Instagram algorithm – how it works


11 mins

Instagram algorithm - how it works

Table of Contents

The Instagram algorithm is a set of rules that determines which posts users see in their feeds. It is constantly evolving, and recent changes have caused some confusion amongst users and businesses alike.

So why is it important for marketers to understand how Instagram’s algorithm works?

Because no matter how beautiful or interesting your content is, if it’s not appearing in users’ feeds, then it might as well not exist. 

Not optimizing your strategy based on the Instagram search algorithm can also lead to wasted marketing spend, as you could be targeting the wrong audience or using hashtags that no one is searching for.

In contrast, having a strong grasp of the algorithm on Instagram can help you save time and money, as well as improve your results on one of the world’s biggest social media platforms.

Keep reading for a complete guide to the Instagram algorithm, including how it works and what you can do to make sure your content is being seen by the people who matter most.

What is the Instagram algorithm?

While the title of this article refers to the “Instagram algorithm” in the singular, there are actually several types of algorithms, processes, and classifiers involved in Instagram’s platform.

They work together to show you content that Instagram’s calculations have determined you will find relevant and interesting.

The ultimate goal?

To make you – the Instagram user – stay as long as possible on the platform.

Why? Because the longer you stay on Instagram browsing your feed, clicking on stories, and posting your own content, the more likely you are to see ads.

And ads are how Instagram makes money – they’re forecasted to bring in more than 20 billion dollars in 2023, and that’s just from the ad revenue generated by Instagram Stories.

That’s why these algorithms apply to every single part of Instagram: individual user feeds, the Reels feed, the Explore page, hashtag pages, and more.

How the Instagram algorithm works

The Instagram search algorithm is constantly learning about you and your interests so that it can show you more content that you’ll find engaging. It “follows” you around, so to speak, and takes note of everything you do on the platform.

This includes:

  • The people you follow
  • The posts you like, save, and share
  • The topics you search for
  • The type of content you engage with
  • How often you use the app
  • The time of day you’re most active
  • Your location
  • The language you use
  • Your device type
  • and more

From this data, Instagram creates a model of your interests and learns what kind of content you like to see. This is how it knows to show you more posts from the people you follow, or more content related to the topics you’re interested in.

Additionally, the algorithm also uses this data to decide which posts to show first in your feed and in what order.

While Instagram applies several different algorithms to different parts of the platform, there are three primary ranking factors that determine what content you see in your feed. Here are they:

1. Relationship (Who)

One of the most important ranking factors is the relationship between you and the content creator, Instagram page, or business.

This includes factors like how often you interact with their content, whether you’re following them, and whether you have direct messages with them.

In other words, Instagram gives priority to the content from people and businesses that you already have a relationship with – either because you follow them or because you’ve engaged with their content in the past.

On top of that, the Instagram post algorithm also gives priority to content from people and businesses that you might want to have a relationship with.

For example, if someone you follow likes or comments on a post from an Instagram page you don’t follow, Instagram will assume you might be interested in that page, too and show you the post in your feed.

2. Interest (What / Topic)

The second primary ranking factor is interest, which refers to the topics of the posts you like, save, and share.

Essentially, if you’re regularly engaging with content about a certain topic, Instagram will assume you’re interested in that topic and show you more content related to it.

This is why you might see posts about topics you’re not interested in on your Explore page – because the algorithm has determined that people who are interested in those topics also follow and engage with the same accounts that you do.

3. Relevancy (When / Post Timing)

The final primary ranking factor is relevancy, which refers to how recent a post is and whether it’s related to any current trends or topics.

For example, if there’s a sudden surge in engagement around a certain hashtag, the posts using that hashtag will be more likely to appear in your feed.

Instagram also looks at the overall timing of a post and whether it’s timely in relation to current trends. For example, a post about summer fashion is more likely to be shown in the feed of someone who’s actively engaged with Instagram during the summer months than someone who only checks the app sporadically.

These are just a few examples of how relevancy can impact the algorithm – in general, anything that makes a post more timely or relevant to current trends will make it more likely to appear in your feed.

