Ever since Instagram nixed their reverse-chronological feed back in 2016, online creators have asked questions (and spread rumors) about how the Instagram algorithm works.
Should I post more photos or videos? How many hashtags should I be using on each post? Will Stories or IGTV help more people see my post? Why isn't anyone seeing my latest posts?
For a long time, Instagram has kept how the algorithm works a secret. But despite the rumors and the secrecy, the Instagram algorithm isn't some mysterious beast that can't be tamed.
It turns out the key to growing your Instagram following lies in understanding the basic principles behind what the Instagram algorithm does, and how it chooses which posts to surface. Once you know the principles behind how the algorithm works, you can fine-tune your Instagram strategy to work with the algorithm instead of trying to fool it.
To give you a head start, I've collected all the latest information on how the Instagram algorithm works in 2020, and busted some of the most common myths around how the algorithm works. We'll be sure to keep this post up-to-date if any of this information changes in the future.
Let's dive in.
Out with the old, and in with the new (algorithm)
To understand how the Instagram algorithm works, you need a little background on how Instagram's business works. Instagram, like most other social media platforms, is in the business of selling advertising. A lot of advertising—the platform brought in more than $20 billion dollars in ad revenue in 2019 alone.
The more time users spend browsing photos and videos from their friends (along with the odd cat video), the more money Instagram makes. Every change to the platform is designed to grab your attention, and keep it for as long as possible.
When Instagram first launched, all Instagram feeds were shown in reverse chronological order. The newest posts were shown first, and users could scroll through their feed to see every post from people they follow. The experience was simple, but it wasn't the best for engagement rates. In fact, Instagram claims users were missing 70 percent of the posts in their feed.
At some point, though, Instagram determined that showing every post from every follower in reverse order wasn't the best approach for keeping users engaged, and the Instagram platform changed forever.
How the Instagram algorithm works in 2020
The Instagram algorithm is a complex formula that decides what photos you and other users get to see in your feed. It's the algorithm's job to decide what users are most likely to enjoy seeing on Instagram, and serve those posts first, with the goal of maximizing the time users spend in the app.
“To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.” – Instagram announcing the new algorithm in a 2016 blog post
The Instagram algorithm changes all the time, using machine learning (along with a huge amount of data) to create a unique feed for everyone based on past behavior. All the posts from people you follow are still there—the app just shows them in a different order.
The actual formula for the algorithm itself is a closely guarded secret. But in 2018 Instagram engineers shared the main factors influencing how each users' feed is displayed:
Factor #1: How interested you'll be in a post
The Instagram algorithm predicts which posts you'll like the most, based on a few different factors.
First, the posts that end up at the top of your feed are the ones you're most likely to engage with. The algorithm works this out in real-time based on all your past Instagram behaviors:
- Posts you've viewed
- Posts you've liked
- Posts you've commented on
- Posts you've shared
- Friends you interact with
- Stories you watch
- Posts you're tagged in
It's not just your behaviors that affect post ordering, either. The algorithm also uses image recognition tech to analyze the content of each post. Think of it like an invisible hashtag.
Say you frequently engage with pictures of cute puppies (I mean, who doesn't, really). The Instagram algorithm will give preference to dog-related posts when constructing your feed.
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Who doesn't like cute puppies in their Instagram feed? Image via Puppies of Instagram
Posts on Instagram are ranked based on past behaviors for similar content, with top-ranking posts receiving prime placement in users' feeds.
Factor #2: How recently a post was shared
Another top-ranking factor in the algorithm is the timeliness of each post.
Instagram knows users are most likely to engage with a post soon after it's shared. So the algorithm serves the most recent, relevant posts to each user.
To show you what I mean, I just cracked open the app on my phone and the first post that came up was this mural from ConvertKit creator Eric Friedensohn:
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👁 SEE YOU 🙂 #sneakpeek of a product collab I’ve been working on with @rareform. ✍️ Launching this Thursday. . Get on my “Extra Paint” newsletter for first dibs. Link in bio. . . . . #efdot #efdotcollab #muralartist #colorfulart #digitalillustration #juxtapoz #itsnicethat #hypebeastart #detailedart #brooklynartist #colorfulart #muralart #muralists #muralist ##streetartist #neoncolors #spraypaintart #supportyourlocalartist #seeyou #nycart #nycartist #brooklynart #brooklynartist #doodleartist #blueandpink #lineart #illustrationart #muralist
Instagram prioritizes timely posts in users' feeds. Image via Efdot Studio on Instagram
Recent posts are prioritized over weeks-old ones—Eric shared this post yesterday—it wasn't even the most recent post he had shared. But it showed up first in my feed.
