How the Instagram Algorithm Actually Works in 2020

Updated on May 19, 2020 (Originally posted on June 14, 2019)

Last summer saw a surge in people sharing the same copy-and-pasted message about Instagram changing its algorithm (it didn’t), and how it was only showing content to 10% of a user’s followers (nope!).

Every time there’s a surge in these posts, I watch as fellow creatives 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 bachelor's 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 you know you can trust me, 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 2020

The Instagram algorithm consists of a complex set of rules and signals that determine which posts show up in your feed and the order in which they appear. 

How does the algorithm work in the feed?

The algorithm aims to create a feed that's most relevant to each user, showing them content from the people they care about most. To do this, it relies on six feed ranking signals.

The most important ranking signals: 

  • RELATIONSHIP. By analyzing the accounts you engage with, the algorithm can determine who you care about most. The more you interact with an account, the higher their content will appear in your feed.
  • INTEREST. The algorithm predicts the type of content you’ll be most interested in seeing by analyzing your past behaviors.* The more Instagram believes you’ll enjoy a post, the higher that post will appear in your feed.
    • *These past behaviors include posts you’ve liked, commented on, shared, saved and videos you’ve viewed. Note, in 2019 Instagram announced its plans to hide likes from feeds. While this isn’t supposed to affect ranking signals, it does have the potential to influence followers’ perceptions due to the theory of social proof, which according to Robert Cialdini states that “we view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.”  This puts greater importance on comments as they will soon be the only form of engagement that followers can see on other people’s posts.
  • TIMELINESS. While the feed is no longer ranked chronologically, it does still prioritize new posts, so you’re more likely to see an update that was published this morning ahead of one that was published the night before.
Other factors affecting news feed ranking:
  • FREQUENCY. Every time you open the app, the algorithm aims to show you the best posts since your last visit.

  • FOLLOWING. The more accounts you follow, the more posts the algorithm has to sort through. This means you'll be less likely to see as many posts from each account. If you only follow a few users, you’ll see more posts from each user.

  • USAGE. If you only spend a short amount of time on the app the algorithm will show you the highlights. If you spend a lot of time on the app, you’ll see more content from the people you follow as the algorithm digs deeper into its available inventory.

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.


How does the algorithm work for Stories?

Stories posted by the accounts you engage with most will appear closest to the beginning of your stories feed.

The stories algorithm works harder to show you the timeliest updates, so every time an account you consistently engage with updates their story, you’ll continue seeing their rainbow-ringed profile picture appear towards the beginning of your stories feed.

This is especially important to keep in mind as it highlights the importance of consistency. The more often you post to stories, the more likely you’ll appear at the top of your followers' feeds.

How does the algorithm work on IGTV?

IGTV uses an algorithm that’s like the one used for feed and stories, but it also organizes updates into three different categories:

  • “For You” consists of videos from people you follow and videos the algorithm predicts you’ll like based on your previous behaviors
  • “Following” includes videos from the people you follow
  • “Popular” includes videos that are currently trending on IGTV

How does the algorithm work on Explore?

"Explore considers the universe of content posted to Instagram every day and surfaces what’s most relevant to you. –Instagram"

The Instagram Explore page uses its own algorithm that aims to help users discover photos, videos and stories that are relevant to each person’s interests. It’s specifically built to help you find content it thinks you’ll enjoy based on your previous behaviors. 

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. 

Want to learn more about the most common Instagram myths? My eBook, "The Instagram for Small Business Playbook," has you covered! 

7 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 engagement! 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 over 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!)   
  7. Strategically use hashtags. Hashtags are the best way to get your content in front of the right audience, a.k.a. the people who are most likely to engage! Check out this FREE guide I put together on how to build a successful Instagram hashtag strategy. 
How to build a successful hashtag strategy by sammy gorin download button

    Well, there you have it! Now that you're an algorithm expert, share what you've learned with your friends!

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