How the Instagram Algorithm Works in 2021

Make sure your posts are appearing first in your fans’ feeds with these top tips for beating the Instagram algorithm.

Social Media Algorithms in 2021

Social media algorithms can make or break a businesses’ organic social activity. A few years back they introduced it as a replacement for the classic chronological feed. Instead of seeing posts in by recency, they’re now intelligently recommended based on the users’ previous behaviour on the platform. In some cases, even behaviour exhibited outside of the platform can influence what you see. Your behaviour on Instagram can affect what content gets priority on Facebook, for example.

In terms of digital advertising, this is nothing new – ads have been stalking us around the internet since the invention of third-party cookies. But this behaviour-driven approach has been increasingly affecting the organic reach of social posts. Facebook has steadily gearing their platforms towards ‘meaningful interactions’ (with an emphasis on communities). Essentially what this means is posts from friends have an inherent advantage over posts from a business page, in terms of feed ranking. 

This move, which was revealed by Mark Zuckerberg in 2018, has since had a damaging impact on organic social metrics. Reach and engagement rates have been dropping, forcing businesses to rely more on paid activity.

Thankfully, all is not lost. Organic content can still perform exceptionally well if you abide by Instagram’s unspoken rules. There are 5 key ranking factors that Instagram (and many other platforms) use:

1. Interest

How much IG thinks you’ll care about the post. This is arguably the most influential ranking factor. As we just discussed, social media platforms use your past behaviour to predict your future behaviour. So if you engage with one type of content more often (e.g. your friends posts, food posts, etc.) these will get priority in the feed. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean the most popular posts in that topic will always appear first. Instagram spokespeople are quick to assure that the platform isn’t a ‘popularity contest’.

What to do: You should be focusing on quality over quantity. If the user continually passes over your content without interacting, IG will consider it uninteresting. Posting better content, less frequently is key. The user followed your account for a reason – you have to keep that level of interest up by producing unique content that isn’t supplied by the rest of their feed.

2. Timeliness

How recently you posted. IG may have moved away from the chronological feed, but when you post is still a factor to consider. Social media is all about keeping your finger on the pulse of the very latest trends and breaking news. The algorithm therefore determines newer posts to be more ‘relevant’ and gives them a higher ranking. 

An interesting aspect of the ‘timeliness’ factor is that IG only arranges new posts in-between visits. The users’ feed is constantly evolving. Your post may have been ranked 1st in the feed when you posted at 12pm, but a newer, better post could push it down by 12:30pm.

What to do: This is why posting when your audience is active is crucial. Social media algorithms act like giant feedback loops – if a user isn’t engaging with your posts straight away, it won’t be considered timely and could get pushed down the rest of your audiences’ feeds.

3. Relationship

The accounts you consistently interact with. IG’s algorithm monitors how frequently you engage with a user – whether it’s liking their photos or visiting their profile. This ranking has steadily moved up in importance since 2018 – it’s the reason your best friend’s photo with 17 likes appears first in the feed. IG stories rankings are entirely decided by your ‘relationship’ factor.

What to do: This is a tricky one to navigate for businesses. IG is unfairly bias towards posts from friends & family. You should be encouraging interactions with your posts by asking questions to your fans and by running competitions. But be warned: not all engagement is considered equal by Instagram. Shares, saves and comments have a stronger impact on your feed ranking than likes.

4. Frequency

How often you check Instagram. This one is quite similar to ‘Timeliness’, except it’s the opposite. It’s not about when you post, it’s about when your followers open the app. Users who check IG often, but in short bursts, will see only the newest, most relevant content since they last looked. Those who check less often, but for longer durations, will be served a more diverse selection of content from a larger time frame.

What to do: There’s not a lot businesses can do here. A users’ behaviour is entirely individual. If you focus on meeting the criteria of the other ranking factors, you could consistently be at the top of the feed, no matter how often your fans open the app.

5. Following

How many people you follow. With this ranking factor, it’s simple mathematics. If your fans follow 1000’s of accounts, there’s no way they can all achieve high feed rankings. This also works the opposite way – the more followers you have, the lower your engagement rate percentage will be.

What to do: Once again, you can’t control how many accounts your fans follow. It’s worth following good IG practices, such as tidying up your follower-following ratio. We advise businesses not to follow too many accounts as it can look unprofessional.

It’s unclear whether this influences the algorithm, but logically it makes sense. Having 10,000 followers but only 100 following indicates that you produce high-quality content. Instagram wants users to have the best experience possible, and this means showing the best the app has to offer.

Concluding Words

As you can tell, there’s a lot more to the algorithm than you may have thought. We’ve laid out the factors as a guide, but ultimately the key to achieving that coveting 1st place in the Instagram feed is to bring your best. Post high quality content on a consistent basis – content that brings value and drives engagement. Make sure you’re posting when your audience is online, and don’t forget those hashtags!