The Breakdown of the Instagram Algorithm 2021: Here's How to See Your Content
If you're wondering if the Instagram algorithm has changed again, you've come to the right place.
If you're a major publisher, technology journalist, or Britney Spears' social media team, your friendly contacts at Instagram headquarters are likely reaching out to you on a regular basis for updates on new algorithm changes. If so, this article is not for you.
This article is aimed at everyone who does not have a direct line to Menlo Park. (It's also intended for anyone who doesn't want to fish through unverifiable rumors spread by influencers looking to increase their own engagement. We see you as "Save is the New Like" people.)
Instead, all of the tips in this article are based on hard data or what Instagram itself said about the algorithm and how it works.
Bonus: Download a free checklist This shows the exact steps a lifestyle photographer took on Instagram to grow from 0 to 600,000 followers, without a budget and without expensive equipment.
How the Instagram algorithm will work in 2021
The Instagram algorithm decides which content is displayed. Every time a person opens the app, the algorithm immediately searches through all the available content and decides:
- Which articles are displayed in which order at the top of the news feed?
- What posts do I see in the Explore tab?
- In what order are Stories, Live Videos, Roles, and IGTV Videos displayed in the feed and on the appropriate tabs, etc.
Basically, the Instagram algorithm is a set of rules that controls the organic reach of your content. And it gets a lot of flak for it (queue up a plaintive chorus of people yelling, "Bring Reverse-Chronological Back"). However, according to Instagram, before implementing the algorithm in 2016, users missed 70% of their friends 'posts and 50% of their friends' posts.
But how does the algorithm decide whether it is worth showing a certain piece of content to a certain person at a certain point in time?
Basically, the behavior of the user in the past is examined, all available posts or content are searched and then rated in order to predict how interesting it is for this user. The most interesting content goes up.
Thousands of individual data points, which are also referred to as ranking signals, are taken into account for this purpose. In 2018, Instagram invited a number of tech journalists to its offices (remember offices?) To help explain.
Ranking signals of the Instagram algorithm
The ranking signals of the Instagram algorithm fall under three main categories:
The algorithm assumes that people who have interacted with your account in the past will be interested in your new content. So when a decision is made whether to show any of your followers a post, your relationship will be rated:
- Do you follow each other?
- Did they look for you by name?
- Do you write each other a message or leave comments?
- Do you identify each other in your posts?
- Do you save your posts?
If you have a branded account, you probably aren't best friends with your thousands of followers. However, if you have an audience that is loyal and consistent with your content, the algorithm will recognize it.
In other words, rest assured that working with your followers really does help increase your organic reach (in addition to keeping your monthly analytics reports looking great).
The Instagram algorithm also assumes that the latest posts are most important to people. While Instagram insists that all posts appear in a user's feed at some point, more recent posts tend to rank higher in the news feed than older ones.
For brands, this means that one of the easiest ways to improve your Instagram reach is to use it Post when your audience is online. (We have some more details on this below.)
The algorithm's job is to give people what they want (or, as you know, a healthy mix of what they want, and maybe some diverse and preference-enhancing content). By tracking user affinity and having a good understanding of the contents of a particular photo or video, Instagram knows how to provide basketball highlight videos for basketball fans, astrology memes for millennials, and really scary but strangely cute shark videos for me.
For brands, having a system that resonates with people means your organic content must Be really engaging with your target audience so that the algorithm shows them. There's just no shortcut to defining your niche, developing a consistent voice, and telling a story that matters to people.
Other ranking signals
Instagram also mentioned three other factors that will affect your organic reach, but which have more to do with your audience's behavior than yours:
- Frequency of use: If you have followers who open their feeds 12 times a day, they are more likely to see your post than people who check Instagram twice a day. People who don't open the app are often left behind with content and therefore rely more heavily on the algorithm to choose what they see.
- The following: This logic is similar to the above: people who follow 1000 accounts miss more posts than people who follow 100 accounts.
- Session time: If your followers are spending a lot of time on their feed, they are also more likely to see every available post.
What does this mean for brands? Not much, with the exception that the ideal Instagram follower reads their entire feed several times a day and doesn't follow very many accounts. But instead of telling your audience not to follow anyone but you, read our much more helpful tips below.
Short side note: If you'd like a closer look under the hood of a similar machine, Instagram's parent company, Facebook, outlined the Facebook algorithm in even greater detail in January 2021.
9 tips for working with the Instagram algorithm in 2021
While the Instagram algorithm does not explicitly prioritize carousels, posts that deserve more engagement are rewarded with more reach. Carousel posts make up 17% of feed posts, and according to Hootsuite's own research, they draw 3 times the engagement and 1.4 times the reach of other post types.
They are great for going into more detail about a product or for capturing multiple perspectives on the same topic. For example, almost all of @ socialteesnyc's posts are carousels (because when it comes to housing rescue dogs in homes, the more glamor shots the better.)
This is key whether you're looking for help with reach, engagement, or follower growth. (Because these three things are naturally related.)
On average, companies publish 1.56 posts per day on their feed. If that sounds way too much for your mom and pop operation, rest assured that just showing up regularly (say every day of the week) is enough to keep the ball going.