Prioritizing posts by recency is great for seeing more content you like. But it makes it unlikely that regular users will see posts shared more than a few days ago. It's important to make sure you're posting at times when your audience is most likely to see your posts—I'll explain how you can do this later in the post.
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Factor #3: How close you are to the account sharing each post
Ever followed someone and then started seeing ALL their posts show up at the top of your feed? That's not an accident.
We tend to engage more with posts from friends, family, and people we're close to. Instagram's algorithm takes advantage of this by giving higher rankings to accounts you've interacted with a lot in the past, like commenting on their posts, being tagged in photos together, or following the same users.
For example, Hollie Arnett of Black and White Studios (who creates the wonderful illustrations for many of the posts on our blog) and I follow a few of the same people, so her posts tend to show up frequently in my feed:
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Okay, confession time. ⠀ ⠀ I haven't been practising what I preach 🙈⠀ ⠀ I've shared recently on the feed and in stories about telling your brand story, being visible online, and engaging with your audience so that they get to know you and your face, and can relate to you more. ⠀ ⠀ Truth is, I haven't been doing that super well myself. It's a lot easier to hide behind the product or service that you offer, and expect that your work will speak for itself, but that's just not the truth. ⠀ ⠀ People engage with people. ⠀ ⠀ So, I've been trying to chat with you all more on stories, and over the last week or so you'll have seen more of my face and read more about my journey and experiences on the feed. And there's plenty more where they came from. I'm committing to showing up, being visible, and representing Black & White Studios 👊⠀ ⠀ Please tell me I'm not the only one who finds this a mission, and we can commit to this together!
The Instagram algorithm prioritizes posts from those close to you. Image via Hollie Arnett on Instagram
The more you interact with another user through comments, DMs, or tags, the more that person's post will show up in your feed.
Factor #4: How much you use Instagram
The way you use Instagram and the amount of time you spend on the platform affects your feed as well, although not quite as much as the first three factors we've seen.
Instagram always tries to show the best posts since your last visit. If that last visit was, say, 10 minutes ago (no judgment, but you know who you are), your feed will seem more “chronological”, since there aren't as many new posts to rank. On the flip side, if it's been a few weeks since you've logged on, your feed will be sorted more by what you like.
Likewise, if you spend a lot of time browsing Instagram, the algorithm will dig deeper into the catalog of posts to give you more variety. Short sessions will only surface the most recent and relevant posts—kind of like a stream of highlights.
Factor #5: How many people you follow
Last but not least, your feed adapts automatically based on the number of accounts you follow. If you happen to follow a lot of people, Instagram will pick posts from a wider range of accounts to place in your feed, so the chances of seeing every post from a specific person will be slim.
Does the Instagram algorithm actually work?
So the Instagram algorithm is built to show the highest-engagement, most relevant posts first.
Why is this important? It means showing up consistently and posting fantastic content is essential to growing your audience—and your business.
Posting regularly means you'll always be at the top of your followers' minds (and feeds), helping more people see your posts and helping the algorithm work for you.
The only problem with this approach?
Creating great content takes hard work and consistency.
If you don't post consistent content with high engagement, it's more likely that a smaller percentage of followers will see your posts.
Now that's not because Instagram is limiting your reach, as a lot of people believe. It's because the algorithm places the new post so far down a user's feed that they don't ever reach it.
Because of this, not everyone has been pleased with the new algorithm.
Because Instagram was so vague with updates around how the algorithm worked, some creators started seeing less reach with their posts. “As more users and businesses join Instagram and post more often, but feed browsing time stays stable per user,” this article on TechCrunch explains, “the average post will get drowned out and receive fewer views.”
This uncertainty led some creators to assume the new algorithm was limiting their reach, due to “shadow banning” (where the algorithm hides your posts from users who don't follow you) or other tactics.
To their credit, Instagram did try to clear up rumors about the algorithm negatively affecting users' follower growth at the start of 2019.
Despite the backlash about confusing ordering, Instagram now says relevancy sorting has led to its 800 million-plus users seeing 90 percent of their friends’ posts and spending more time on the app compared to the previous reverse-chronological feed.
