Instagram algorithm: How does it work and what to do about it


If you’re on Instagram, you’re probably stressing out about the Instagram algorithm!

In the early days of Instagram, it was easy to gain new followers and likes. But back in the day, the feeds were chronological and the competition wasn't so harsh!

You can still grow your Instagram organically. Here’s a list of factors that influence how are your posts ranking on Instagram, and how to use them to your advantage!

1. Likes and comments

Engagement is important. In the most traditional sense, engagement is the number of likes and comments your content gets over time. Whenever somebody likes or comments on your photo, you have a bigger chance to appear in their followers’ explore feeds. Moreover, the more engagement a piece of content gets, the bigger number of your followers who didn’t see it right away will be able to see it.

What to do about this:

Analyze which posts of yours have the highest engagement. It’s a good signifier what do your followers want to see. If your fine with that, create more similar content. If you’re not okay with that, change your followers.

Stimulate engagement by asking SIMPLE questions in your caption. It’s best if they’re short and not too demanding. I’d like to debate the meaning of life on Instagram, but in reality “Tag a person you’ll grab by the hand and bring to Amsterdam” will probably work way better.

Find the best time to post (see number 3).

2. Other forms of engagement

Instagram logs their users’ behavior.. Apart from likes and comments, the time that somebody spends looking at your post also counts as engagement. If somebody saves your photo, that’s also engagement, and if they send it to somebody else on Instagram in a direct message, that counts, too!

What to do about this:

  • Try to maximize the time people spend on your posts: you can post images with quotes (it takes more time to read them than just glancing over a picture), write longer captions (but make them captivating and inspiring), or make a gallery post that people will be enticed to scroll through.

  • If you have a product-oriented business, find a way to best showcase your product that would appeal to a specific target audience.

3. Timeliness

With the new algorithm, your content has potential to live much longer than earlier. You no longer have to post several times a day just to keep yourself on top of somebody’s feed: if your content is relevant and has proper engagement, it will be served to other users longer!

What still counts is the speed of engagement. A post that gets 30 comments over three days is going to rank lower than a post that gets 30 comments within the first hour of uploading.

What to do about this:

  • Get a reliable analytics tool (I’m pleased with the built-in Stats you get when you switch to a Business profile on Instagram) and find a time when your followers are most active.

  • Over time, you’ll also start noticing specific patterns: for example, although my followers are very active on Sundays, my engagement is always low on that day. That probably means that everybody’s busy just posting their content! I stopped posting on Sundays entirely, but your experience might be different.

  • When you miss a window when your engagement is the highest, if you have a smaller account it’s much better to wait until tomorrow!

4. Relevance

The Instagram algorithm takes into account which types of content a user engages with the most. If you spend a day liking only photos of cakes, Instagram will serve you many more cakes (no pun intended) in the following days. Facebook is capable of analyzing images in a very detailed manner, and, since Instagram and Facebook are the same company, their machine learning algorithms are probably doing the same.

What do to about this:

  • Don’t post too many different things. Limit the number of topics and visual styles on your profile, or at least try not to switch them up all the time. On my photography account, people who initially started following me for photos of the Netherlands show less enthusiasm for my portrait work, while, a feature account I manage, had a clear concept from the start and that’s why it has grown to more than 70k followers in two years’ time.

5. Who are your friends?

Instagram claims that the algorithm changes are there so no matter how many accounts you follow, you should see your best friends’ latest posts. Why does it sound so familiar? Ah, that’s the way the Facebook algorithm is also supposed to work!

The network uses different factors to determine who are the users you have the most important relationships with, but they mostly revolve around interaction.

What to do about this:

  • Reply to your comments, and reciprocate by leaving comments on the content of users that comment on your posts.

  • Post interesting Instagram stories and always reply if somebody engages with them by sending you a message.

  • Engage with other people’s Instagram stories! A couple of short messages between the two users every couple of days can go a long way.

  • Be reachable! If you’re friendly, people will be coming back for more.

What do you do to maximize your Instagram engagement? Share it in the comments!

Need Instagram help? Check out my workshops!