In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion. Since then, the social media giant has rebuilt Instagram using all of the trade secrets Facebook has gathered since its inception in 2004. From Instagram’s launch in 2010 up until 2016, the platform used a simple sorting algorithm to determine which posts were displayed first. The post order was purely chronological.
This made it simple for Instagram account owners to stipulate the time a piece of content was posted. If the timing was correct, the content would receive a lot of organic engagement. This helped the Instagram account to grow further, as viewers shared the post across the network.
But in 2016, due to the need to create an ever larger social platform that turned a profit, the engineers behind Facebook and Instagram worked on a new way of sorting content. This new way was more in line with the Facebook sorting algorithm that uses thousands of data points to determine what content you see and in what order you see it.
To understand how the Instagram algorithm works, you first need to understand how Facebook’s algorithm works. In a Slate article by Will Oremus, the author describes meeting the elite team of Facebook engineers tasked with constantly improving the Facebook news feed algorithm.
Oremus writes: “The post you see at the top of your feed, then, has been chosen over thousands of others as the one most likely to make you laugh, cry, smile, click, like, share, or comment.”
The Instagram algorithm is most likely designed to work similarly. Instagram uses an algorithm that takes a number of factors into account when trying to determine what content you should see and when you should see it. If the engineers build it correctly, it will cause users to spend more time on the platform, and new users will find their way to it—helping Instagram and Facebook grow.
This article will look at 5 of the most important factors that shape the Instagram algorithm, so that account owners can learn how to increase audience size and engagement as smartly as possible.
1. When the Post Was Shared
While many factors influence how Instagram posts are ordered in the feed, timing is still an important factor that determines where posts rank. After all, social media platforms are successful because they provide users with an immediate ability to post updates about the world around them.
Timing is probably the most easily identified Instagram ranking factor. A simple scroll down your Instagram feed will let you know that posts are still generally ordered by when they were shared.
When Instagram launched the new algorithm in March, 2016, the company wrote: “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.”
This means that brands will still need to pay attention to when posts are shared in order to maximize the organic exposure their content will have. There are a number of free and paid Instagram tools available to brands interested in scheduling content to be released at the optimal time. These tools learn when your Instagram followers are most active and are most likely to engage with your content in order to recommend the appropriate time to post.
2. The Relationship Between the Audience and the Account
When Instagram announced changes to the algorithm, the company sent spokespeople to speak with publishers about the platform change. In one such interview with Business Insider, a spokesperson indicated that relationships were one of the factors that impacted ranking.
The author, Tim Stenovec, wrote: “If you usually like a lot of photos from a certain account, or regularly leave a comment, then Instagram knows you have a relationship with that poster, and, as a result, will likely want to see photos from that account.”
Similar to the way Facebook orders content in the News Feed, Instagram will show content to users it thinks have a close real-life relationship. This explains why you see your best friend’s content more frequently on Instagram than content posted by brands you follow.
For brands, this algorithm change means it is a good idea to focus on sharing content that your audience will engage with. Engagement is a long-term ranking factor. If your audience regularly engages with content, Instagram will be more likely to share this content with those users in the future.
3. Whether the Audience Has Shared Posts Before
Facebook is a publicly traded company that has been doing extremely well. So far this year, Facebook is up 31%. For reference, the S&P 500 is up about 10%. The company has been able to sustain this momentum because Instagram has grown so quickly.
Now that Facebook has exceeded 2 billion users, investors expect Instagram will be the next big engine of growth for the company. In order for this to happen, Instagram engineers need to ensure the platform becomes increasingly viral. That explains why the algorithm update places emphasis on content that users share.
When a user shares content, he or she is encouraging other Instagram users to stay engaged with the platform. When time spent on Instagram increases, Instagram has an opportunity to make more money by showing ads to their audience.
When a post is shared outside of Instagram, such as on Facebook or via a text message, the Instagram user is helping to encourage new users to join the platform.
In short, Instagram shares are a critically important mechanism for ensuring that the platform grows and that Instagram’s parent company is successful. For brands to capitalize on this aspect of the algorithm update, it’s important to create content that viewers will actually want to share with other users.
Instagram shares are a particularly powerful metric to focus on because they are also frequently related to post engagement, another important ranking factor.
4. Search Behavior
Instagram’s Search and Explore feature is important to the company for two reasons. First, it helps users find new accounts they like, making Instagram “stickier” by providing users with more good content. Second, it provides the company with helpful information about what users are interested in. Instagram says that Search and Explore content is “selected automatically based on things like the people you follow or the posts you like.”
According to an Instagram company spokesperson, the new algorithm takes past search history into account when deciding what content to show users in their feed.
If, for example, a user recently searched for “shoes” on Instagram, the platform may decide to show content from a shoe brand the person is following earlier in the user’s feed than might otherwise be the case. Similarly, Instagram will determine what to display in the Explore tab based on the content users already like and the profiles they already follow.
For brands, this means that creating some kind of word-of-mouth search behavior by existing followers can be an effective way to improve the visibility of content. It also means that brands that do a good job of associating their account with more popular accounts will be more likely to appear in the Explore tab, making it easier to expand reach.
5. Time Spent Viewing a Piece of Content
Facebook uses the time the users spend engaging with a specific piece of content as a factor that determines future content placement in the News Feed. The company said in a blog post: “From this research, we learned that in many cases, just because someone didn’t like, comment or share a story in their News Feed doesn’t mean it wasn’t meaningful to them.” It is also expected that Instagram’s algorithm takes time spent consuming a piece of content into account.
This is yet another indicator that brands hoping to maintain organic reach will need to focus on creating highly engaging content that people spend longer than average consuming. This is where Instagram video can be an effective platform for brands, given that it naturally takes longer to consume a video than an image.
Instagram will undoubtedly continue to make changes to their algorithm. After all, these changes are critical to the company’s future if it hopes to continue to attract new users. While changes are inevitable, it is unlikely that the company will jettison the factors outlined here.
The timeliness and level of engagement content receives will likely always be important ranking factors. Additional factors include the ways content is contextually related to other accounts, and how long users tend to engage with the content.