While these are the three primary ranking factors, keep in mind that there are many other factors that come into play when determining what content to show you. 

In fact, the current Instagram algorithm has started using more sophisticated engagement metrics to drill down into the interests of users even further.

Below are a few examples:

  • Time spent: The longer you look or engage with a piece of content, the more likely it is to be shown to you in the future.
  • Likes: Not all likes are equal – some users have a higher likelihood of liking a piece of content than others. To determine this, the algorithm looks at factors like how often you like content from a certain account and how much variety there is in the content you engage with.
  • Comments: Comments are given more weight than likes because they’re generally seen as a more valuable form of engagement. In addition, Instagram also factors in the length of your comments and whether you’re commenting on your own posts or someone else’s.
  • Saves: Saving a post is one of the most valued actions on Instagram. It signals high-level interest because it takes more effort than simply liking or commenting on a post.
  • Taps on profile: When you tap on someone’s profile after seeing their post, it indicates that you’re interested in learning more about them. This is why posts from people and businesses you haven’t engaged with before are more likely to appear in your feed if you tap on their profile after seeing their posts.
  • Hashtags: The algorithm also looks at the hashtags you use and engage with. For example, if you frequently use or engage with the same hashtag, posts that use that hashtag are more likely to appear in your feed.

Aside from looking at ranking factors and engagement metrics, the algorithm for Instagram constantly answers probability-based questions for each individual Instagram user.

To answer those questions, it processes information from signals like the following:

  • Information about the Instagram poster: Do you already follow them? Do people who follow and engage with similar accounts also follow them? If yes, their posts are more likely to appear in your feed because it reflects the profile you’re interested in.
  • The Instagram post information: What type of post is it? (An image, gif, a video, etc.) When was it posted? If it’s a video, how long is it? Is the post receiving a lot of engagement?
  • Your activity on Instagram: What type of content do you engage with? (Images, videos, long posts, short posts, etc.) How often do you check Instagram?
  • Your interaction history: When you’re on Instagram, what do you do? (Do you like, comment, save, share or message content?) Do you watch a lot of videos or prefer scrolling through photos and image-based texts?

As you can see, every single thing you do on Instagram helps the algorithm decide what kind of content it will serve you next.

And it only gets more complicated from there. Instagram algorithms actually vary between countries, devices and even users.

For example, if you check Instagram from your phone more often than your laptop, you’re likely to see different content on each device. This is because Instagram tailors the content it shows you based on your past behavior on that specific device.

Even your interactions with ads outside of Instagram itself can influence the content you see. For example, if you click on a lot of ads about travel, you’re more likely to see travel-related content in your feed, even if you don’t follow any travel accounts.

The algorithm also takes into account the time of day you’re using Instagram. And finally, the algorithm also looks at your location to show you content that’s popular in your area.

So, the algorithm is constantly learning and adjusting the content it shows you based on all of these factors and more.

Instagram algorithm for the Explore page vs. stories and reels

Making things more challenging for marketers and advertisers is the fact that the algorithm that Instagram uses for its Explore page is different from the one it uses for stories and reels.

The goal of the Explore page is to show users new content that they might be interested in, even if they don’t follow the account that posted it.

To do this, Instagram looks at the content you engage with and the accounts you follow and then recommends similar content on the Explore page.

This is why you’ll see posts from accounts you don’t follow in the Explore section. The most important ranking factors for a user’s Explore section are:

  • Post information
  • Interaction history
  • User activity
  • Information about the poster

On the other hand, Reels refer to short, immersive videos on Instagram, while stories are temporary posts that disappear after 24 hours.

Unlike the explore page, the basic purpose of reels is for entertainment. That’s why there’s a slight difference between the ranking factors that affect the algorithm for each one. The top ranking factors for what appears on a user’s reels section are:

  • Reel information
  • Interaction history
  • User activity
  • Information about the poster

Knowing how to incorporate all of these factors into your Instagram marketing strategy will impact everything from growing your audience, the type of content you post, and your ROI.

