The Instagram Algorithm — What You Need to Know in 2021
Instagram is one of the top channels for brands, creators, influencers, entrepreneurs, and solopreneurs. But getting your share of impressions and engagement really comes down to the Instagram algorithm – the process or set of rules that governs how posts are shown to users.The Instagram algorithm changes as the platform releases new features—but how exactly does it change and how can you avoid low engagement in 2021? Ultimately, it comes down to a multitude of factors that marketers have to keep in mind to succeed.
How does the Instagram algorithm work—6 key ranking factors
The Instagram algorithm is the intelligence that decides which posts should go on top of a user’s feeds. This algorithm considers some standard ranking factors while making these decisions. Let’s look at what determines your content visibility and ranking on the platform.
1. How interested is the user in your content?
The possibility of users seeing your content on the platform not just depends on how “excellent” your content is—it also depends on how interested the user is in the “kind of content” you’re creating. The more users interact with similar accounts like you, the more they will see your content.
Reason: This allows Instagram to assess the type of content users like to see and provide them with more of that content.
For example, if a user engages with food content a lot, follows some creators in that area, and saves more of such posts—it tells Instagram that they would like to see more content in the food area. Since there are many creators on Instagram, creating content in the same niche is quite competitive. So, creating quality content is especially important if you want your content to be shown on top of your audience’s feeds over your competitors.
How to work around this: Create problem-solving content with visually appealing images or videos that reflect your brand’s unique voice while speaking directly to the audience. Use third-party tools to analyze your best-performing posts, and try to replicate them for a similar result.
2. What kind of a relationship does the user have with you?
Someone who interacts with your posts almost daily searches for you or has a real-life relationship with you is more likely to see your content because how you and the user interact with each other is crucial.
This is mostly based on the assumption that people who have interacted with your content before will be interested in seeing more content by you. So, it pushes your content towards them and boosts visibility in that area. The more you and your followers engage with each other, the more likely your posts will be visible to them on the feed.
How to work around this: Kick up engagement by answering your DMs, using stories, doing live sessions, and replying to comments on your posts
3. How long ago was your post published?
Apart from the quality of your content, it also matters when you post the content. So, if a user comes online right now, and you just posted something 10 minutes back, they’re more likely to see your post than if you had posted it 6 hours back.
The main reason for this is that Instagram wants to serve hot and fresh content to its users.
How to work around this: Identify the right time to post on Instagram based on your audience. You can check the “insights” of your profile to see when your followers are most active and post at that time.
4. What kind and number of accounts does the user follow?
If a user follows a large number of accounts on Instagram, then the algorithm will have a lot of content to choose from and display on top of their feed. So, the chances of your post popping up might be low.
On the other hand, if a user follows just a few people, they’ll be more likely to see your content. The accounts your audience follows are not under your control, so focus on engaging with them more.
5. How frequently does the user open Instagram?
The amount of time users spend on the platform also contributes to the type of content they see on your feed. If they frequently open the app and scroll through it, the algorithm will show relevant content by presenting a wider catalog chronologically. They have multiple options to choose from, and so the user is more likely to see your content then.
But, if the user only opens the app one or two times a day, the algorithm will get selective on the content shown to them.
How to work your way around this: Create relevant, saveable and shareable content, and post it when your audience is the most active so that the algorithm can pick it up for the users either way.
6. For how much time does the user stay on Instagram?
The session time of users also plays a credible role in ranking your content on their feed. It works with the same principle as the previous point—the more time your audience spends on the platform, the more likely they are to see your content, and if they have small sessions, Instagram will only display the content they might like.
As a user, if you scroll through Instagram for a longer duration, you’ll notice that you see some posts posted even 3-4 days back, or you might even run out of content, and then the platform starts showing you content from similar accounts that you follow.
This happens because when you’re on the platform for long, they can serve you a buffet that you can continue consuming. When you go for a smaller session, the algorithm doesn’t have much time to hook you to the platform, thus, displaying the best content, similar to what you’ve enjoyed consuming before.
5 tips to boost visibility and work with the algorithm
Now that you know the six ranking factors that determine if your content—as a brand or an individual content creator will be seen, you’re already ahead of so many people unaware of the ways of the algorithm. Indeed, the algorithm is a little tricky to understand, and a lot of the ranking factors like the user’s following, frequency, and usage are out of your hands—there are still some ways to turn the algorithm in your favor.
Let’s look at five algorithm-friendly and effective tips to boost visibility on Instagram and get your content the much-needed attention.
- Grab first-mover advantage by hopping on new features
One of the most sure-shot ways to get noticed by the algorithm and give your content a push is to leverage new Instagram features like reels and guides. Right now, all everyone can talk about is Instagram reels.
Instagram is known to push its new features to the top, be it reels, guides, or 4-people lives. In the case of reels, you’ll notice that the reels button replaced the explore button so users can spend more time watching them. New trends on the platform are boosted by the algorithm and also loved by the audience. If you can find a sweet spot between creating content your audience wants to see and what the algorithm needs to rank you well—you’ll hit the ball out of the park.
- Increase User Engagement on your Profile with User-Generated Content
The more your audience engages with your content, the more they will see your posts, share them and get you more reach. But you can’t just post content and expect them to engage with them voluntarily—you need to create opportunities for engagement.
