What The Instagram Algorithm Does, How It Works & How To Use It To Your Advantage.
Most of us think of the Instagram Algorithm as some sort of puppet-master pulling the strings behind the scenes; deciding who gets seen on the app and who doesn’t, based on its own secret tastes and agendas…but that’s not the truth.
What the Instagram Algorithm Does
The truth is that the Instagram algorithm does indeed decide who gets seen on the app and who doesn’t, but it doesn’t have tastes or an agenda — it has a purpose.
Its purpose is the same as the purpose of all other features built by Instagram: to keep your eyes on the app for as long as possible so they can sell your attention to advertisers to maximize profits. That’s what Instagram exists for, and therefore, what the algorithm exists for as well.
So how does the algorithm keep your eyes on the screen for as long as possible? By showing you the content that’s most likely to keep you on the app the longest, first.
How the Instagram Algorithm Works
The algorithm shows you the content that’s most likely to keep you on the app the longest by continually improving and executing two activities:
First, it studies what you pay attention to on the app to build a model of what content captures your attention the most. Whenever you’re using the app, it measures what content you tend to “like”, comment, share, and save, as well as what accounts you follow, but more importantly, it measures what content and accounts you spend the most time viewing. This data is what most accurately helps the algorithm generate predictions about what content captures our attention because it reveals our unconscious preferences and behaviors. It reveals what we actually spend time looking at instead of what we like to think we spend time looking at on Instagram.
And because it relies on our Instagram use to gather data, the more we use the app, the more data it can analyze to build more accurate and effective models over time.
Second, it uses that model to select which content to show you on each screen, first. Once it understands what you pay attention to on Instagram, it uses that information to evaluate the available content on each screen and it shows you the posts that are most likely to capture your attention, first. By doing this, it maximizes that likelihood that each second that you view the screen you’ll see content that will keep you on it.
Since the content the algorithm can chose from is different based on the screen you’re viewing, how it works is best understood by analyzing how it behaves in each of Instagram’s main content-viewing screens: the Home feed, the Explorer page, Hashtag feeds, the Reels feed, and the Shopping feed.
How the algorithm works on the Home feed
On the Home feed, the algorithm attempts to keep you on Instagram for as long as possible by showing you the posts from accounts you follow that it considers are most likely to capture your attention, first.
Then, it orders them in descending order from most likely to least likely to capture your attention as you scroll down the feed.
How it works on the Explorer page
On the Explorer page, the algorithm attempts to keep you on Instagram for as long as possible by selecting the posts that it considers are most likely to capture your attention from people you don’t follow on Instagram yet.
The posts displayed on the Explorer are unique for all users and ordered from most likely to capture your attention at the top of the feed to less likely to capture your attention as you scroll down.
How the algorithm works on Hashtag feeds
On the Hashtag feeds, the algorithm selects the posts with the highest engagement in a particular hashtag and it displays them to you on the TOP POSTS tab.
The posts in the TOP POSTS tab are displayed in chronological order. The most recent at the top of the feed and the oldest at the bottom.
How it works on the Reels feed
The algorithm works exactly the same on the Reels page as it does on the Explorer page, except that it only selects Reels posts from the accounts you don’t follow on Instagram that are most likely to capture your attention.
The more likely the algorithm considers a Reel is to capture your attention, the higher on the feed it is displayed to you.
How it works on the Shopping feed
On the Shopping feed, the algorithm attempts to keep you on Instagram for as long as possible by selecting and showing you the shoppable posts that it considers are most likely to capture your attention and be purchased from the accounts you follow, as well as the accounts you don’t.
The more likely the algorithm considers a shoppable post is to capture your attention and be purchased, the higher on the feed it is displayed to you.