Tips for working with the Instagram algorithm

At first, trying to understand and work with the Instagram algorithm can feel daunting and complicated. However, the thing to remember about algorithms is that it’s never random: there is always a reason behind why something is being shown to a user, aka your audience.

Here are some tips on how you can work with the algorithm, rather than against it:

Create relevant and engaging Instagram content

We cannot emphasize this enough: invest in the quality of your Instagram posts, reels, and stories. 

You want people to enjoy your content, not scroll past it. That means consistently delivering useful, interesting, or creative content that will make people want to stop and take a look.

And since Instagram is a visual platform, your content also needs to pop. Experiment with formats, explore fresh takes on familiar topics, and test out new content ideas. Add Instagram stickers and filters to make your content more engaging. 

If you’re not sure what’s working well, take a look at your analytics to see which posts are getting the most engagement.

Leverage user-generated content

Just like most social media platforms, the community is at the heart of Instagram. And one of the best ways to show that you’re building a community is by featuring user-generated content.

For instance, you can run a contest or campaign that encourages people to post photos or videos using a specific hashtag. Repost amazing content from your followers related to your brand. Give a shout-out to loyal fans.

Doing this not only creates a sense of community and belonging, but also helps you score some major points with the Instagram algorithm. That’s because featuring user-generated content generally leads to more engagement, which the algorithm picks up on and rewards.

Schedule posts for optimal timing

“What’s the best time to post on Instagram?” is a timeless question among anyone who uses Instagram, from brands to influencers and even regular users.

The answer, unfortunately, is not that simple. It ultimately depends on your audience, what kind of content you’re posting, and your goals.

That being said, there are some general tips you can follow to ensure that your content is being seen by as many people as possible. Here are a couple of examples:

  • For B2B brands: Try posting at lunchtime and throughout the workday, as many B2B audiences actually check Instagram at work.
  • For B2C brands: The best times to post on Instagram are generally in the evenings and at weekends, as that’s when most people are free to scroll through their feed.

On top of that, you also need to pinpoint when your audience is likely to be online. Trying to market to moms? They’re probably going to be up early in the morning, so try posting then. Marketing to college students? They’re most likely to be up late at night, so try ramping up your content.

Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to just these two time periods. Experiment with posting at different times of day and see when you get the most engagement.

The key is to be strategic about when you post rather than just posting randomly throughout the day.

Avoid committing common Instagram faux pas

There are certain things you should avoid doing if you want to stay in good standing with the Instagram algorithm and your audience. One of the biggest is to like your own post – it looks spammy and can come across as desperate.

Another no-no is to post duplicate content, especially if it’s not relevant to your audience. The algorithm will likely penalize you for this, and your followers will quickly get bored.

Never bombard your audience with too many posts in a short period of time. Not only will this irritate people, but it will also cause the algorithm to throttle your reach. Instead, space out your posts so that people have time to see and engage with each one.

Lastly, don’t try to ride trends just for the sake of it. If your content is relevant and interesting, people will engage with it regardless of whether it’s on-trend or not.

Use Instagram insights to your advantage

One of the most valuable tools at your disposal is Instagram insights, which provides you with data about your posts, stories, and followers. 

For instance, you can track how many people have seen your posts, how many have engaged with them and in what form, and what time of day they’re being viewed.

This data can be extremely helpful in guiding your content strategy. Duplicate successful posts by posting them at similar times or on similar days. See what kind of content gets the most engagement and try to post more of it. Conversely, shut down content that isn’t performing well.

You can also use insights to track your progress over time. This is useful for seeing whether the changes you’re making to your strategy are having a positive impact.

Final thoughts

Harnessing Instagram’s algorithm is a process of trial and error, but one that’s worth the investment. By studying the platform’s ranking factors, signals, and how it changes over time, you can stay ahead of the curve and ensure that your Instagram strategy is contributing to your bottom line.

If you’re serious about using Instagram to grow your business, you also need to be serious about your analytics and reporting. Reporting Ninja offers powerful Instagram Reporting Tools that can help you extract insights, create beautiful reports, and monitor metrics that matter. 

Sign up for a free trial today.

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