Instagram’s switch from a chronological to an algorithm-based newsfeed in 2016 upset many users. The move also worried many in PR and marketing who grew anxious about reaching current and new audiences. Social media gurus recommended tips for how to gain more followers and engagement on Instagram, but were left in the dark by the algorithm that seemed like a mysterious black box. Instagram remained mum about why some posts appeared ahead of others in newsfeeds – until now.
Instagram revealed the algorithm’s methods and dispelled prevailing perceptions at a recent media tour at its San Francisco headquarters. Instagram probably hopes transparency will increase trust in the app, build goodwill and encourage people to use it more often. Here’s its explanation of its inner workings via reports from Entrepreneur and TechCrunch. It uses three main factors: interest, recency and relationship.
Interest: It determines how much users probably care about a post based on past behavior with similar content. If users like, comment on or linger over content, they’ll probably see more similar content in the future. In other words, users get more of the same. This focus on past interest can reinforce existing perspectives and hinder users from getting access to opposing views or different types of content.
Recency: Recent posts get priority over ones that are weeks old. Most posts users see are a few days, if not minutes, old.
Relationship: If users interact with a certain person or account frequently — commenting on their photos, being tagged together in their posts – they’ll see their posts more often.
Additional signals that influence rankings include:
Frequency: How often the user opens Instagram. The app refreshes feeds when they’re opened and tries to show the best posts since the last visit.
Following: The more accounts a user follows, the more content Instagram has to show. If you follow many people, you’ll see a greater diversity of posts.
Usage: How long Instagram users scroll through their feeds is a factor in what the algorithm shows. If you have longer sessions, the app will show different content as it digs deeper into its catalog.
Dispelling Myths about Instagram
Instagram staffers also sought to dispel beliefs about the app they call myths.
Instagram doesn’t purposely hide anything. If you scroll long enough, you’ll see everything from everyone you follow.
Instagram is not considering an option to let users return to the old chronological feed, although it maintains it is listening to input. The new feed algorithm works well, Instagram believes. Users see more posts by brands and friends they follow and spend more time on the app.
The feed does not automatically favor photo or video formats. A user may see more photos if they view many photos. They’ll see more videos if they tend to view videos.
It doesn’t favor users who use Stories, Live, or other special features of the app. Their content won’t appear more if they use those advanced bells and whistles.
Shadow banning is myth. The algorithm doesn’t silence or “down rank” those who post extremely frequently or add dozens of hashtags to their captions. However, people are not likely to see multiple posts from the same account in a row.
It doesn’t favor personal accounts over business accounts, or vice versa.
But is Instagram’s Portrayal Truthful?
Instagram expert Lesya Liu told Entrepreneur she doubts some of Instagram’s assertions. Assigning equal weight to business and personal accounts contradicts parent company Facebook’s business model, she says, noting that business pages on Facebook have suffered ever-declining organic reach.
Overly copious posters have reported “unexplainable” but temporary drops in reach, Liu says. “When you like or follow too many posts or people in a short period of time, you get an in-app message that you’ve hit hourly limits,” Liu says. “If you continue to break hourly limits pretty consistently, then, you start noticing decreased reach rates. If you continue to power though these signs, you will be eventually banned.”
How to Benefit from Understanding Instagram’s Algorithm
Social media consultant Dhariana Lozano, owner of Supremacy Marketing, says marketers can work with the Instagram algorithm, rather than against it, by following these practices:
Post consistently, at least three times a week. Some brands may wish to post daily.
Post with intention and purpose. Add value and connect with audiences beyond your products or simply trying to sell to them.
Strive for engagement. Ask open-ended questions, get your followers to share their opinions, and encourage them to tag you where and when it’s appropriate. Search locations, hashtags, and influencer accounts, and like photos, leave comments and join relevant conversations.
Get to know your audience and what kind of content they enjoy.
Create a plan. Devise a social media strategy and implement a social media posting plan.
Bottom Line: Instagram revealed how its algorithm grades posts and dispelled common myths about its ranking system. Armed with those insights, marketers may be able to focus on activities that increase engagement and attract followers.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.