The Instagram Algorithm in 2021: Everything You Need to Know
Instagram is a great tool for marketing. But one of the things standing between you and success is the Instagram algorithm. Like it or not, your performance on the algorithm can make or break your social media marketing efforts.
The Instagram algorithm sifts through content on the platform to determine:
- Which posts will be shown at the top of the newsfeed
- What content is featured on the Explore page
- The order that Stories, Live videos, Instagram Reels and IGTVs show up in users’ feeds or tabs
You need to know how the algorithm works. Otherwise, your content won’t perform well, no matter how amazing it is. By mastering the algorithm, you can maximize your engagement rate and organic reach on the platform.
No one other than Instagram knows the true ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of the algorithm. But from time to time, Instagram drops tidbits of knowledge. They recently shared an article to shed some light
on how the algorithm works to help you reach those oh-so-important reach and engagement metrics.
We’ve broken Instagram’s article down for you so you can learn how it works and apply it to your own marketing strategy. Here’s everything you need to know, along with tips on how to optimize posts with the algorithm in mind.
Instagram Algorithm Changes
When it first launched in 2010, the Instagram app consisted of a single stream of photos in a chronological feed. Today, the platform is much more complex.
Instagram isn’t just a one-trick pony anymore. As more people have joined and more posts are shared every day, it’s become impossible for people to see everything in chronological order. By 2016, people were missing around 70% of all the posts in their Feed, including almost half of posts from their close connections. The algorithm was introduced as a way to rank new posts based on what (and who) users care about most.
A common misconception is that there’s only one Instagram algorithm. But different parts of the app rank content differently based on user habits. As a marketer, not only do you have to stay informed about the Feed algorithm, but the Explore page, Reels, and Instagram Stories each have their own algorithms as well. For example, Instagram states that people tend to look for their closest friends in Stories, but want to discover new people and content on the Explore page.
How the Instagram Algorithm Works
Generally, there are 4 key ranking factors associated with Instagram algorithms. They are:
- Information about the post;
- Information about the person who posted;
- The user’s activity; and
- The user’s history of interacting with an Instagram account.
We unpack how each of these factors applies to different content types within Instagram’s platform.
How Instagram Ranks Feed Posts
Information about the post
These are signals that Instagram picks up about how popular a post is. It includes how many likes and how much engagement — metrics like comments, shares, and saves — new posts get. It also looks at other information about the content, such as the time it was posted, how long it is (if video), and the location attached to it.
Information about the person posting
Instagram has stated that the Feed and Stories are the places where people want to see content from the people they are closest to.
As a result, the first factor that influences what a user sees in the Instagram algorithm is whether or not they follow the person. The platform also picks up signals that indicate the level of interest a user has in a person. These include signals like how many times they’ve interacted with the poster in the past few weeks by engaging with their content, visiting their profile, or communicating via the DMs.
While there are a few exceptions (such as ads), most of what people see on their Instagram feeds is from accounts they follow.
The viewer’s social media activity
Instagram uses this info to understand what someone might be interested in. It includes signals such as how many posts of yours they’ve liked and how they’ve engaged with your content in the past. People want to see relevant content, and the algorithm is designed to give users content that’s as closely tied to their interests as possible.
History of interaction
This indicates how interested people are in seeing posts from a person or brand. From there, Instagram makes a set of predictions or educated guesses as to how likely a user is to spend time on a post or engage with it. The more likely they are to take action, the more heavily that action is weighed and the higher up they’ll see that post on their Instagram feed.
There’s a reason that Instagram has stayed at the top of the social media hierarchy so long. They add and remove signals and predictions over time, constantly working to get better at serving their audience content that interests them.
How Instagram Ranks the Explore Page
The purpose of the Instagram Explore page is to help Instagram users discover something new. The grid is composed of content that Instagram goes out and finds for you, as opposed to Feed and Stories where most of what you see is from people you follow.
The first step Instagram takes when ranking a set of posts is to check what users have liked, saved, and commented on in the past. For example, if you recently liked several photos from an account, Instagram will look at who else likes that person’s content and what accounts they might be interested in. Eventually, you’ll probably start to see posts about related topics on your Explore page.
