Instagram Has Answered Your Questions About How Its Algorithm Works
This article originally published June 4, 2018.
It’s been nearly two years since Instagram switched up its algorithm from showing all posts in reverse chronological order to a more complex, machine-learning driven approach. As soon as the platform announced this change, uproar ensued. (A group of users even spearheaded a Change.org petition imploring Instagram not to move away from the reverse chronological format.)
When Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) started prioritizing one account’s content over another, users and businesses started complaining about fairness, especially for those trying to build brands and bolster marketing on the platform. It was a mystery to many users: What would cause Instagram to rank posts from one account over another in users’ feeds? And the fact that different users would see posts from the same account at different intervals made it all the more opaque and hard to crack.
To demystify the change, the company recently hosted an information session at its San Francisco offices to set the record straight to a group of reporters about how the algorithm decides what an individual user sees.
As TechCrunch reports, prior to the flip to algorithmically generated feeds, the average Instagram user would never see 70 percent of all posts by brands and friends they followed -- and 50 percent of friends’ posts alone. Today, the company says that users see 90 percent of their friends’ posts and spend more time on the app than they did in early 2016. Yet, despite there being half a billion daily users, the platform is more saturated than ever with individuals and brands vying for eyeballs.
The company reportedly has no plans to give users the option to revert to a reverse chronological feed, despite demand. Instead, it’s decided to educate users about how the algorithm works. Here are the factors that go into how Instagram prioritizes what an individual user will see as they scroll, according to the company:
Instagram uses machine learning to surface up the posts a user is most likely to care about based on past behavior. If a user has liked, commented on or lingered over similar content in the past, they’ll likely see it again. For example, if you always hover over photos of slices of cheesy pizza, Instagram will show you similar images more often.
Even though Instagram has ditched showing posts in chronological order, it still won’t show you something posted too long ago. Most posts users see are a few days, if not minutes old.
If you interact with a certain person or account frequently -- commenting on their photos, being tagged together in their posts -- you’ll see their posts more often.
Instagram also detailed three ways in which usage patterns influence the makeup of feeds:
The more often a user opens the Instagram app, the more often Instagram will refresh that users’ feed, with the above considerations in mind, to surface new, relevant content.
The more accounts a user follows, the more options Instagram has of what to serve up. Instagram will try to diversify feeds of users who follow a large volume of accounts.
The average duration of an Instagram user’s scroll session also comes into play. If you have short sessions, you’ll be more likely to see the most relevant posts during those brief periods. But if you tend to scroll for longer periods of time, you’ll see a wider variety.
In addition to outlining the algorithm’s innerworkings during the media info session, Instagram also took the opportunity to dispel some common myths about how it generates feeds.
- For one, if you scroll long enough, you’ll see everything from everyone you follow -- Instagram won’t purposely hide anything from you just because it thinks you aren’t interested.
- You’ll see more photos (versus videos) if you tend to linger looking at photos longer; likewise you’ll see fewer videos if you tend to scroll past them without watching.
- If a user often posts Stories or Live videos, taking advantage of all of the app’s bells and whistles, Instagram won’t value them as a power user and promote their content in users’ feeds, contrary to suspicions.
- Just as Instagram doesn’t reward power users, it doesn’t silence or “downrank” those who post extremely often or add dozens of hashtags to their captions. However, a user is not likely to see multiple posts from the same account in a row.
- Instagram weights content from personal accounts (i.e. friends) and business or brand accounts equally.
Back in March 2016, when Instagram announced plans for the feed algorithm, Entrepreneur contributor and Instagram expert Lesya Liu told readers to embrace the algorithm change away from chronological feeds.
“It’s in the platform's best interest to show engaging, relevant content to its users, so that they stay longer on the platform,” wrote Liu, who offers an online course titled “Cracking the Instagram Algorithm.” “That's why the algorithm’s only job is to scour through the platform and find awesome content, which will be shown to more and more people.”
Users have a say in what content they see -- they more they like, comment and linger on certain types of Instagram content, the more Instagram will show it. But if you’re looking to get more eyes on your account, engagement can help you, too. As Liu has pointed out, the more you interact with others on the platform, the more likely your content is to land in Instagram’s Explore section, where users can find new content from accounts they don’t follow. This is true even for those with low follower counts -- Instagram offers a mix of popular and lesser known accounts in Explore.
And as always, individuals and brands looking to grow their Instagram audiences can also use hashtags relevant to the content of their posts to expand their reach, especially now that users can follow hashtags in addition to accounts.
Update, June 5, 2018:
Liu shared her thoughts on Instagram’s explanation of how its algorithm works with Entrepreneur via email, disputing aspects of what the company shared based on her experience with and knowledge of the platform.
The claim that business and personal accounts by default have equal weight in the Instagram feed ranking contradicts parent company Facebook’s business model, she notes. “Business pages tend to have an ever-declining organic reach versus other types of posts, such as posts from your friends or groups,” Liu says. In January, Facebook announced it would de-prioritize brand and publisher posts in News Feeds in favor of those from users’ friends and family.
Liu also expressed surprise at Instagram’s insistence that it doesn’t silence users when they engage in a flurry of activity over a short time period. Anecdotally, she says she’s seen situations where users that were too active had “unexplainable” lower reach rates temporarily.
“When you like or follow too many posts or people in a short period of time, you get an in-app message that you've hit hourly limits,” Liu says. “If you continue to break hourly limits pretty consistently, then, you start noticing decreased reach rates. If you continue to power though these signs, you will be eventually banned.”