How does the Instagram algorithm actually work?
It’s a question that’s caused a lot of confusion since Instagram moved away from a chronological feed.
In this blog post, we’re sharing how the Instagram algorithm works for feed posts, stories, the Explore page, IGTV videos, and Reels.
Plus, discover our top tips to hack the Instagram algorithm, so you can get more engagement for your business or brand:
Table of Contents:
- How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Feed Posts in 2021
- How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Instagram Stories
- How the Instagram Algorithm Works on the Explore Page
- How the Instagram Algorithm Works for IGTV Videos and Reels
- 7 Extra Ways to Improve Your Ranking with the Instagram Algorithm
The Instagram Algorithm in 2021
If you’ve spent any time on Instagram, you’ll know that the algorithm can behave in mysterious ways.
But once you understand how the elusive algorithm actually works, you can tailor your content strategy to work alongside it.
Ready to get up to speed on the Instagram algorithm in 2021? Here’s everything you need to know:
How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Feed Posts in 2021
According to Instagram, there are 6 key factors that influence the Instagram algorithm for feed posts:
Factor #1: Interest
Your Instagram feed isn’t only based on who you follow, it’s also based on the accounts and types of posts you’ve liked historically.
The more the Instagram algorithm thinks you will “like” a certain type of post, the higher it will appear in your feed.
Basically, what you see in your Instagram feed is a combination of all of your Instagram behaviors. The accounts you interact with the most, the people you are tagged in photos with, and of course, the type of posts that you like and comment on.
This is why consistently showing up on Instagram is so important.
It sends positive signals to the Instagram algorithm — and gives your audience more opportunities to interact with your content.
TIP: Use Later to plan and schedule all of your Instagram posts, captions, and hashtags in advance so you can be more consistent with your posting strategy.
This will save you a lot of time — and make sure you always have a post ready to go live on your feed.
Plan and schedule your Instagram posts in advance with Later for free — it’s the easiest way to stay on top of your Instagram game!
What Engagements Are Most Important to the Instagram Algorithm?
When it comes to feed performance, we know the algorithm prioritizes content that receives the most engagement.
But what are the most important metrics of engagements?
According to Instagram, the most important engagements for feed ranking are comments, likes, reshares, and views for videos, which is really helpful to know as you plan your content and captions.
Although it’s not listed as a key engagement indicator at the moment, it could also be worthwhile to optimize your content for saves — especially as Instagram trials hiding likes in more countries.
Factor #2: Relationship
The Instagram algorithm wants to prioritize posts from your friends, family, and accounts that you care about.
So in order for Instagram to show you what you want (what you really, really want), the algorithm uses your interactions to piece together who is closest to you.
Thomas Dimson, a software engineer at Instagram, shared how Instagram could theoretically figure out who you care about the most, based on how you use the app:
- People whose content you like (possibly including stories and live videos)
- People you direct message
- People you search for
- People you know in real life
Instagram will try to calculate this relationship (and your interest level) as soon as you follow someone by serving you their content and monitoring how you engage with it.
Factor #3: Timeliness
Not only does the algorithm pay attention to how much engagement your Instagram post gets, but it also looks at how long ago the photo was posted.
Instagram’s algorithm cares about when you posted, because it always wants to serve you the latest, most interesting posts.
By finding your personalized best time to post on Instagram, you can hack the algorithm to increase your reach and get more likes and followers.
And if you post at a time when your followers are online and most active, you give yourself a better chance of getting more likes.
TIP: Use Later’s Best Time to Post feature to automatically calculate your 7 top posting times based on how much engagement your posts have gained historically!
Because this feature is built into Later’s Instagram Scheduler, it’s super easy to find out when you should schedule Instagram posts for maximum engagement.
Upgrade to one of Later’s Starter, Growth or Advanced plans today and start capitalizing on your best times to post.
Factor #4: Frequency
How often do you open the Instagram app? If you’re a frequent scroller, your feed will look more chronological, since Instagram tries to show you the best posts since your last visit.
If you check the Instagram app less often, your feed will be sorted into what Instagram thinks you’ll like, instead of chronologically.
Factor #5: Following
How many people do you follow on Instagram? If you follow a lot of people, then Instagram has more options to choose from, so you probably won’t see all of the posts from every account.
On a related note, it could be worth systematically removing inactive or “ghost” followers.
If a large percentage of your following is inactive, they could be doing more harm than good for your account’s algorithmic ranking.
