How Does the Instagram Algorithm Work?

There is a regular discourse in the marketing world about how to best tackle the Instagram algorithm. We pulled together our top tips for hacking the algorithm for feed posts, stories, Explore pages, IGTV videos, and Reels.


Plus, discover our top tips to hack the Instagram algorithm so that you can get more engagement for your business or brand:


The Instagram Algorithm in 2021

The most crucial tip for optimizing your brand's Instagram performance is consistent on-brand posting and engagement with followers. We'll explain why below, but if you're looking for a "get a ton of follows quick" guide, this is not it. Creating a consistent posting schedule that ties your brand together across your website, other social platforms, email marketing, and any other places you have a digital presence is an essential step. Next is engaging with your audience through likes, comments, DMs, giveaways, and any other way you can think of to interact authentically. The Instagram algorithm is continually learning and adjusting based on users' likes/dislikes. Consumers are very savvy and know when you're just making content to make content or put the bare minimum effort.


Consistent Posting = Happy Customers

Instagram is not only a place to show your products and get sales, but it is also a place to grow brand trust with new consumers. A consistently posting curated Instagram profile with authentic engagement helps show new shoppers that your brand is worth trusting and shopping from over your competitors. Check out the guide below for our breakdown on how to play to your strengths with the Instagram algorithm.


How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Feed Posts in 2021

According to Instagram, there are 6 essential factors that influence the Instagram algorithm for feed posts:

  1. Interest

  2. Relationship

  3. Timeliness

  4. Frequency

  5. Following

  6. Usage

Factor #1: Interest

Your Instagram feed isn't only based on who you follow; it's also based on the accounts and types of posts you've liked historically.

The more the Instagram algorithm thinks you will "like" a type of post, the higher it will appear in your feed. What you see in your Instagram feed is a combination of all of your Instagram behaviors. The accounts you interact with the most, the people you are tagged in photos with, and the type of posts you like and comment on.

This is why consistently showing up on Instagram is so important.

It sends positive signals to the Instagram algorithm — and gives your audience more opportunities to interact with your content. We recommend planning and make sure you always have a post ready to go live on your feed.


What Engagements Are Most Important to the Instagram Algorithm?


When it comes to feed performance, we know the algorithm prioritizes content that receives the most engagement.

But what are the most important metrics of engagements?

According to Instagram, the most important engagements for feed ranking are comments, likes, reshares, and for video posts, views.

Although it's not listed as a critical engagement indicator at the moment, it could also be worthwhile to optimize your content for saves — especially as Instagram trials hiding likes in more countries.


Factor #2: Relationship

The Instagram algorithm wants to prioritize posts from your friends, family and accounts that you care to see.

For Instagram to show you what you want, the algorithm uses your interactions to piece together who is closest to you.

Thomas Dimson, a software engineer at Instagram, shared how Instagram could theoretically figure out who you care about the most, based on how you use the app:

  • People whose content you like (possibly including stories and live videos)

  • People you direct message

  • People you search for

  • People you know in real life

Instagram will try to calculate this relationship and your interest level as soon as you follow someone new by serving their content in your feed.


Factor #3: Timeliness

Not only does the algorithm pay attention to how much engagement your Instagram post gets, but it also looks at how long ago the photo was posted.

Instagram's algorithm cares more about when you posted because it always wants to serve the latest, most exciting posts.

We recommend using a platform like Later or another social media planning software to monitor your best time to post. By posting at your "best times," you are on a fast track to increasing your reach and leading to more likes and followers.

And if you post when most of your followers are online, you give yourself a better chance of racking up those likes. It's also vital to post consistently. At a minimum, you should be posting static posts and stories every day. IGTV videos and Reels are not as easy to create, so there are fewer of them. If you feel comfortable in front of the camera, we highly recommend you start playing with these avenues if you haven't already.

Factor #4 Instagram Interaction

How often do you open the Instagram app? If you're a frequent scroller, your feed will look more chronological since Instagram tries to show you the best posts since your last visit.

If you check the Instagram app less often, your feed will be sorted into what Instagram thinks you'll like, instead of chronologically.


Factor #5: Following

How many people do you follow on Instagram? If you follow many people, then Instagram has more options to choose from, so you probably won't see all of the posts from every account.

On a related note, it could be worth systematically removing inactive or "ghost" followers.

If a large percentage of your following is inactive, they could be doing more harm than good for your account's algorithmic ranking.


Factor #6: Usage

If you spend a lot of time on Instagram, you're going to see more posts as Instagram digs deeper into its catalog.

If you spend enough time on Instagram, you can even run out of new content to see. Once this happens, the algorithm will serve you suggested content from new accounts — based on your previous interactions. However, if you only spend a few minutes in the app each day, then you're going to get the day's highlights from the algorithm.


How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Instagram Stories

Typically, Instagram Stories that appear at the start of your feed are from accounts that you engage with the most, whether through likes, comments, story views, reactions, or DMs.


The Instagram Stories algorithm also puts a lot of focus on timeliness, as it wants to make sure it's always showing you the latest stories from your favorite accounts.

If you regularly engage with an account, their new stories will be bumped to the front of your feed every time they post — even if you've watched all their stories from the previous day. With this in mind, it's a good idea to post to Instagram Stories consistently.


By posting to Instagram Stories more often, you have a better chance of reaching viewers as they browse their daily stories — and the more views you gain, the better your ranking will be.

How the Instagram Algorithm Works on the Explore Page

Overall, the Explore page and the feed algorithm are quite similar — they both deliver content that Instagram thinks you'll be most interested in, based on your prior interactions.


