagram mentioned that it would show you content that you’ll likely be interested in first:

The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.

Content that is relevant to your interests will rank higher on your feed. But how does Instagram know your interests? One way could be to look at the genres of content (e.g. travel, food, fashion, sports, etc.) you have interacted with in the past.

With the level of photo recognition technologies available now, I believe it’s possible for the algorithm to categorize posts into simple genres such as travel, food, fashion, and more — and possibly even more sophisticated genres. The algorithm could also look at the hashtags used.

If there’s a certain genre of content that you engage with more frequently (e.g. food), Instagram might rank content of that genre (e.g. food, restaurants, etc.) higher on your feed.

An Instagram spokesperson told Business Insider that ranking of Instagram posts is not a popularity contest. Posts with less engagement that are more relevant to you can still appear right at the top of your feed.

2. Timeliness: How recent the posts are

The next key ingredient in the Instagram algorithm, as shared by Instagram a while back, is timeliness.

The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.

Instagram wants to show you posts that are recent and, consequently, more relevant.

Something from last week might not interest you as much as something from an hour ago, so Instagram will likely show you more recent posts rather than posts from a few days or weeks ago — even if the older post had received a lot of engagement.

This implies that recent posts likely rank higher in your feed and that the timing of your post is still relevant.

According to a talk from Instagram’s Thomas Dimson, and my personal experience (admittedly, a sample size of only one), it seems that the Instagram algorithm re-orders only the new posts between your current visit and your last visit.

For example, if I visited Instagram at 11 PM last night and again at 9 AM this morning, and there were 50 posts created in between. The algorithm would sort only those 50 posts created and not include posts from before 11 PM last night. Based on my personal experience, if I were to scroll past all those 50 posts, I’d see the same posts in the same order as when I last visited (11 PM last night).

(If your personal experience is different from this, it’d be great to hear from you!)

If this is true, it could mean that the best time to post is when your followers are most active as there would be less competition (e.g. between 9 to 10 AM in the image below).

Feed sorted only within vists

(Image from Thomas’s slide deck)

3. Relationship: The accounts you regularly interact with

In a June 2016 announcement about the feed ranking algorithm, Instagram stated the following:

And no matter how many accounts you follow, you should see your best friend’s latest posts.

Just like Facebook, Instagram doesn’t want you to miss important posts from your friends and family, such as a post about your friend’s engagement. This implies that content from your “best friends” likely ranks higher on your feed.

I also believe that the Instagram algorithm studies your past interactions to determine your “best friends”. In a talk about designing and implementing the Instagram algorithm, Thomas Dimson also shared in his talk how Instagram could have determined the people you care about:

  • 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

While these might not be the exact criteria used in the Instagram algorithm, they give us a hint that Instagram probably considers the accounts you frequently interact with as “people you care about”. And it has confirmed that content from these accounts will rank higher on your feed.

An Instagram spokesperson also told Business Insider that profile searches are a signal Instagram looks at when ranking posts in your feed. When you search (regularly) for certain profiles, it likely indicates that you are interested in the account’s posts and might not have seen them on your feed.

Instagram might then rank their posts higher on your feed so that you don’t have to search for their profiles to see their posts, improving your Instagram experience.

Thomas from Instagram also mentioned in his talk that when they experimented with the new algorithm, the number of searches went down. They took it as a good sign as it meant that people are seeing the posts they are interested in without having to search for their favorite profiles.

3 additional Instagram feed ranking factors

Frequency: How often a user opens Instagram

Every time a user opens up Instagram, the algorithm will try to show the best posts since their last visit.

So if you open Instagram once daily, you’ll likely see the posts that Instagram’s algorithm feels are the most relevant for that day. However, if you open Instagram hourly, Instagram will try to show you most relevant content you haven’t yet seen before.

Following: Content from all accounts a user follows

If you follow thousands of accounts on Instagram, the algorithm must sort through more content in order to decide what to show you each time you open up the app. This means users who follow large numbers of people might see less from each individual account, whereas users who follow just a few select accounts are likely to see more from their closest friends or favorite accounts.

Usage: How long a user spends on Instagram

Whether a user tends to browse Instagram in short bursts or longer sessions can also affect what the algorithm shows. If a user prefers to short visits to Instagram, the algorithm will ensure it shows the most relevant posts first, whereas for users who prefer longer browsing sessions it may provide a deeper catalog of fresh content to browse.

Quickfire Instagram feed FAQs

Are photos or videos preferred by the Instagram algorithm?

In short, no. Instagram doesn’t give extra weight to either videos or photos within its feed. However, if the data shows that a certain user prefers to engage with videos over photos, then that specific user may see more video content in their feed.

Does posting too frequently affect ranking?

Instagram accounts aren’t down-ranked for posting content frequently. Though Christina d’Avignon, a product designer for Instagram feed, did tell The Verge: “we do make sure your feed feels diverse so we may break up posts.”

Are business and personal accounts treated differently by the algorithm?

As reported by Techcrunch: “Instagram doesn’t give extra feed presence to personal accounts or business accounts, so switching won’t help your reach.”

Will posting Stories or Live videos affect ranking?

Creating Instagram Stories or live broadcasting with Instagram won’t affect how your content ranks within the feed.

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Why is the Instagram feed algorithm is great for marketers

As the number of users on Instagram increases, the number of posts will likely increase, too.

When users follow more people, the number of posts in their feed will increase. The natural result of this is that the impressions (or organic reach) of each post will fall — unless every user spends more time on Instagram looking at all the additional posts.

The reality is that people usually don’t see all the new posts when they visit Instagram. A study by Instagram themselves found that before the algorithm, on average, users missed 70 percent of the posts on their feeds and 50 percent of the posts from their friends. Now, though, Instagram’s 800 million users reportedly see 90 percent of their friends’ posts.

But as long as you are creating engaging, relevant, and timely content, the algorithm is actually an advantage to you. It will help to surface your great content to more of your followers than when posts were arranged reverse-chronologically.

Instagram Algorithm - Feed Before and After

(Graphic inspired by Thomas’s slide)

Here’s another way to look at it: Without this algorithm, one quick way to get your Instagram followers’ attention would be to post many times a day. If most brands follow this strategy, the number of Instagram posts would increase dramatically, and the organic reach of each post would fall proportionally — even if it’s a quality post.

With this algorithm, brands are encouraged to post only their best content, and the quality of their content will determine their reach. Brands with the best content overall will stand out more easily now than without the algorithm.

Here’s a bonus: The Explore tab also uses an algorithm to surface content based on the user’s interests and past behaviors. It is another brilliant way for your great content to reach more people!

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Over to you

Instagram marketing is an incredibly exciting, ever-changing topic. And I believe that the Instagram algorithm is great for both brands and users in the long run — though it may have resulted in drops in organic reach for some accounts.

I’d love to head any thoughts you might have on the Instagram feed and the ranking factors listed above. How are you currently approaching Instagram marketing? Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know.

A version of this post was originally published in April 2017. This version has been updated based on new information shared by Instagram.

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