Factor #6: Usage
If you spend a lot of time on Instagram, you’re going to see more posts as Instagram digs deeper into its catalog.
If you spend enough time on Instagram, you can even run out of new content to see. Once this happens, the algorithm will serve you suggested content from new accounts — based on your previous interactions.
However, if you only spend a few minutes in the app each day, then you’re going to just get the day’s highlights from the algorithm.
How the Instagram Algorithm Works for Instagram Stories
Typically, Instagram Stories that appear at the start of your feed are from accounts that you engage with the most, whether that’s through likes, comments, story views, reactions, or DMs.
The Instagram Stories algorithm also puts a lot of focus on timeliness, as it wants to make sure it’s always showing you the latest stories from your favorite accounts.
If you regularly engage with an account, their new stories will be bumped to the front of your feed every time they post — even if you’ve watched all their stories from the previous day.
So with this in mind, it’s a good idea to consistently post to Instagram Stories.
By posting to Instagram Stories more often, you have a better chance of reaching viewers as they browse their daily stories — and the more views you gain, the better your ranking will be.
Fortunately, regularly posting to stories just got a whole lot easier.
You can now schedule Instagram Stories with Later — so you never miss a chance to connect with your audience again!
With Later, you can storyboard your content, add captions or links, collaborate with your team, visually plan and schedule Instagram Stories right from your desktop.
NOTE: You’ll receive a mobile notification along with your pre-planned images, links, and captions when it’s time to post.
Ready to start posting Instagram Stories more often so there’s always new content for your audience to engage with? Start planning and scheduling your Instagram Stories with Later!
How the Instagram Algorithm Works on the Explore Page
Overall, the Explore page and the feed algorithm are quite similar — they both deliver content that Instagram thinks you’ll be most interested in, based on your prior interactions.
However, your Instagram feed will be made up of content from accounts you already follow, whereas the Explore feed will consist almost entirely of content from new accounts.
The Explore page is constantly evolving, with new topic categories and advanced search functionalities being introduced all the time.
For example, you can now search by keywords, as well as hashtags, to discover feeds of relevant content:
This suggests that the Explore page algorithm takes into account way more than just the tags on your posts, such as the actual visual content and words in your caption.
Fortunately, getting your posts onto the Instagram Explore page isn’t as hard as you might think.
The Explore page algorithm is essentially trying to serve people the best, relevant content. So by continually sharing great content with strong captions and niche hashtags, you’re already contributing towards your Explore page ranking.
For hashtags search results, Instagram prioritizes top performing posts:
These posts are selected based on engagement (how many likes and comments the post received) and the amount of competition for the hashtag.
Search results will be the same for every user searching a specific hashtag, while the main Explore page is tailored to your individual interests.
TIP: If you’re a brand looking to get on the Instagram Explore page, it’s more important than ever to focus on your niche topics and use hashtags to help categorize your posts.
Check out our post, The Ultimate Guide to Getting on the Instagram Explore Page to find out how you can get your content in front of new audiences!
How the Instagram Algorithm Works for IGTV Videos and Reels
For IGTV videos and Instagram Reels, the algorithm prioritizes content from the accounts you interact with the most, as well as the type of posts you typically engage with.
Beyond the home feed, Instagram serves suggested IGTV videos and Reels in relevant Explore pages, including the new Reels tab.
This is based on what Instagram thinks you will like, based on a machine learning model.
So how can you give your IGTV videos and Reels the best chance of being seen by new (and existing) audiences?
The trick is to give them as much of a helping hand as possible.
For IGTV videos, you can share a 1-minute preview to your Instagram feed — increasing initial exposure and providing a positive signal to the algorithm.
For Reels, always share them to your main Instagram feed, and include several hashtags to boost their discoverability.
Ready to take your Instagram Reels strategy to the next level? Check out our post: The Ultimate Guide to Instagram Reels to optimize your content on the platform.
7 Extra Ways to Improve Your Ranking with the Instagram Algorithm
If you want to improve your ranking with the Instagram algorithm, the best thing you can do is drive as many interactions (likes, comments, DMs, saves, and shares) as possible.
And by building momentum with your existing community, you’ll soon find your content is being surfaced to new audiences.
Here are 7 ways to improve your algorithmic ranking and reach new audiences:
#1: Embrace Instagram’s Latest Features
Looking for a fast-track way to gain favor with the Instagram algorithm?
Embrace Instagram’s latest features!