Seven tips to make the Instagram algorithm work for your business
The best way to take advantage of the algorithm for your business is to create super-engaging content that stands out in a crowded feed.
Here's how you can create content that the Instagram algorithm is incentivized to promote, and get the algorithm working for you:
Tip #1: Stop blaming the algorithm
Especially when you're new to Instagram, it's easy to blame the algorithm for your lack of reach or engagement.
Some Insta-myths busted by Instagram's engineers:
- Instagram does not hide posts in the feed, and you’ll see everything posted by everyone you follow if you keep scrolling.
- Instagram’s feed doesn’t favor users who use Instagram Stories, IGTV, or other special features of the app.
- Instagram doesn’t downrank users for posting too frequently or for other specific behaviors
- “Shadow banning” (where the algorithm hides your posts from users who don't follow you) is not a real thing, and Instagram says it doesn’t hide people’s content for posting too many hashtags or taking other actions.
Scrambling to switch your content strategy to adapt to the algorithm is only a short-term “hack” that will distract you from creating quality content. Once you accept that the algorithm is what it is, you can move on to Tip #2.
Tip #2: Engagement counts more than ever
As we've seen, the Instagram algorithm shows users the posts they're most likely to engage with. This means your top goal should be to encourage views, likes, and comments, so you remain at the top of your followers' feeds.
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This van belongs on the coast. Snapped this pic this evening after a rad day of surfing in the sun. Our main build series episodes are complete (minus a video on our lights, power system, and heating) we get soooo much done in our latest video. I’d love for you to see it. Let me know in the comments if you’re happy for the build series to be over 😂 Left.ly/vanbuild Powered by @battlebornbatteries Lighting up the night with @lightforce_usa And heating our lovely home with @heatsocom
Engaging posts are more likely to be promoted by the Instagram algorithm. Image via Levi Allen on Instagram
How do you find the most engaging posts? If you haven't already, sign up for an Instagram Professional account, and take a look at the Instagram metrics for your existing content.
Sort your feed by engagement—this will put the most engaging posts at the top of the list. These are the posts most likely to be promoted by the Instagram algorithm. Focus on creating more of these types of posts.
Likewise, scroll to the bottom—these are your least engaging posts. Adjust your strategy so you're sharing fewer posts that don't see engagement, and you should quickly see a positive impact in your audience growth.
Tip #3: Differentiate yourself from the noise
Instagram is a busy place full of diverse people. It's important to find what helps you stand out from the noise—either the topics you post about, or the types of content you share.
Your target audience might be interested in anything from digital products and video marketing to contemporary art or even raising goats.
(Seriously, we know at least two goat-bloggers using ConvertKit. We're thinking of organizing a goat-off).
Ponder this: Why would people follow you over everyone else that's creating similar content?
To show you what I mean, take a look at Angel Marie's Instagram feed, and compare it to that of Ash Ambirge over at The Middle Finger Project. Both women post about roughly the same topics (namely business and personal development) and both have roughly the same number of followers. But their styles couldn't be more different:
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The importance of a smile, laughter or sense of joy is one the most valuable and natural things that us humans can do. – Getting caught up in the stresses and barriers within your life can easily take that away, and I honestly have a bad habit of allowing it to. – But then I take a second to think of the fact that I’m ALIVE! I’m PRESENT right here, right now in this very moment. And so are you. – Appreciate your existence. Enjoy the now. Smile. Laugh. Be happy, my friend. Because you’ve got one hell of a life to live. 🙌🏽
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📖 💬🖕 “We can afford to live better lives than we are. If you're not on a train to somewhere beautiful, right now, maybe you should be.” . . 💌 Love Note From The Middle Finger Project Book (Psst, send over a digital copy to a friend for her #sundayread! You can do it in one click via @Amazon. 🤗 Link in bioooooo!) . .
If you can't answer this question, it's likely that your content isn't very differentiated, and it's worth taking the time to reconsider your strategy.
Tip #4: Photos and videos are treated equally
Pro tip: the Instagram algorithm doesn't prefer image posts or video posts over the other.
That said, the algorithm promotes posts that each user is most likely to engage with—and video posts on Instagram see twice the engagement of images. Videos also play automatically in your followers' feeds, so they're a great way to grab attention and encourage users to share and comment on your posts.
