19 Apr The 2021 Instagram Algorithm Breakdown: How to Get Your Content Seen
Instagram algorithm changes affect everyone who uses the platform — especially brands. Learn all the latest ranking factors here.
If you’re wondering whether the Instagram algorithm changed again, you’ve come to the right place.
Of course, if you’re a major publisher, a tech journalist, or Britney Spears’ social media team, your friendly contacts at Instagram HQ probably reach out regularly to give you the heads-up on any new algorithm changes. If so, this article is not for you.
This article is for everyone who doesn’t have a direct line to Menlo Park. (It’s also for everyone who doesn’t want to fish through unverifiable rumours spread by influencers looking to increase their own engagement. We’re looking at you, “save is the new like” people.)
Instead, all of the tips you’ll find in this article are based on hard data, or what Instagram itself has said about the algorithm and how it works.
Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps a lifestyle photographer used to grow from 0 to 600,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.
How the Instagram algorithm works in 2021
The Instagram algorithm decides which content gets seen. Every single time a person opens the app, the algorithm instantly combs through all available content, and decides:
- Which posts go to the top of the newsfeed, and in what order;
- Which posts are featured on the Explore tab;
- In which order Stories, Live videos, Reels and IGTV videos show up, in the feed, and their respective tabs, etc.
Basically, the Instagram algorithm is the set of rules that controls your content’s organic reach. And it gets a lot of flak for this (queue a wailing choir of people screaming “bring back reverse-chronological”). However, Instagram says that before the algorithm was implemented in 2016, people used to miss 70% of the posts, and 50% of their friends’ posts.
But how does the algorithm decide whether a piece of content is worth showing to a particular person at any given time?
Basically, it looks at the user’s past behaviour, sweeps all the available posts or pieces of content, and then evaluates each one to predict how interesting it is to that user. The most interesting content goes to the top.
To do this, it considers thousands of individual data points, which are also known as ranking signals. In 2018, Instagram invited a bunch of tech journalists to its offices (remember offices?) to explain.
Instagram algorithm ranking signals
The Instagram algorithm’s ranking signals fall under three major categories:
The algorithm assumes that people who’ve interacted with your account in the past will be interested in your new content. So when it decides whether to show a post to one of your followers, it evaluates your relationship:
- Do you follow each other?
- Did they search for you by name?
- Do you message each other, or leave comments?
- Do you tag each other in your posts?
- Do they save your posts?
If you’re running a brand account, you’re probably not actually best friends with your thousands of followers. But if you have an audience who is loyally and consistently engaging with your content, the algorithm will recognize that.
In other words, rest assured that engaging with your followers does genuinely help increase your organic reach (on top of making your monthly analytics reports look nice).
The Instagram algorithm also assumes that the most recent posts are most important to people. While Instagram insists that all posts do, at some point, show up in a user’s feed, newer posts are often ranked higher in the newsfeed than older ones.
For brands, that means one of the easiest ways to improve your Instagram reach is posting when your audience is online. (We have some more details on that below.)
The algorithm’s job is to give the people what they want (or, you know, a healthy mix of what they want and also perhaps some diverse and preference-broadening content). By tracking user affinity and being very good at understanding what is in a given photo or video, Instagram knows how to get basketball highlight videos to basketball fans, astrology memes to millennials, and really-scary-but-weirdly-cute shark videos to me.
For brands, a system that caters to people’s preferences means your organic content has to be truly appealing to your target audience in order for the algorithm to show it to them. There’s just no shortcut to defining your niche, developing a consistent voice, and telling a story that matters to people.
Other ranking signals
Instagram has also mentioned three other factors that will affect your organic reach, but they have more to do with your audience’s behavior than yours:
- Frequency of use: If you have followers who open their feeds 12 times a day, they’re more likely to see your post than people who check Instagram twice a day. People who don’t open the app frequently end up with a backlog of content built up, and therefore rely more heavily on the algorithm to select what they see.
- Following: This logic is similar to the above: people who follow 1000 accounts miss more posts than those who follow 100 accounts.
- Session time: If your followers spend a lot of quality time with their feed, they’re also more likely to see every post available.
What does this mean for brands? Not much, except that the ideal Instagram follower devotedly reads their entire feed several times a day, and doesn’t follow very many accounts. But instead of telling your audience to unfollow everyone except you, read on for our much more helpful tips, below.
Quick side note: If you want a more detailed look under the hood of a similar piece of machinery, in January 2021 Instagram’s parent company Facebook put out even more detail on the Facebook algorithm.
9 tips for working with the Instagram algorithm in 2021
While the Instagram algorithm doesn’t explicitly prioritize carousels, posts that earn more engagement are rewarded with more reach. Carousel posts make up 17% of feed posts, and according to Hootsuite’s own research they pull 3x the engagement and 1.4x the reach of other post types.
They’re great for going into more detail on a product, or capturing multiple angles on the same theme. For instance, almost all of @socialteesnyc’s posts are carousels (because when it comes to placing rescue dogs in homes, the more glamour shots, the better.)
This is key whether you’re looking for help with reach, engagement or follower growth. (Because, of course, those three things are related.)
On average, businesses post 1.56 posts to their feed per day. If that sounds like way too much for your mom-and-pop operation, rest assured that just showing up consistently (every weekday, for instance), is enough to keep the ball rolling.
