How Instagram Algorithm Actually Works

Harshita Agrawal

Harshita Agrawal is the Founder at eSocMedia. She is a social media and influencer marketing specialist who spends most of her time behind the screen. She's also an avid reader and a travel enthusiast.

If you’re an Instagram fanatic, chances are that you would want to improve your post reach on Instagram by learning about the Instagram algorithm. The secret to being successful on any platform be it search engines or social media lies in their algorithm. The better you understand their algorithm, the faster you can rank your posts higher on them.

Understanding Instagram algorithm is simple in theory but harder in practice. This is simply because when it comes to following the algorithm, there are no essential do’s and don’ts. However, understanding the basics of the Instagram algorithm can help you decide elements like how you can improve the post reach.

Now, let’s understand the essential elements of the algorithm and how to master the Instagram algorithm.

The Core Elements of Instagram Algorithm

Instagram uses machine learning and image recognition to decide which posts are to be shown to which user. For example, if their algorithm detects that you interact more with posts that have cats, they will show more cat pictures on your feed.

This aspect of Instagram to show what people are genuinely interested in has also increased the time people spend on the app. The Instagram team recently explained a group of reporters how their algorithm works, and here’s the gist of it:

The Core Elements of Instagram Algorithm

The three core elements of the Instagram algorithm are:

  • Interest
  • Timeliness
  • Relationship

Beyond these three core factors, there are three additional signals that influence rankings:

  • Frequency
  • Following
  • Usage

Core elements of the Instagram Alghoritm

#1 Interest

Interest is what you are going to love most on Instagram and like/comment when it appears on your feed. Your engagement with the post helps Instagram pick what’s best for you.

If you’ve ever noticed Instagram Explore page, then you would have seen that clicking an image shows all similar posts on your feed. The motive behind is just the same: Flooding the feed with everything one likes so they can stay longer on the platform.

How Instagram Algorithm Actually Works

Takeaway for you: If you’re a brand trying to reach a bigger audience, then you need to create engaging content that people spend time liking and commenting. If people are interacting with your content, Instagram will amplify its reach to similar audiences who are interested in similar content.

#2 Timeliness

The recency of the post is one of the most crucial factors on what is shown at the top of your Instagram page. You would often notice that all your top posts are the ones that have been recently shared. The reason for this is obvious, Instagram users want to see what’s new every time they open their Instagram account.

How Instagram Algorithm Actually Works

This is also one of the reasons why Instagram introduced “you’re all caught up” last year to make sure their users are not looping around old content and enjoy the latest content.

Takeaway for you: For brands and influencers trying to grow their Instagram account, timing of your post is very important. It’s best to post on times when your users are online so your post is at the top of their feed when they are watching.

#3 Relationship

How often you’re tagged in someone’s posts or how often you interact with them also determines what makes to the top of your feed. Last year, Facebook decided to put “friends and family” above advertisers, and Instagram wants to make sure of that too.

Thomas Dimson, Instagram’s Director of Engineering, explained how Instagram could potentially figure out who you care about the most, based on how you use the app: 

  • People whose content you like 
  • People you direct message
  • People you search for
  • People you know in real life

For example, after you recently follow someone, you’ll see a lot of their content in your feed. But if you don’t engage with it, then you’re signaling to Instagram that you might not be that interested anymore. 

Hence, your relationship, interaction, and engagement with other users also decides the content of your feed.

The takeaway for you: Encouraging user-generated content will help you stay at the top. When more and more people are tagging you and you’re tagging them, there’s a higher chance of your posts showing at the top of your followers’ and their related accounts.

Additional signals that influence Instagram rankings

#4 Frequency

The algorithm will try to show you the best posts since your last visit. So if you scroll the Instagram often, your feed will look more “chronological” since Instagram tend to show you the best posts since your last visit.
If you check the Instagram app rarely, then your feed will be sorted more to what Instagram believes you’ll like, instead of chronologically.

If you check the Instagram app rarely, then your feed will be sorted more to what Instagram thinks you’ll like, instead of chronologically.

#5 Following

If you follow a lot of people, Instagram will be picking from a wider breadth of authors so you might see less of any specific person.

On the “Following” tab you can find two categories of your followings:

  • Most shown in Feed. Accounts you’ve interacted with during the past 90 days, and which have shown up most frequently thanks to Instagram’s algorithms.
  • Least interacted With. People whose content you see on the Feed less. Instagram suggests to review this category regularly and unfollow accounts that are not relevant anymore. This action will increase the density of high-quality posts in your Feed and Stories.
On the “Following” tab you can find two categories of your followings

Keep in mind, that Instagram does not hide posts in the feed, and you’ll see everything posted by everyone you follow if you keep scrolling.