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Video posts and image posts are treated equally by the Instagram algorithm. Image via A Beautiful Mess on Instagram
If your audience spends more time watching videos than looking at photos, there's a good chance your videos will appear more frequently in their feeds. Try experimenting with a good balance of content—image posts, video posts, Stories, user generated content, and even IGTV—and see if your engagement rises.
Tip #5: Business or personal account? The choice is yours
Just like with post types, the Instagram algorithm doesn't give any preference to business accounts versus personal accounts. Switching won't help you show up any more frequently in your audience's feed.
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The Instagram algorithm doesn't prefer personal or business accounts. Image via Creators on Instagram
One caveat: You do need a business account to access Instagram Insights. As you experiment with growing your audience, Instagram Insights can help you monitor how your content is performing and pull valuable insights to improve your strategy and speed your growth.
Tip #6: Stick to a consistent posting schedule
The more frequently and consistently you post, the more likely your audience will see and engage with your content.
To find the best times to post, crack open your Instagram Insights and head to the Audience tab. At the bottom, you'll see a graph showing the times of day your audience is online—pay attention to which times have the highest bars on the graph. This will give you an idea of when your posts are most likely to see higher engagement.
Remember: The best posting schedule is one you can stick to. Posting multiple times a day might grow your audience faster, but if you have client work or other commitments, that might not be possible for you. Choose a posting schedule that works for you, and try to stick to it as best you can.
Tip #7: Use captions to drive engagement
Conversations encourage interactions—and the best way to start a conversation with your audience is through your captions.
Writing a killer Instagram caption is just as important as posting great content. Captions can help you encourage more engagement on your post including likes, comments, and even drive clicks to your website or landing page. Captions also let you provide more context with posts, helping your audience understand your brand better.
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⚡ IT HIT ME LIKE A BOLT OF LIGHTNING ⚡ This morning, I went downstairs like I do every day to make my tea (I don’t do coffee). I started the kettle, put my teabag in my favorite mug and then I got a little bolt of lightning that I know I needed, and maybe you do too… The little bolt of lightning said: YOU’RE WAITING FOR A SIGN, BUT THE UNIVERSE IS WAITING FOR YOU TO DECIDE. See, I’ve been trying to make a big decision the last few months. My heart knows it is something I MUST do…but it is so huge and scary and unknown and so out of my depth that I just freeze up. So I keep thinking – is it really the right time to start this new thing? I have a lot already going on… I kept thinking: “If it’s the right time, I’ll know – I’ll get a sign or something that it’s time to take the big scary step.” But I’ve been thinking about it all wrong. And it hit me like a ton of bricks while I made my tea! I’m not going to get anywhere if I am “waiting for a sign” that it’s the right time to move forward because let’s be honest: it never “feels” like the perfect time. I’m only going to start seeing things come together for me around this new project if I actively DECIDE. If I keep waiting… I’m never going to get there! What have you been holding back on deciding? Let me know in the comments?
The Instagram algorithm promotes posts with engaging captions. Image via Mariah Coz on Instagram
A few tips for writing great Instagram captions:
- Longer captions tend to perform better. Hubspot found that captions longer than 500 characters drive the most engagement. Play with both long and short captions, and see what works best for your audience.
- Always include a call-to-action (CTA) in your captions. That could be as simple as asking followers to like, share, or comment on your posts, or it could also include a link to check out a landing page or a page on your website.
- Experiment with using fewer hashtags. Instagram's image recognition tech can organize posts based not just on the hashtags you include, but also on the content within the posts themselves. According to HubSpot, using more than six hashtags per post can decrease your engagement. Try using fewer hashtags and see if your engagement stays steady.
The secret to “beating” the Instagram algorithm?
Contrary to popular belief (and despite the clickbait headline), there's no secret tricks or hacks to “beat” the Instagram algorithm.
(Sorry to disappoint you.)
It all comes down to posting high-quality, engaging content. The Instagram algorithm might be constantly changing, but your content strategy needs to be solid as a rock.
The new Instagram algorithm forces you to be more authentic, personal, and engaging. So don't worry so much about the numbers—focus on creating and sharing great content, and you'll automatically find that the algorithm starts working for you.
Now that you know what to do, it's up to you to put in the hard work. I know you can do it!
You know what doesn't have an algorithm? Your email list. Sign up for a free ConvertKit account, and start growing your email list today!