Again, Instagram has never definitively stated that the algorithm takes your account's posting frequency into account when deciding how to rank your posts. However, having a consistent presence is the best way to create a real connection with your followers.
Pro tip: Consistency requires planning. This is where a social media content calendar is vital.
Do not try to play the system
Take it from us, Instagram pods, Instagram follower buying, and Instagram automation aren't working. We've actually tried them all, and they're about as effective as @ing Adam Mosseri for trying to get verified.
According to Instagram, the algorithm can also detect when your account is dodgy.
Instead of spending your time figuring out which free Instagram likes service isn't a scam (um, they all are), focus on what you can control: authenticity, relationships, and great storytelling.
Ignore the myths of conspiracy theories
For the recording:
- According to Instagram, blocking shadow accounts or "suppressing" posts is not a real thing. However, if you violate Instagram's community guidelines or terms of service, your account may actually be disabled.
- The upper range limit was also false news.
- Creator profiles, business accounts, and verified accounts are not improved by the algorithm, although they have their own advantages (such as analytics).
- Instagram has stated that using the app's other features like "Stories" and "Live" will not improve the ranking of your feed posts. This was of course said in 2018, before Reels and IGTV appeared in the feed (more on that in the next).
Try out new features (especially roles).
According to Rachel Reichenbach, a frog artist from the Bay Area, the algorithm is currently “strengthening” the roles in the feed so that more people can see and use this new function. While Instagram hasn't officially confirmed this, it makes sense – Instagram wants Reels to mimic TikTok's success, as does Stories Snapchat and IGTV YouTube.
Posting a role on Instagram (or 5-7 roles per week according to Reichenbach's Instagram contact) is definitely not a guaranteed way to improve your overall organic reach. However, if you post a really good role, your account will likely be exposed to new eyes and get better engagement. For example, the average NFL team's roles currently attract 67% more engagement than their regular videos.
Hootsuite's own social team tested this theory and found that posting roles helped increase follower engagement and growth rates slightly.
According to Instagram's @creators account, reels currently have people alive browsing them to showcase the best. Official tips for posting Instagram roles that will get noticed include:
- Do not recycle watermarked TikToks
- Shoot vertically
- Use the bells and whistles: filters, camera effects, music, etc.
Long story short, incorporating reels into your Instagram marketing strategy isn't a magic bullet. However, if this suits your brand, it can bring significant benefits.
Better to use hashtags
Hashtags actually predate most feed algorithms: They come from ancient times (um, 2007) when people had to sort information themselves. Machine learning sorts social content in a much more complex way. However, using the right hashtags in your posts can help users discover you even when they aren't following you.
Precise, accurate and well thought-out hashtags signal to people and the algorithm what is in your post and who might be interested in it.
Unlike Instagram ads (the other way to extend reach beyond your existing audience), hashtags are free.
To use hashtags properly, don't just hit #loveandlight and #instagood on everything. Instead, browse your niche, do research, and use hashtags that actually describe what your post is about.
Read our full rundown of Instagram hashtags here.
Post when your audience is online
This tip is the easiest to implement on this list. People spend an average of 30 minutes a day on Instagram, and Instagram wants to bring them fresh, relevant content.
To find out when the best time to post on Instagram is to look at the behavior of your own audience, look into industry benchmarks, and also take into account when people are on Instagram in general.
Pro tip: Hootsuite Analytics recommends the best time to post on each network based on your account's historical data and goals (follower growth, engagement, or click-throughs).
Of course, the best time to post isn't always the cheapest. In the event your audience is online at 4 a.m., we recommend Hootsuite's Instagram scheduler.
For more tips, check out this tutorial on how Hootsuite makes it easier to manage your Instagram presence overall:
Connect with your audience
We saved this for the last time because by winning you win the algorithm from your heart. Whatever your KPIs for Instagram – awareness, conversions, emails, number of followers – success only comes when you appeal to the hearts and minds of your audience.
Take Knix (the comfortable underwear brand) for example: Your team is amazingly good at it. They are so in touch with their audience that they can ask questions that your therapist would think twice about. (And subtract 500 comments while they are.)
The general benchmark for “good” engagement on Instagram is between 1% and 5%. However, the average engagement rate on Instagram for business accounts was 0.85% through 2020. If you want to improve your own engagement rate, here are some action items to add to your list:
Want more tips on how to increase your Instagram engagement? We have more here.
Automate your analytics reports
A good Instagram analytics tool goes beyond vanity metrics to help you pinpoint your target audience and identify the type of content that they keep coming back for.
No matter how busy you are, getting automatic analytics reports will help you with almost all of the tips above. For example, if you take the time to check the numbers once a month and see what works in terms of content, post time, and hashtags, you will save a lot of unnecessary hassle.
Use an Instagram analytics tool to find out:
- when your target audience is online (so you can schedule your posts in this window)
- Which hashtags work well?
- Which contributions deserve real engagement?
In the meantime, a really great tool gives your brand an overview of everything from analyzing audience sentiment to campaign click-throughs to customer service response times.
Beat the Instagram algorithm and save time managing your social media with Hootsuite. Plan and publish content, engage your audience, and measure performance from a single dashboard. Try it for free today.
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