How To Be Selected By The Instagram Algorithm To Grow Your Account
By breaking down how the algorithm works, understanding what actions lead to a higher likelihood of being surfaced are easier to identify and prioritize (you can check out my Instagram Small Business Class if you want to learn more about the details of how to be surfaced by Instagram in order to build your small business on the platform). These are the important ones:
- Stop looking for “hacks” and focus on executing the most effective activities well. In an effort to grow quickly, many people think that “growth hacks” can trick the algorithm into surfacing their accounts more prominently without having to change the content of their posts. This is a false trap. Although a few years back you could “hack” the algorithm by using bots or comment pods to fake engagement, I’m sorry to say those days are long gone. The algorithm is extremely effective at identifying inorganic engagement and will no longer surface this content. It will also get more effective at this over time, so trying to find “growth hacks” is a waste of time (check out my article about Is Instagram dying? to learn more about why). The algorithm is searching for the content that keeps people’s eyes on the screen for longer, therefore, the only way to significantly increase the likelihood of being surfaced more is to create content that does just that. If you’re able to consistently post content that keeps people on the screen (for longer than the content of other accounts), the algorithm is more likely to surface your content more frequently over time. This is the only way to increase your likelihood of being selected by the algorithm now and in the future. There’s no hacks around it and it’s important to be clear about that so you can focus your energy on creating, not finding hacks.
- Use content formats that keep people’s eyes on your posts the longest. What tools do you have at your disposal to create content that keeps people’s eyes on the screen for as long as possible? One of the most simple and effective ways is choosing the right content format. Everything else being equal, a carousel post is more likely to be seen for longer than a simple one photo post. A video is more likely to be seen for longer than a carousel. A Reel is more likely to be seen for longer than a video. So, if you want to keep people on the screen for longer, focus on using the formats that are most conducive to that — first Reels, second videos, third carousels, and lastly, one photo posts. Now, I know that the longer and more entertainment-based the format is, the more difficult it is to execute well, but learning how to create awesome Reels, videos, and carousels is the only way you’ll be able to continue growing, because they are what the algorithm will most likely increasingly favor. There’s no going back to the days where one-photo posts are the most prominent format on Instagram.
- Measure your engagement weekly in order to continually increase your engagement over time. Since you don’t have access to data telling you how much time people spend looking at your posts, the second best option is to measure your posts’ engagement. The more engagement (likes, comments, shares, and saves) a post receives, the more likely it is that people are spending more time viewing it in comparison to other posts. By increasing your average engagement over time, you’ll increase the amount of time people spend on your posts, and consequently, increase the likelihood that the algorithm will surface your content over time. The most effective way to do this is to try and create new types of content every week, measure how much engagement they receive, identify what type of posts get the most engagement, improve upon that type of content and post it more, while learning to post the content with the least engagement less. You can read my article on how to increase your Instagram engagement for a more detailed description of this system.
- If you have a limited time and budget to create posts, spend it creating the content that’ll generate the most value (hint: likely not Stories). The Explorer Page mostly shows videos, Reels and posts. The Reels page only shows Reels. The Shopping page only shows shoppable content. If you have a limited amount of time and resources to create content, focus on posting these types of content instead of Stories. Why? Stories can help you engage your current audience, but they aren’t surfaced much on any of the other screens, other than the Home feed, which means you likely won’t reach new people from posting Stories. If done well, posting videos, posts, Reels, and shoppable content can keep your audience engaged AND make you discoverable to new audiences. It’s important to prioritize. If you only have 10 minutes of content creation time a day, spend those 10 minutes creating a piece of content that has the highest likelihood of generating the most value for your account. More often than not, a Story won’t be the best option.
That’s it! If you stop looking for hacks and instead focus on using content formats that keep people’s eyes on your posts the longest and also measure your content’s engagement weekly to learn how to continually increase it, your content WILL be surfaced more. It’s easier said than done, but it’s the only sustainable way to make the type of content that the algorithm is looking for: content that will keep people’s eyes on the app the longest so Instagram can maximize its profits.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read my article! If you enjoyed it, you can support me by signing up to my Instagram Small Business class, sharing this article and giving it a bunch of claps. You can also follow me on Instagram to get updates whenever I publish a new piece ❤
If you want to read more about how Instagram works, please read my articles about what Instagram really is and how works, Instagram niches and why they are the key to growth, why you’re losing Instagram followers, Instagram hashtags, how to increase your Instagram engagement, how to pick the right Instagram username, how to write an Instagram bio, the best Instagram content schedulers and automators, Instagram bots, Instagram bots 2022, how to create an Instagram visual grid, how to create an Instagram repost account that makes money, how to check if you’re shadowbanned on Instagram, and why your Instagram account isn’t growing.