Keeping up with Instagram’s Magic 6

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Once upon time, your viewers’ Instagram feeds were organized in chronological order, which meant that if you were posting at regular intervals throughout the day you were bound to have at least one or two photos noticed by your followers.

That changed in 2016 when Instagram introduced a new algorithm that organizes users’ feeds in order of what Instagram ‘thinks’ users want to see. The more they like your photos, the more your photos will appear at the top of their feed (and vice versa).

Until recently what Instagram ‘thought’ your viewers wanted to see was shrouded in mystery, but in June 2018 it partially lifted the veil on its machine learning tools to help account holders understand some of the main the feed ranking criteria.

Instagram Algorithm’s “Big 3”

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The current algorithm relies on a user’s past behaviour to personalise their feed based on three key factors: Interest + Timeliness + Relationship

Interest - This is based on the genre and type of content the viewer has interacted with previously (sports, makeup, fashion, dogs).

This is not only how your viewers interact with your content (likes, comments, DMs etc.) but also very likely how they interact with other content on their feed e.g. the hashtags they respond to.

An Instagram spokesperson has said that posts with less engagement but which are considered more relevant to the viewers will still appear at the top of their feed.

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Timeliness - Instagram may no longer show followers a reverse-chronological feed, but the algorithm still takes into account timeliness. In March (2018), Instagram updated the algorithm “to ensure that newer posts are more likely to appear first [so] your feed will feel more fresh, and you won’t miss the moments you care about.”

But it would appear the algorithm only re-orders the new posts between a viewer’s last and their current visit so your post needs to have been ‘recent’ when your followers are online and you should therefore aim to post when they are most active - there are various tools to monitor this sort of data, and Instagram’s own Insight (if you have a Business account) is a good way to start.

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Relationship - no matter how many accounts you follow, you should see your closest friend’s latest posts. How does Instagram know who are your best friends? Going beyond whether you follow someone, algorithms analyse the depth of your relationships based on your interaction with all forms of content (stories, live videos, posts), your direct messages as well as your search history (if you regularly search certain profiles it indicates you are more interested in those accounts) and the people you know in real life (probably via your synced contacts).

Instagram's 3 ‘other’ signals:

Instagram has indicated its algorithms are looking, albeit to a lesser extent, to three other signals to determine how to order a user’s feed: frequency + following + usage.

Frequency - Every time a user opens up Instagram, the algorithm will try to show the best posts since their last visit.

Following - If your follower is following hundreds of accounts on Instagram, they are likely to see fewer of your posts.

Usage - How long you spend using the app each time sends signals about how much content the algorithm should 'surface'. If you look at the app for just a few minutes each day, the algorithm will ensure it shows the most relevant posts first.

Possibly the most important of the latest developments:

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Like its big sister Facebook, Instagram now has image recognition technology and can organize posts based on content rather than hashtags.

This means that going forward hashtags are likely to become less relevant and that your post will surface based on the strength of the big three. Thus, as long as your content is similar to what your target audience regularly engages with, the algorithm will prioritize  it in their feeds.

This also means that engagement with your content will become even more important: the more people comment and like your post, the more you will appear in their feed as well as feeds of people with similar interests.