Once Instagram’s machine learning finds a group of photos or videos it thinks someone might find interesting, it ranks them similar to Feed posts and Stories. The most important signals are:
- Information about the post: How popular your story is, how many other people are engaging with it, sharing or saving it.
- The viewer’s history of interacting with the person who posted: Since it’s on the Explore page, it might have been shared by someone you’ve never heard of. But if you’ve interacted with them in the past, that tells Instagram that you might be interested in seeing more of what they share.
- The viewer’s social media activity: These are signals like what posts they’ve liked, saved or commented on in the past.
- Information about the person who posted: These include things like how many times people have interacted with the poster in the past few weeks and whether or not they typically post content that is a) high-quality and b) adds value to their audience.
How Instagram Ranks Stories
While Instagram Stories operate on a similar algorithm to the Feed, there are a few key differences. You can’t like or comment on Stories directly, so Instagram uses different signals such as :
- Direct Messages (DMs): Did a user view your story and respond?
- Profile Clicks: If a user likes what they see after watching your story, they might click your profile to see more. This makes it more likely that Instagram will serve them more of your content and rank the story higher.
- Finish or Skipped: We’ve all seen those people that post Stories that are over 10 frames long. Pro-tip: keep it short, or if you’re going to make it longer, make it engaging. If people get bored and skip to the next one without watching all the way through, it can hurt the story’s performance.
- Users turning on notifications: Users can turn on notifications when accounts they enjoy post. The more users turn on notifications for your posts = the higher the performance of your content.
How Instagram Ranks Reels
Instagram is all about Reels right now. Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, said that Instagram is shifting its focus from being primarily a photo-sharing app to pushing short entertaining video content.
Reels are designed to entertain. The new feature focuses on content Instagram thinks users might find entertaining or funny. They also tend to focus on smaller creators.
Similar to the Explore page, most of what people see on the Reels tab won’t be from accounts they follow. The most important signals that shape the Reels algorithm are:
- The user’s social media activity: Instagram looks at which reels they’ve liked, commented on and engaged with recently to help understand what content they might enjoy.
- History of interacting with the poster: Similar to the Explore page, viewers might see a Reel from someone they’ve never heard of. But if they’ve interacted with them in the past, it lets Instagram know that they’re interested in your brand or message.
- Info about the reel: Instagram looks at details like the audio track or sound used, the video quality based on pixel size and frames, and popularity.
- Information about the person/account posting: Popularity and compelling content can always help put your reel in front of a wider audience.
We know what you’re thinking – there’s more?! Here are a few other ranking signals that Instagram takes into consideration when deciding whether or not to recommend your content:
Posting time matters. Instagram automatically assumes that recent posts are more relevant and therefore more important to people. While Instagram maintains that all posts show up in a user’s feed eventually, newer posts are often ranked higher than older ones.
You can improve your Instagram post-performance by posting when your audience is online. Business accounts can find their Instagram analytics through Audience Insights, or you can use a social media tool that does it for you.
Frequency of use
If your followers open the app more often throughout the day, they’re more likely to see your posts than people who only check Instagram once or twice a day. People who don’t open the app as frequently end up with a backlog of content, so it can be hard to compete with other accounts at the top of their feed.
How many other accounts your Instagram followers are following
Similar to the point above the more accounts a person follows, the more content there is vying for their attention. This is why you often see influencers’ Instagram engagement start to drop after their following hits a certain level. If your followers only follow about 100 accounts or so, your content is much more likely to pop up on their feed.
Length of session
The more time someone spends on the platform, the more content they see. It’s also more likely that they’ll see every recent or relevant post available. This increases the odds of your content making the cut.
Users can now mute an account if they want to stop seeing what an account is sharing, but don’t want to unfollow them completely. You won’t know if someone mutes you, but you can avoid it by refraining from posting content that is too controversial or spammy.
Marking posts as “Not Interested”
Whenever Instagram recommends your content to someone on either their Feed or Explore page, users can indicate “not interested”. This ensures that they won’t see your content or similar content in the future.
