How Does the Instagram Algorithm Work? [+Changes Brands Should Know in 2021]

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Caroline Forsey
Caroline Forsey


Instagram has been around for 11 years.

marketer using instagram and browsing through their feed on a mobile phone

While the app was initially meant for still images, content creators and everyday users can now share photos and videos in various forms, like Story posts, Instagram Reels, and longer-form videos on IGTV.

Although there are many content types to post on the app, simply leveraging one of the options isn’t enough to find marketing success on the platform. This is because, no matter how high-quality the content you share, the Instagram algorithm determines what succeeds on the app and what doesn’t.

While Instagram doesn’t disclose all the factors that the algorithm uses to assess content, they have released general information about what the algorithm looks for. In this post, we’ll explain everything you need to know about the algorithm to succeed on the app, from the factors that play into it and tips and tricks to use to make sure your content doesn’t go unnoticed.

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As a business, unless you’re entirely reliant on paid ads, it’s essential to understand how the algorithm works and what you need to do to ensure that it favors your content and shows your posts to your target audience.

Below we’ll explain how the Instagram algorithm works and the factors it assesses when surfacing your content in news feeds.


How does the Instagram algorithm work?

If you’re a frequent Instagram user, you may have heard people say something like “Bring back reverse chronological order!” when talking about the algorithm. What they’re referring to is when Instagram showed the most recent posts at the top of someone's feed and older ones at the bottom.

It was great for creators and Instagram users because, at some point, your post would be at the top of all of your followers' feeds, so they would be guaranteed to see it.

However, in March 2016, the algorithm changed. Instagram said, “People miss, on average, 70 percent of their feeds. As Instagram has grown, it has become harder to keep up with all the photos and videos people share. This means you often don’t see the posts you might care about the most.”

It’s no longer a question of when you post, but a variety of factors that we’ll discuss below: relationship, timing, frequency, following, usage, interest.


Instagram Algorithm Factors


Perceived relationships are the most important ranking factor.

The algorithm prioritizes sharing content with you based on the relationships you have with the accounts you follow. The more you comment, like, and interact with an account on Instagram, the more likely you will see their content, and see it often.

The algorithm also notes people you direct message, accounts you search for, and photos you’re tagged in.

The relationship factor applies to brands as well. If a consumer regularly likes your content and interacts with it, repeat engagement will make your posts shown to them more often and closer to the top of their feed. This means that it’s essential for you to inspire engagement in your content, which we’ll discuss further below.


Although feeds aren’t chronological, the algorithm still wants users to see the most recent and relevant posts, especially from accounts that you have a stronger, established relationship with.

Timing just means that you’re not as likely to see a post from three weeks ago as you were before 2016.

You can leverage this factor to your advantage by using your profile analytics to discover the best time to post on Instagram, helping you meet your followers when they’re most active on the app and more likely to engage.


Frequency refers to how often a user opens the Instagram app.

Frequent users will see a more chronological feed, but those who seldom open the app will see posts most relevant to their interests and relationships since last opening the app.


Following many people means that the algorithm has more content to choose from when surfacing posts in a feed. When this happens, they prioritize relationships, engagement, and perceived interests.

Again, this factor emphasizes the importance of generating a relationship with your audience, encouraging engagement, and posting at the right times.


The usage factor is similar to frequency, as it relates to how much time is spent on the app.

Those who do quick browsing sessions will see what the algorithm determines to be the day’s highlights based on the factors mentioned above, while those who spend more time on the app will see a more significant number of posts.

Frequent browsers may even run out of content to see, at which point the algorithm will suggest new posts and accounts based on your interactions and engagement history.


Instagram makes many content recommendations, so a portion of the content users see is based on the app's understanding of their interest in specific topics.

If it detects that you always like, comment, and interact with posts around similar topics, you’ll see those posts first. Users who engage with content similar to what you post are also more likely to be shown your posts, and vice versa.

While not a direct factor that Instagram has noted as an algorithm factor in 2016, engagement does play a significant role in the algorithms process.


How Instagram's Algorithm Uses Engagement

In addition to all of the above factors, engagement plays a significant role in how the Instagram algorithm prioritizes and surfaces content to users. The most important engagement metrics are comments, likes, shares, and video views.

Here is a breakdown of how engagement factors into the algorithm:

1. When you first post a photo, it’s shown to a small percentage of your audience.

2. Instagram measures how quickly that photo is interacted with, i.e., comments and likes.

3. Instagram compares the engagement that your post gets to other content you’ve shared at similar times and days. For example, is your post from today at 10 am getting more or less traffic than your post from last Monday at 10 am? The app compares to similar times to ensure accuracy when evaluating your engagement metrics, especially since certain times bring better results.