#6 Usage

How long you spend on Instagram determines if you’re just seeing the best posts during short sessions, or it’s digging deeper into its catalog if you spend more total time browsing.

If you spend in the app only a few minutes each day, then you’ll get the day’s highlights from the algorithm.

How often does Instagram algorithm update

Source: Official Instagram account @creators

Instagram Algorithm Myths

Apart from the factors above, Instagram has also highlighted several factors that DO NOT contribute to their algorithm.

There’s no preference given to videos or stories over images

As such, the Instagram algorithm does not favor video content over images. All content type is considered equal and what’s shown depends on the factors listed above.

Recently, Instagram has confirmed that the algorithm has zero bias when it comes to photo and video content.  

There’s no preference given to videos or stories over images
Source: Official Instagram account @creators

The Instagram algorithm prioritizes the type of content that a user most connects with — so if they consistently spend more time engaging with videos, you’re likely to see more video content in their feeds.

Big amount of likes and comments in the first 30 minutes doesn’t impact the algorithm

There is a common myth that the performance of a post in the first hour (according to other sources, 30 minutes) is a strong predictor of its long-term success. 

 Yet Instagram claims posts are not prioritized just because they get more interactions in the first 30 minutes. The algorithm will show your content to people who regularly engage with your content.

Big amount of likes and comments in the first 30 minutes doesn't impact the algorithm
Source: Official Instagram account @creators

So it makes no sense to delete content if it doesn’t go viral in the first 30 or 60 minutes or to buy likes and use Comments Pods to receive more engagements.

Comments Pods doesn’t work on the long term and could bring only a short term advantage

Find out how Comments Pods Impact your Engagement

The algorithm is adapting to new patterns in data, so it’s impossible to game the system in the long-term. It can recognize the inauthentic activity, e.g. Comments Pods.

Source: Official Instagram account @creators

There’s no preference given to business accounts over personal accounts

All types of accounts are treated equally, so there is no sense to switch to a Personal Profile.

There’s no preference given to business accounts over personal accounts
Source: Official Instagram account @creators

Sponsored or branded content doesn’t impact the Instagram feed ranking

Don’t be afraid to disclosure your sponsored posts it doesn’t affect the algorithm. Even if you use the Instagram official brand partnership labels for sponsored content.

Even a one-word comment count by the algorithm

One of the longest-running myths about the Instagram algorithm is that it doesn’t count comments that are in length of less than 3 or 4 words. The truth is that all comments are taken into consideration, even if they contain just an emoji.

Source: Official Instagram account @creators

What Engagements Are Most Important to the Instagram Algorithm?

The algorithm gives priority to content that gets the most engagement. But what are the key engagements?

Comments, likes, reshares, and views for video posts are the most important engagements for feed ratings, according to Instagram.

Will removing likes affect the Instagram algorithm?

Since May 2019, Instagram is testing Hidden Likes count all over the world. However this experiment does not impact the algorithm formula, likes are still very important.

How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Instagram Stories

Usually, the Instagram stories that appear closest to the beginning of the row on your home feed come from accounts you’re most engaged with.

The Instagram Stories algorithm focuses heavily on timeliness, as it wants to ensure that it always shows you the new stories from your favorite accounts. That’s why accounts that post regularly enough will always appear at the top of your list.

How the Instagram Algorithm Works on IGTV

Instagram curates videos for you based on your interests and who you are following, and on the “popular” page, you can also watch trending videos. 

There are 3 IGTV categories right now: 

  • “For You” is a series of videos that Instagram believes you’ll like, made up of people that you’re following.
  • “Following” is a series of videos from all of the users you’re already following on Instagram. 
  • “Popular” shows all of IGTV’s trend episodes, most likely rated by popularity

How the Instagram Algorithm Works on the Explore Page

The Instagram Explore page operates under its own algorithm, which makes this page more personalized for each person.

The Explore page is quite similar to feed — both provide content that Instagram assumes you’ll be most interested in, based on your experiences.

For each user, the Instagram Explore page looks totally different, because it’s tailored to help you find new content that you’ll enjoy, based on what you already like to see on Instagram.

Instagram also has topic channels on the Explore page, allowing users to discover content around their particular interests.

The Instagram algorithm is constantly learning from your behaviors, such as what accounts you follow, what posts you like and comment on, and what Instagram stories and IGTV videos you like to watch.

Final Words:

I hope the points above have cleared a lot of doubts about the Instagram algorithm for you. If you still have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.