Here are some tips for doing that:
- Write catchy Instagram captions and end with an intriguing question that compels them to comment on your post.
- Before you post your next piece of content, go to your previous post, and like the comments so they get notified, visit your profile and engage with the new post.
- Always reply to the comments on your posts as soon as you receive them. This will boost engagement in the first 60 minutes of posting them.
- Organize giveaways and contests to invite engagement and more people to your profile.
- Use story stickers and polls on your stories to increase engagement and encourage DMs.
- Do live sessions with influencers as part of your strategy so you can tap into their audience while engaging with your followers on a one-to-one basis.
- Don’t forget to post User Generated Content (UGC), which will drive more eyes to your content and empower your audience to post more such content endorsing your brand and products organically. Starbucks reposting their customer’s picture is a great example of this.
While content is a very important factor, if there’s no one to engage with it, you’re not going to see results. So, amp up your engagement game, and humanize your brand through authentic and active communication. Here’s a simple checklist for you!
- Create a working hashtag strategy
Hashtags are a very important part of social media platforms, especially Instagram, where people search through and follow hashtags to see content in a particular niche. With a great hashtag strategy, you can reach a wider audience, increasing your engagement, thus giving another reason to the algorithm for ranking your content higher on the user’s feed.
Not only do they help you reach more people, they help you reach the “right” people who would be interested in the content you create and can also become long-term followers. However, creating an effective hashtag strategy is no piece of cake.But, no worries—we got you covered. Here are some best practices to keep in mind while creating a hashtag strategy for your profile:
- Use a combination of small, medium, and large hashtags.
- Create at least 3 circulating sets of 30 hashtags. Keep experimenting and analyzing your metrics to see what hashtags are working for your profile.
- Include hashtags related to what you do, your post’s context, audience’s search intent, and your location.
- Avoid using vague hashtags like love, laugh, stories, etc. Be as specific as you can; it’ll help your post reach your ideal audience faster.
You can’t just throw in some hashtags and expect to rank for them. You need to put in genuine thought and research to find hashtags related to what your audience might search or follow. You can also hashtag tools like Flick for more accuracy.
- Plan a distribution strategy for your content
Distributing and cross-promoting your content can significantly increase the reach of your profile, which is a great signal for the algorithm.There are so many ways to distribute your content today that it’s almost impossible to choose from them. However, the key is to identify the channels your audience is most active on and use it to drive them to your latest Instagram post.
Here are some ways you can distribute your Instagram content and get more eyes to your profile:
- Use email marketing to repurpose Instagram posts as newsletters while linking to the original post on Instagram, so readers click on it. You can also add the link to your latest IG post in the email signature if you regularly send newsletters to your audience.
- Share your reels on YouTube shorts, LinkedIn stories, Pinterest, and Facebook stories while linking to the original post.
- Embed your Instagram feed on your website to intrigue people into clicking on it and visiting your profile.
- Interact with similar accounts in your niche, and share their work regularly so when the time comes, they can share your work and help reach more people.
- Create such good quality content that your audience becomes your brand ambassadors and helps distribute content organically.
It’s all about taking inspiration from other examples of content marketing to create your own that can distribute the content without making it look spammy. It would help to set up a distribution system in place, a sequence of things to do as soon as you hit “publish” on Instagram so that you can get more people to the post in the first hour of posting.
- Power up your consistency game
If there’s one unsaid fact about the Instagram algorithm, it’s that it craves consistency. If you look over to someone who has average content but is growing massively and another who makes great content but is low on consistency—you’ll identify how crucial a role it plays in ranking.
Showing up consistently can increase your chances of being noticed by the right kind of people, make more connections and get in the good graces of the algorithm. Consistency doesn’t mean posting on Instagram every day; it means showing up, even if it means in stories or live sessions. The key is to keep the ball rolling and ensure that you’re giving enough reasons to the algorithm to pump your content to the top.
You can study Instagram analytics through tools to identify what’s working for your audience and the type of content that gets good engagement to make improvements and show consistency in efforts that can yield results.
It’s the one thing that can take you from where you are to where you want to be.
But, let’s admit something—it’s not easy. And for this reason, it’s best to create a content calendar and use tools for scheduling to line up your content in advance. You can prepare and schedule all your content on the weekend, so it keeps posting automatically throughout the week.
This will ensure that you stay consistent while keeping a check on the amount of time you spend creating content. The Instagram algorithm keeps evolving, but one thing that stays consistent is the loyalty and trust your audience has with you and your content. It’s the biggest growth hack and holds the ability to keep you on top of your game because Instagram is a product of its users, and if those users are happy with your content, you are Instagram’s new best friend.
Keep your eyes on making the audience happy through great content, and it’ll be easier to take over the algorithm. Use these ranking signals and beat-the-algorithm tips to create or tweak your Instagram marketing strategy to optimize your efforts in the right direction and see results. Happy Instagramming!
Eduard Klein is an International Digital Growth Marketer, Blogger, and Entrepreneur with a global mindset. He guides people through the process of starting and growing a digital business, and to ride the wave of digital technology and marketing without getting swept away.