4. If your photo attracts a lot of engagement, Instagram will show it to a higher percentage of your audience and maybe even share it on explore pages.

5. If your post continues to attract engagement, your photo will stay at the top of your audience’s news feeds and reach more people. If it doesn’t attract a lot of initial attention, less of your audience will see your post.


Instagram Algorithm Update 2021

The 2016 algorithm update was almost a complete overhaul to how the algorithm works, so it is the most notable, publicized, and confirmed by Instagram.

Unfortunately, since then, Instagram doesn’t always make it public when they’ve changed the algorithm. So, if you notice changes to your engagement and reach, it is most likely not the result of an algorithm change but most likely due to the app's growth.

There are so many accounts on the platform, and as people follow more and more users, competition on the app grows. It becomes more difficult to quickly generate a significant amount of engagement, which in turn impacts how, where, and when your posts are shown in your audience's feed. This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to monitor your Instagram analytics.

Instagram Algorithm Recent Changes

That being said, the most recent update to the algorithm as of 2021 is the removal of like counts on people's photos.

The update hasn't yet been made available to all Instagram users, but it would effectively remove a total like count from a user's photo and instead display only the usernames of people that have liked the post. Users who post a photo still have the option to see the number of likes a photo has received, though.

Instagram is making this update because they believe it will do numbers to diminish bullying on the app and protect users from being influenced by social pressure that says they need to get a certain amount of likes on their posts.


How to Get Your Posts Shown Higher on Instagram

Although there is not much you can do to beat the algorithm, or so to speak, there are ways to get your posts shown higher on Instagram.

Post when you know your audience is most active.

Like all social media platforms, one of the easiest ways to generate immediate engagement is to post content when you know your followers are most active, as they’re already browsing the app and ready to see what you have to offer.

To get this information, you can use the native Instagram Analytics tool available to all users with business accounts or another option like Marketing Hub. 

If you’re new to the app, it will be challenging to get this information right away, so come back to this tip after you’ve spent enough time on the app to get valuable, actionable analytics.

Post content you know your audience likes.

Again, use your analytics. Understand the content that your audience engages with the most, whether it’s high-quality product photos, behind-the-scenes content, or Instagram Reels. Use this to your advantage, and continue creating content that they enjoy as they’re more likely to interact with something they like.

Use business-relevant hashtags.

Hashtags are a great way to signal to the algorithm about your content, which can help surface your profile to audience members interested in the hashtags you use.

Don’t overload your hashtag use, but aim to use them in all of the content you share on Instagram, from Stories to IGTV to photo captions.

Encourage engagement and interaction.

Interaction on your profile will come naturally, but encouraging engagement and interaction with the content you share can be valuable in getting the algorithm to work for you.

Create engaging captions that entice users to comment on your posts, ask for likes and shares, and be in conversation with those who interact to inspire loyalty and entice them to return.

You can also place interactive elements in your Instagram Stories, like polls, stickers, and emojis. The benefits of this are twofold, as your customers will be interacting with your content, and you’ll also learn more about their interests and desires based on the responses they give.

Stay consistent.

One of the most important things to do to take control over the algorithm is to stay consistent on the app. Develop an Instagram-specific posting schedule, and stick to it.

It’ll help you stay continuously active on the platform, which allows your followers to continuously engage with your content, which helps the algorithm learn more and more about your account. The more information they have, and the more engagement they see, the higher you will be on your followers’ feeds.


Instagram Story Algorithm

Instagram Stories appear at the top of a user’s feed.

The Stories algorithm prioritizes timeliness, and you’re most likely to see the most recent stories from the accounts you engage and interact with the most. The accounts that the algorithm thinks you have the strongest relationships with will always have their Stories shown before all other stories.

For businesses, this means that it’s essential to maintain an active presence on Instagram Stories and to encourage engagement within your Stories, like polls and asking questions.


Instagram Explore Algorithm

The feed algorithm and Explore page algorithm are relatively similar, as they both show content that Instagram thinks you’ll be most interested in based on your previous app activity. The main difference is that feed content features accounts you’re familiar with and following, while the Explore page is content from new accounts.

You can think of it like this: if one of your favorite things to do on Instagram is watch food videos, your feed will display content from the accounts with food videos that you interact with the most. Your explore page would also contain food videos since the algorithm knows you like them, but you won’t follow those accounts already.

The explore page is based entirely on interests, so, as a business, it’s important to share content related to your brand and utilize elements that would tell the algorithm who to show your content to, like relevant hashtags.

Succeeding on Instagram is not just about posting content regularly. You also need to understand how the algorithm works and leverage its makeup to your advantage. While changes to the algorithm will always happen, staying on top of the trends will help you ensure that you’re prepared for them when they do.

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