However, your Instagram feed will be made up of content from accounts you already follow, whereas the Explore feed will consist almost entirely of content from new accounts.


The Explore page is continuously evolving, with new topic categories and advanced search functionalities being introduced all the time.

For example, you can now search by keywords, as well as hashtags, to discover feeds of relevant content:


This suggests that the Explore page algorithm considers way more than just the tags on your posts, such as the actual visual content and words in your caption.

Fortunately, getting your posts onto the Instagram Explore page isn't as hard as you might think.


The Explore page algorithm is essentially trying to serve people the best, relevant content. So by continually sharing great content with strong captions and niche hashtags, you're already contributing towards your Explore page ranking.

Similarly, the hashtags results page prioritizes top-performing posts that include your searched tag:


These posts are selected based on engagement (how many likes and comments the post received) and the competition for the hashtag.

Search results will be the same for every user searching a specific hashtag, while the main Explore page is tailored to your interests.

TIP: If you're a brand looking to get on the Instagram Explore page, it's more important than ever to focus on your niche topics and use hashtags to help categorize your posts.

How the Instagram Algorithm Works for IGTV Videos and Reels

For IGTV videos and Instagram Reels, the algorithm is relatively similar to the Instagram feed algorithm.

Content is generally prioritized based on the accounts you interact with the most and the type of posts you typically engage with.

Beyond the home feed, Instagram offers IGTV videos and Reels in relevant explore pages based on what Instagram's algorithm thinks you will like to see.

So how can you give your IGTV videos and Reels the best chance of being seen by new (and existing) audiences?

The trick is to give them as much of a helping hand as possible.

For IGTV videos, you can share a 1-minute preview to your Instagram feed — increasing initial exposure and providing a positive signal to the algorithm. For Reels, always share them to your main Instagram feed, and include several hashtags to boost their discoverability.

7 Ways to Improve Your Ranking with the Instagram Algorithm

If you want to improve your ranking with the Instagram algorithm, the best thing you can do is drive as many interactions (likes, comments, DMs, saves, and shares) as possible. Increasing momentum with your existing community leads to your content getting promoted to new audiences.


#1: Encourage More Interactions with Instagram Stories Stickers

Instagram Stories stickers are a great way to encourage audience engagement — and the more engagement your posts get, the higher they'll be boosted by the Instagram algorithm.

There are lots of Instagram stickers, but the best ones for driving engagement are the poll, emoji slider, and question stickers.

Poll and emoji slider stickers are a quick and easy engagement win and can work for almost any business or brand.

Question stickers may not be as quick to take part in, but they can be just as good at driving genuine engagement with your audience, which is highly valuable for the Instagram algorithm.


#2: Words > Emojis when it comes to Instagram engagement rankings.

Instagram has confirmed comments are super important when it comes to feed ranking — so it's a great idea to encourage as many as possible for your posts.

One of the best ways to do this is by writing good captions that drive engagement. You'll also want to look for ways to increase engagement with written captions instead of just emojis.

TIP: Include a call-to-action in your Instagram caption. This could be as simple as asking your followers to share their opinion, double-tap if they agree, or tag a friend in the comments.


#3: Embrace Instagram's Latest Features

Another fast-track way to gain favor with the Instagram algorithm?

Embrace Instagram's latest features! Instagram will always give their latest features (such as Instagram Reels) a helping hand to help drive adoption, so it's a good idea to jump on the latest trends and take advantage of this extra boost.


#4: Optimize Your Hashtag Strategy

Adding hashtags to your posts is one of the most effective ways to reach more people on Instagram, which means more "views" for the Instagram algorithm to take into account. And with a good hashtag strategy, you won't just reach more people — you'll reach people who are relevant for your business and most likely to engage with your content. Once you've found the best hashtags for your brand, you can curate ready-made lists of hashtags that you can add to your post captions in seconds.


#5: Cross-Promote Your Instagram Content

If you're looking for a quick and easy engagement win to help boost your algorithm ranking, cross-promoting your Instagram content is a great place to start.

The number of channels you can share on Instagram has snowballed: feed, stories, IGTV, and Reels.

And thanks to these different publishing channels, you can strategically use them to drive different audiences to your most recent content.

This could be as simple as sharing an enticing preview of an IGTV video to your feed or even adding a feed post to stories with a "Tap Here" GIF.


#6: Keep On Top of Your DMs

Much like comments and likes, direct messages (DMs) are a strong engagement indicator for the Instagram algorithm.

You may have noticed that the accounts you DM most often are bumped to the front of your Instagram Stories feed — the Instagram algorithm is doing its best to serve you content it thinks you want to see.

One way to use this to your advantage is to regularly invite your audience to DM you with their questions or feedback — or by encouraging "quick emoji reactions."


#7: Use Instagram Analytics to See What's Working

Tracking and monitoring how your content is performing on Instagram is one of the most reliable ways to take on the Instagram algorithm.

Having a better understanding of what's working (and what isn't) will help you develop a finely tuned marketing plan, saving you time and effort in the long run.


If you have a business account, take a look at Instagram's native analytics. This is also how you find out when your audience is online and general demographics and geographic locations. Truly understanding how your content performs – by tracking key metrics over time – is vital to knowing what helps improve your ranking.

The Takeaway

The biggest tip we have to offer is to focus on an authentic relationship with your followers. If your brand is witty and engaging, utilize the story feature to show off your personality. If your brand is more serious and practical, make your Instagram a place of concise, accurate information. Engaging with your audience is the most vital metric to track and is consistently the most important factor when analyzing a brand's financial success from Instagram. Curious about how we can help your brand optimize for the Instagram algorithm? Email us at hi@ansleymediaco.com

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