Tips For Working With The Algorithm
If you’re thinking that there are so many factors that the Instagram algorithm content takes into account and you’re worried about your content ranking, fear not! Here are some tips to help keep your social media content algorithm-friendly:
Add value for your audience
Straight from the ‘Gram itself: content won’t be recommended by the algorithm if it’s “unoriginal” and “largely repurposed from another source without adding material value.”
Not only does high-value content give your audience more of a reason to save, share, or engage with your posts, but adding a unique perspective or original insight to a topic can boost your algorithm performance.
Think about what your target audience’s interests and pain points are and what excites them. Then, create content that speaks to those areas or provides solutions to their problems.
Be consistent with your posts
During Creator Week in June 2021, Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri revealed that posting a minimum of 2 feed posts per week and 2 Stories per day is optimal for building a following on the app. Posting at this cadence also helps you avoid over-posting and the risk of annoying your followers.
Keep things consistent – Try a tool that allows you to schedule your content and “auto-post” at optimal times. Sked Social lets you schedule Instagram posts with product tags, hashtags, user tags, location tags to make the most of your Instagram content.
Review the Recommendations Guidelines (and be careful not to break them)
One of the worst things you can do for your account’s reach and engagement is to get shadowbanned. Make sure you’re keeping all content appropriate and avoiding any outlandish claims or misleading information in your posts.
If you do slip up, try to learn from your mistakes and avoid doing it again. Instagram avoids recommending accounts that have recently violated their Community Guidelines, so better to be on your best behaviour until your post-performance picks up again.
Post high-engagement content like Carousels and Reels
Carousel posts make up 17% of Instagram feed posts nowadays. They consist of multiple photos in one post and are a great way to go into more detail or capture multiple angles of a content piece.
According to a 2021 report, they pull 3x the engagement and 1.4x the reach of other post types. Bonus: because it takes users longer to scroll and read through them, it keeps their eyes on your content longer which helps boost your performance in the Instagram algorithm.
In addition to carousels, Reels are also trending. The algorithm is currently boosting Reels in the feed so more people will use the feature. It’s a gold mine of engagement that can help grow your following quickly. Posting 5-7 reels per week is optimal, but even one is better than none.
Always post with the right formatting
Instagram favours high-quality content. One of the easiest ways to ensure that your post looks high-quality is to make sure it’s sized correctly. Fail to use appropriate sizing or formatting, and Instagram will ding your post’s performance.
Here are the optimal sizes for your Instagram images:
Square: 1080 px x 1080 px
Vertical: 1080 pxW x 1350 pxH
Horizontal: 1080 pxW x 566 pxH
Entertain your audience (and be funny!)
We discussed how when it comes to Reels, the Instagram algorithm likes content that is entertaining and funny. If you can grab viewers’ attention and keep it throughout the entire video, the algorithm will be more likely to show the video to more people.
Think about ways to make informative or educational content exciting. For example, like TikTok, Reels is big on trends and memes. If you’re scrolling through your Reels tab and you notice a content creator using a funny sound or style of video, save that sound or effect and try it out for yourself. For Stories, you can try adding things like stickers, gifs, emojis or polls to keep people engaged.
Use the right hashtags
When it comes to reaching new audiences and improving your popularity, hashtags are key. They are an important part of Instagram marketing, and using the right hashtags can help get more eyes on your content to help it rank even higher.
While they can help your post rank higher, avoid spamming your posts with irrelevant hashtags. A good rule of thumb is to use the recommended amount of hashtags per platform, keep them relevant, and keep your captions looking clean by separating the hashtags from the body text or adding them into a comment.
The Instagram Algorithm Can Work for Marketers
While not everyone likes the Instagram algorithm, it can work for marketers (we promise!). You just have to be smart about it.
To get the most from your posts, create content that is timely, relevant and engaging. By doing so, you can make the Instagram algorithm work in your favour every time.
Now that you know everything about the Instagram algorithm, why not start carving out hours in your social media workflow by signing up for Sked’s 7-day trial. Our all-in-one Instagram scheduler allows you to automatically post images, carousels, Stories, videos and more. Tag locations, users and products and manage all your hashtags in our place to save 5+ hours every week.