— June 20, 2018
In an effort to improve transparency, Instagram has broken down the algorithm it uses to organize content in users’ feeds.
The detailed announcement arrived in the wake of privacy scandals surrounding Facebook, the parent company of the photo-sharing platform. In April, Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg appeared in Congress to field questions regarding the seizure of users’ personal information by political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
The Instagram Algorithm’s “Big 3”
According to Instagram, three factors principally determine the content in your feed: interest, timeliness, and relationship.
The platform uses image recognition technology to assess the content of a given post.
If you frequently engage with posts that feature, say, dogs, the algorithm gives preference to dog-related images and videos when organizing your feed. The work-in-progress technology functions similarly to hashtags, and this carries serious weight for advertisers: rather than filling captions with buzzwords to reach as many people as possible, you can rely on the content itself to target consumers.
Timeliness refers to the date and time at which an image or video is posted. It’s unlikely that a regular user will see something posted more than a few days ago.
Finally, Instagram recognizes the importance of relationships.
After all, social media users are there to see what their friends, family, favorite celebrities, and ex-lovers are up to. Therefore, the more often you and another user interact – whether through likes, comments, DMs (sup), or tags – the more often you will see each other’s content.
Less Important Instagram Ranking Factors
There are three second-tier criteria that determine the ordering of users’ feeds: frequency, following, and usage.
Instagram wants to show you the best stuff that has been posted since your last visit. What gets categorized as the best new content depends on how long you were away.
Additionally, the more accounts you follow, the less content you will see from each individual and brand.
Finally, the longer you’re on the app during a given visit, the harder Instagram has to work to produce relevant images and videos. This forces the app to expand the boundaries of what is considered relevant, thus producing lower quality content as the visit continues.
Does the Instagram Algorithm Actually Work?
Instagram reports that, whereas users used to see only half of their friends’ content, the algorithm now allows them to see nearly all of it.
This improvement in user experience ostensibly cancels out widespread complaints that featured content is too old. The trade-off: you see more of your friends’ posts, but you run a higher risk of liking a week-old picture and burning a bridge with Sally from freshman year. Josh Radnor weeps: “What if she could have been the mother of my children?”
Complaints aside, users broadly accept the trade-off: they’re now spending several more minutes on the app per visit compared to the era of reverse chronology. True, the implementation of Instagram Live and Stories certainly contributes. And the ability to repost friends’ Stories in which we are tagged will definitely keep us around for a little longer. As time per visit grows and the number of users approaches one billion, the platform’s loyalty to the algorithm makes more and more sense.
The platform also made clear than neither images nor videos are given preferential treatment, and that personal accounts are weighed equal to business accounts.
How Does the Instagram Algorithm Affect Advertisers?
As previously mentioned, Instagram has the image recognition technology it needs to organize posts based on image and video content rather than hashtags.
This is good news because, although the hashtag is an effective way to reach your target audiences, it may appear spammy or intrusive in your captions. Now, as long as you post content similar to what your targets regularly engage with, the algorithm will prioritize your brand in their feeds.
The relationships factor is also informative: Instagram shows users the content with which they interact most often. Refine your posts to encourage views, likes, and comments to ensure that you remain a top presence in users’ feeds.
Finally, although the algorithm does not (allegedly) favor either images or videos, make sure to cultivate a strong video presence. Video content is increasingly popular and continues to grow more dominant in the capture of users’ attention. Plus, users are more likely to share video content and to retain messages communicated through video. To get the most value out of this trend, take advantage not only on Instagram, but across all social channels.