Instagram’s changed a lot since it was first released in 2010. Gone are the bevels and blue buttons, replaced by simple icons and a bevy of new features like Instagram Live and Instagram Stories. The changes are more than cosmetic, though. Instagram’s timeline reordering algorithm is perhaps the biggest change.
Taking into account engagement, timing, relevance, quality, and a number of other factors, the Instagram algorithm is designed to surface the best, most relevant content to users. Like most social algorithms, its inner workings are somewhat mysterious, but we know that it favors posts that have high engagement and that are most relevant to users’ interests.
In the early days of Instagram, the timeline was in reverse chronological order, meaning that the newest posts were surfaced first and older posts appeared further down the feed. As Instagram grew and users followed more accounts, it became harder to see everything in the feed, and Instagram found that on average, users were missing 70% of the content in their feeds. In April 2016, Instagram tried to change that with its reordering algorithm.
Buffer’s Alfred Lua breaks the algorithm down into seven factors that determine which posts make it to the top of the feed: Engagement, relevance, relationships, timeliness, profile searches, direct shares, and time spent.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s break those down into just two categories.
Engagement is how people interact with a post. Liking, commenting, and sharing are major factors that determine how successful a post is from an engagement standpoint, but Instagram also takes into account how long people spend viewing photos, videos, and Stories. It also takes into account the number of shares by users in direct messages.
Instagram’s algorithm uses engagement metrics to determine a post’s popularity. Based on the assumption that popular content is usually quality content that users want to see, it pushes those posts to the top of the feed.
Relevance is concerned with the timing of a post and a user’s relationship to it. While Instagram does reorder posts so that it’s not strictly reverse chronological, week old posts don’t get pushed to the top of the feed just because they’re popular.
Timing is still an important factor and the algorithm pairs timing with an Instagram user’s relationship to a post. By taking into account users’ interests and the profiles that they search for and interact with most frequently, Instagram works to make the timeline a hybrid of friends’ posts and the most popular content from Instagram’s top creators.
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With more users on Instagram than ever before, users are following more accounts and sharing more content. There’s been plenty of backlash against the Instagram algorithm, but if the intention is that users are seeing the best content during every session in the app, it’s hard to deny that an algorithm, in some form, is necessary.
Under Instagram’s new algorithm, recent content with the high engagement is surfaced first, as is content that aligns closely with users’ habits and interests. The Instagram algorithm does its best to understand what users like, who they know, who their best friends are, and which content they want to see up top.
The Instagram algorithm is designed to surface a combination of the most popular content and the content that users are most interested in on a personal level. Posts, regardless of account size, still have to be high quality. Even accounts with hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers won’t see much help from the algorithm if users aren’t engaging with their content or profiles.
Top influencers and accounts have the clear advantage under the Instagram algorithm. Because they have more followers and higher reach, their engagement is typically higher, too. Users that follow large accounts are probably going to see posts from those accounts early and often. The real advantage for top accounts comes in the form of exposure. More followers means a higher potential for early engagement, which will push posts to the forefront and create possibilities for more engagement as a result.
The other side of that coin is that the Instagram algorithm makes it difficult for new creators and accounts to gain traction in an increasingly crowded landscape. It’s difficult to garner high engagement without a lot of followers, and it’s hard to get followers when your posts are pushed to the bottom of feeds and the Explore page. Some influencer hopefuls are turning to Instagram pods to boost engagement. Pods are exclusive groups of Instagrammers who like and comment on one another’s posts, boosting engagement in an attempt to game the Instagram algorithm.
The biggest and most active accounts may benefit most from the algorithm from a pure numbers standpoint, but it’s still focused on quality, and poor quality posts don’t typically see high engagement. The Instagram algorithm is far from perfect, but as Instagram’s user base continues to grow, it may be the platform’s only option to keep users coming back for the best content.