Instagram will always give their latest features (such as Instagram Reels) a helping hand to help drive adoption, so it’s a good idea to jump on the latest trends and take advantage of this extra boost.
#2: Encourage More Interactions with Instagram Stories Stickers
Instagram Stories stickers are a great way to encourage audience engagement — and the more engagement your posts get, the higher they’ll be boosted by the Instagram algorithm.
There are lots of Instagram stickers, but the best ones for driving engagement are the poll, emoji slider, and question stickers.
Poll and emoji slider stickers are a quick and easy engagement win, and can work for almost any business or brand.
Question stickers may not be as quick to take part in, but they can be just as good at driving genuine engagement with your audience, which is highly valuable for the Instagram algorithm.
#3: Drive Conversations with Engaging Captions and Comments
Instagram has confirmed comments are super important when it comes to feed ranking — so it’s a great idea to encourage as many as possible for your posts.
One of the best ways to do this is by writing good captions that drive engagement.
As entrepreneur Elise Darma mentions in our free How to Write Engaging Instagram Captions workshop, including a call-to-action in your Instagram caption can go a very long way when it comes to driving more interactions.
This could be as simple as asking your followers to share their thoughts or feelings, double-tap if they agree, or tag a friend in the comments.
Looking to level-up your conversational captions? Check out our blog post: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Good Instagram Captions!
#4: Optimize Your Hashtag Strategy
Adding hashtags to your posts is one of the most effective ways to reach more people on Instagram, which means more “views” for the Instagram algorithm to take into account.
And with a good hashtag strategy, you won’t just reach more people — you’ll reach people who are relevant for your business, and most likely to engage with your content.
One way to discover new hashtags for your brand is by using Later’s Hashtag Suggestions feature.
Hashtag Suggestions works by automatically finding relevant hashtags for your posts based on other hashtags you use.
All you have to do is know one relevant hashtag, put it into Hashtag Suggestions, hit “Suggest,” and the feature will immediately generate 30 other hashtags, sorted by relevance.
Once you’ve found the best hashtags for your brand, you can use Later’s Saved Captions feature to curate ready-made lists of hashtags that you can add to your post captions in seconds.
When it’s time to schedule, simply select one of your Saved Captions to add it to your post.
#5: Cross-Promote Your Instagram Content
If you’re looking for a quick and easy engagement win to help boost your algorithm ranking, cross-promoting your Instagram content is a great place to start.
As Instagram has grown, so too has the number of channels that you can share content: feed, stories, IGTV and Reels.
And thanks to these different publishing channels, you can strategically use them to drive different audiences to your most recent content.
This could be as simple as sharing an enticing preview of an IGTV video to your feed, or even adding a feed post to stories with a “Tap Here” GIF.
#6: Keep On Top of Your DMs
Much like comments and likes, direct messages (DMs) are a strong engagement indicator for the Instagram algorithm.
You may have noticed that the accounts you DM most often are bumped to the front of your Instagram Stories feed — the Instagram algorithm is doing it’s best to serve you content it thinks you want to see.
One way to use this to your advantage is to regularly invite your audience to DM you with their questions or feedback — or by encouraging “quick emoji reactions.”
TIP: Set up Instagram Quick Replies to answer your most common DM queries at the touch of a button.
#7: Use Instagram Analytics to See What’s Working
Tracking and monitoring how your content is performing on Instagram is one of the most reliable ways to take on the Instagram algorithm.
Having a better understanding of what’s working (and what isn’t) will help you come up with a finely tuned marketing plan, saving you time and effort in the long run.
But diving into your Instagram Analytics means more than just finding out which photo, video, or stories performed best. Truly understanding how your content performs – by tracking key metrics over time – is vital to knowing what helps improve your ranking.
The easiest way to do this? Later’s fully integrated analytics dashboard.
With Later Analytics you can quickly and easily see your best performing content, calculate your engagement rates, and monitor your key metrics.
Whatever tactic you choose to focus on to improve your algorithm ranking in 2021, the most important thing is to keep engaging with your audience at the heart of your strategy.
Building a genuine relationship with your followers is the most powerful way to “hack” the algorithm and, most importantly, it will work wonders for your brand too.
Ready to get organized and plan out your Instagram content in advance? Start scheduling with Later, the #1 Instagram marketing platform! Sign up now – it’s free!
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Jillian is a content marketer at Later based in the UK. She is an aficionado of London brunch spots and an avid listener of true crime podcasts. You can connect with her on Instagram @jillwrren.