The Instagram Algorithm: How Does It Work?

Wondering how your Instagram feed works? Well, you’re not alone.

Just about everyone has been trying to figure out the Instagram algorithm since it was introduced in 2016 – which caused quite some controversy at the time. 

The algorithm was implemented to deliver the best content to each user every time they would refresh their feed. But, no one really knew how this worked. Until now, as Instagram has recently publicly identified the six key ranking factors for their algorithm.

To help you better understand the Instagram algorithm, we will discuss the six key ranking factors and how they can better help you market to your audience.

The Instagram algorithm?

 Instagram recently invited a small group of reporters to their San Francisco office to shed some light on their mysterious algorithm.

The information provided to reporters identified three main areas that determine what is shown in your Instagram feed:

  • Interest
  • Timeliness
  • Relationship

There are also three other important factors that play a complementing part in the algorithm:

  • Frequency
  • Following
  • Usage

Key factors: Interest, Timeliness and Relationship

1. Interest

 Your feed is shown based on how much Instagram believes you will be interested in a post.

Machine-based learning plays a part in forming your Instagram feed. The way you behave on the platform in the past can help predict your feed. Each account is uniquely different, depending on how you engage with other accounts.

For example, if you have previously engaged with food, exercise or fashion content, you are likely to see more of this content in your feed.

Photo recognition technologies and the use of hashtags allow Instagram to group content into genres (e.g. ‘food’ or ‘fashion’). If you are continually engaging with these genres, it will be displayed higher in your feed.

2. Timeliness

 The timing of a post is a key factor that determines what you will see in your feed.

Instagram wants to show you content that is relevant to your interests and behaviour. Content from a week ago may not be relevant to your interests as perhaps content from one day ago is.

For example, a post about an AFL game played on Thursday night may not be relevant in your feed on Sunday night.

Recent posts are more likely to rank higher in your Instagram feed and timing is still a huge factor when it comes to posting on Instagram.

3. Relationship

 Instagram wants to remain a ‘social’ platform and endeavours to show content from your ‘real-life friends’ as best as possible.

So how does Instagram know a ‘real-life’ friend compared to you following Drake?

This could be determined by:

  • People that you direct message
  • People you are friends with on Facebook
  • People you search for
  • Being tagged in photos by other users

People that you search for tells Instagram that you are interested in a user, so you will more likely see their recent posts in your feed.

Additional factors: Frequency, Following, Usage.

1. Frequency

How often do you open Instagram throughout the day? Once, twice or twenty times? The amount in which you do can dictate what you see in your feed.

If you only open the app once daily, you’ll most likely see the post’s deemed most relevant to you by the algorithm, e.g. close friends, people you search for.

However, if you are constantly opening the app and are all caught up with posts from your ‘real-friends’, Instagram will try to display other relevant content that you have not yet seen.

Instagram algorithm

2. Following

The amount of accounts you follow determines how much content Instagram algorithm must sort through to show you the content best suited for you. If you always mention someone in your Insta story there is a high chance you will see their content first.

If you follow 10K accounts, you will more than likely see less from each account compared to following just 200 accounts.

The fewer accounts you follow, the more you will see more content from those accounts.

3. Usage

 The amount of time you spend during your Instagram visits plays a part in the algorithm. If you only spend a couple of minutes on the app, the algorithm will do its best to show you only the most relevant content to you.

Whereas, if you regularly browse Instagram for an hour or so before going to bed you will most likely be shown a more extensive content feed.

What else did Instagram spill the beans on?

 During the time with reporters, Instagram also answered some common questions asked by users. Below are some key takeaways.

  • No posts are hidden by Instagram. If you scroll long enough, you will see everything
  • Stories do not favour a user’s feeds. If you post stories more often, you will not automatically rank better in the Instagram feed
  • You are given equal priority in feeds whether you are a personal account or business account
  • Your content will not be hidden if you use too many hashtags – shadow banning isn’t a thing
  • You won’t be penalised for posting to often, but it may show other users content between yours if you are rapidly posting content

 We hope this post has cleared up any questions you may have had with the Instagram algorithm. Remember to create engaging and timely content to make the most of the Instagram algorithm.

Be sure to follow us on Instagram @smperth

If you have any thoughts on the Instagram algorithm and any of the factors above, we would love to hear them in the comments below.


Sean Huxley
Sean graduated from Murdoch University in 2017 and went from intern to Account Manager with Coffey & Tea. He also contributes to Social Media Perth.