How the Instagram Algorithm Actually Works in 2019

Over the last few days, I’ve noticed more and more people sharing the same copy-and-pasted message about Instagram changing its algorithm (it hasn’t), and how it’s now only showing content to 10% of a user’s followers (nope!). Every time there’s a surge in these posts, I watch as fellow artists and entrepreneurs blindly share inaccurate messages (eek!), so I figured it was finally time to help out my fellow small businesses by shedding some light on what the algorithm really is, what it means for you, and some tips for making it work to your advantage!

Now, before I get started, I know you’re probably thinking, “What makes you, an artist, qualified to explain the nitty gritty of the Instagram algorithm?” Well, I graduated from Emerson College with a bachelors in marketing back in 2013. A few weeks before graduation, I got my first job at a marketing agency in Boston. I worked on their social media team for 5 years, during which I managed and oversaw everything from content, strategy, community management, and ads for brands like Yankee Candle, AstraZeneca, HP Hood, Heluva Good! Dips, Safety 1st, Cosco, and more. In 2018, I landed a job at a travel company where I currently work in paid social media. 

Okay, now that we have that over with, let’s start talking about the reason you’re even here: the algorithm.  

Back in March 2018, Instagram announced some changes they’d be making to the algorithm. While they’ve continued making tweaks and improvements, this 2018 announcement was really the last official statement the platform made on the subject of news feed ranking.

Fast forward to January 2019, when there’s a surge in users sharing the same copy-and-pasted message I referenced earlier. (This time though, 10% was reported as 7%.) As a result, Instagram took to Twitter to explain why this was actually just a “rumor” (my word, not theirs haha).

 Tweets from Instagram about changes to the algorithm.

Just a few months later, the madness started up again and in response, I’ve blessed you with this blog post. 💃

How the Instagram Algorithm Works in 2019

The Instagram algorithm aims at creating a feed that’s most relevant to each user. To do this, it relies on three ranking signals.
  1. Relationship. Content posted by other accounts you frequently engage with will appear higher in your feed. By “frequently engage with,” they mean accounts you regularly tag in posts or mention in comments, accounts you commonly direct message with, users’ posts you frequently comment on, etc.
  2. Interest. Instagram’s algorithm predicts the type of content a user would be most interested in seeing based on a user’s past behavior. So, for example, one day I watched a video about Ariana Grande that I found on my Explore page. I love me some Ari but I’m nowhere near a die-hard fan. Still, I was entertained by the content and kept watching the videos that automatically played. Yup, this means I watched a lot of Ariana Grande videos that night 🤷 Based on this behavior, Instagram’s algorithm understood this to mean that I was VERY interested in Ariana Grande, and over the next few days, my Explore page was saturated with Ariana Grande content, I saw her posts first in my news feed, and her story updates were always first, too. A few days later, things were back to normal.
  3. Timeliness: The algorithm shows newer posts first. (No, this does not mean content is posted chronologically, it just influences the order in which content is ranked.)
Other Factors Affecting News Feed Ranking:
  • A person’s app usage. If a person opens the app more frequently, the algorithm will try to show them the best posts first since they last looked at their feed.
  • How many people a person follows. The more accounts a person follows, the less likely they are to see a large number of posts from just one account. If a person only follows a few users, they’ll see more posts from each user.
So, how do these signals all work together? Since the last time you’ve opened Instagram, dozens (or hundreds!) of posts have been published by the users you follow. These posts create an inventory of content for your next visit. Using the aforementioned ranking signals, Instagram's algorithm sorts through the available inventory to ensure the posts it thinks you'll care about most appear first in your feed.

How the Instagram algorithm works in 2019 to sort photos in your feed.


Now that you know the basics, let's go back to why posting things like this 👇 doesn't work. 

I know some of you are saying: "But, Sammy, I've posted this message before and have seen improvements in my engagements. It was actually my top performing post!"

That's because when a post gets tons of likes and comments, the algorithm pushes it higher in your followers' news feeds; it might even make it to the Explore page! Engagements tell the algorithm that your post is high quality, so it wants to share that post with more users who might also enjoy it. While you'll see increased reach and engagements in the days following your post, if you don't adjust your strategy, your metrics will just fall back down again. 

6 Tips for Making the Algorithm Work for You

As you can see, engagements (likes, comments, shares, saves, profile visits) aren’t the only way to ensure a top-spot in your followers’ feeds. They are, however, one of the best ways to improve your chances of the algorithm working in your favor.  Here are some other ways you can improve ranking:
  1. Be consistent. Try your best to post at least once a day. If this seems like too much for you, then just find something realistic and stick to it. Whatever you do, don't start posting photos back-to-back one day and then go silent. Also, don't ever post multiple photos back-to-back; this is a good way to annoy your audience and lose followers. 😱
  2.  Post when your followers are active. Head over to your Instagram insights and learn more about your audience. (You need a business or creator account for this.) Posting when your followers are most likely online will improve the chances that your content appears in their feeds.     
  3. Ask questions and add calls-to-action to your posts to encourage comments. Comments are the most valuable form of engagements! Find a creative and natural way to add questions and calls-to-action to your captions. Just make sure you're not being too pushy...or desperate. For example, don't tell followers to simply leave their favorite emoji in your comments, unless you have a good reason!
  4. Video, video, video. Video content will almost always outperform photos. I personally video everything I do when I'm creating. I invested in a tripod and a studio light, and whenever I'm painting, I start shooting on my iPhone. There are also tons of apps that let you add cool motion effects to your photos, which is a fun and easy way to build your video library. 
  5. Publish Instagram stories daily and take advantage of interactive stickers (i.e. polls, questions). Reach your followers in different ways!  Some users now prefer story updates to scrolling through their feed. Take advantage of the polls and questions stickers as these get your followers interacting with your content, signaling to Instagram that they like what you're posting! 
  6. Quality is key. Always, always, ALWAYS make sure your content is high quality. If your posts aren't aesthetically pleasing, people will just scroll right past them. Need some photography help? I've taken lots of classes on Skillshare, specifically about lighting and video editing. (Click here to get two free months of Skillshare Premium!)   
Well, there you have it! Now that you're an algorithm expert, share what you've learned with your friends!

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