Again, Instagram has never stated definitively that the algorithm looks at your account’s posting frequency when it decides how to rank your posts. However, a consistent presence is the best way to build a real connection with your followers.
Pro Tip: Consistency requires planning. This is where having a social media content calendar becomes crucial.
Don’t try to game the system
Take it from us, Instagram pods, buying Instagram followers, and Instagram automation do not work. We’ve actually tried them all, and they’re about as effective as @ing Adam Mosseri to try and get verified.
Also, according to Instagram, the algorithm can tell when your account is being shady.
So instead of spending your time trying to figure out which free Instagram likes service isn’t a scam (um, they all are), focus on what you can control: authenticity, relationships, and telling great stories.
conspiracy theories myths
For the record:
- The reach cap was fake news, too;
- Creator profiles, business accounts, and verified accounts don’t get a boost from the algorithm, though they do have their own benefits (like analytics);
- Instagram has stated that using the app’s other features like Stories and Live won’t improve your feed posts’s ranking—of course, they said this in 2018, before Reels and IGTV started showing up in the feed (more on that next).
Try out new features (especially Reels)
According to Bay-area frog artist Rachel Reichenbach, the algorithm is currently “boosting” Reels in the feed so that more people see and use this new feature. While Instagram’s hasn’t officially confirmed this, it makes sense—Instagram wants Reels to copycat TikTok’s success, like Stories did Snapchat and IGTV did YouTube.
Posting one Reel to Instagram (or, according to Reichenbach’s Instagram contact, 5-7 Reels a week) is definitely not a guaranteed method for improving your organic reach overall. However, posting a really good Reel is certainly likely to expose your account to new eyes, and earn you better engagement. For instance, the average NFL team’s Reels are pulling in 67% more engagement than their regular videos, right now.
Hootsuite’s own social team tested this theory and found that posting Reels helped to modestly boost their engagement and follower growth rates.
Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps a lifestyle photographer used to grow from 0 to 600,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.Get the free guide right now!
- Do not recycle watermarked TikToks
- Shoot in vertical
- Use the bells and whistles: filters, camera effects, music, etc.
Long story short: adopting Reels into your Instagram marketing strategy isn’t a silver bullet, but if it’s a natural fit for your brand, there could be significant upside.
Use hashtags better
Hashtags actually pre-date most feed algorithms: they’re from the old days (um, 2007) when humans had to sort information themselves. Now, machine learning sorts social content in much more complex ways, but using the right hashtags on your posts can help people discover you, even if they don’t follow you.
Precise, accurate, thoughtful hashtags signal to humans and the algorithm what’s in your post, and who might be interested in it.
Plus, unlike Instagram ads (the other way to expand reach past your existing audience) hashtags are free.
To use hashtags correctly, don’t just slap #loveandlight and #instagood on everything. Instead, dig around in your niche, do your research, and use hashtags that actually describe what your post is about.
Read our full overview of Instagram hashtags over here.
Post when your audience is online
This tip’s the easiest one to implement on this list. People spend an average of 30 minutes per day on Instagram, and Instagram wants to serve recent, relevant content to them.
Finding out the best time to post to Instagram means looking at your own audience’s behaviour, looking around at industry benchmarks, and also keeping in mind when people are generally on Instagram.
Pro tip: Hootsuite Analytics recommends the best time to post to every network based on your account’s historical data and goals (follower growth, engagement, or click-throughs).
Of course, the best time to post is not always the most convenient, so in the case that your audience is online at 4 am, we recommend Hootsuite’s Instagram scheduler.
For more tips, check out this tutorial on how Hootsuite makes managing your Instagram presence easier overall:
Bond with your audience
We saved this one for last because winning hearts is how you win the algorithm. Whatever your KPIs are for Instagram—awareness, conversions, emails, follower count—success only comes when you’re tapped into your audience’s hearts and minds.
Take, for instance, Knix (the comfy underwear brand): their team is like, jaw-droppingly good at this. They’re so in touch with their audience that they can get away with posting questions that your therapist would think twice about. (And pull 500 comments while they’re at.)
The general benchmark for “good” engagement on Instagram is somewhere between 1-5%. But the average engagement rate on Instagram for business accounts was 0.85% through 2020. If you’re looking to improve your own engagement rate, here are a few action items for your list:
- Define your audience so you know what they want from you (a.k.a. research your target market)
- Respond to comments and DMs (if you have a lot, we have a tool for that)
- Create an ongoing Story where you can share posts you’ve been tagged in (yes, we’re talking about UGC)
Want more tips for increasing your Instagram engagement? We have more over here.
Automate your analytics reports
A good Instagram analytics tool will go beyond vanity metrics and help you zero in on your audience and identify the kind of content that they’ll keep coming back for.
No matter how busy you are, getting automatic analytics reports will help you with almost all of the above tips. Taking the time once a month, for instance, to look at the numbers and see what’s working in terms of content, posting time, and hashtags, will save you a lot of wasted effort.
Use an Instagram analytics tool to find out:
- when your audience is online (so you can schedule your posts during that window)
- which hashtags are performing well
- what posts are earning real engagement
Meanwhile, a truly great tool will give your brand the low-down on everything from audience sentiment analysis to campaign click-throughs to customer service response times.
Beat the Instagram algorithm and save time managing your social media using Hootsuite. From a single dashboard, you can schedule and publish content, engage your audience, and measure performance. Try it free today.