How does Instagram work? Make its algorithm work for you!

Julia Moore
They say there is a right time to post. They say Instagram doesn’t count short comments in the Engagement. They say to post a particular number of posts. They say there must be few posts, but a lot of Stories…
Reading time — 14 minutes

We’ve studied official resources and asked experts about the social network algorithms and learnt how often to appear in Instagram feed and Stories and how to gain subscribers. In this article we're gonna reveal the answer to the questions - how does Instagram work and how make it work for you?

What are Instagram algorithms?

Let's start from the basics. An algorithm is a programming code, which controls your actions within social media. 

Algorithms track your history of interacting: likes, comments, following profiles, and calculate what accounts are the most interesting. Due to that, you see relevant posts and Stories.

Technologies are essential. According to the latest information, there are more than a billion Instagram followers around the world. Hundred thousands bloggers and brands add content every day. The algorithm is meant to figure out what would engage each user. 

How does Instagram algorithm work exactly? There are several types. One code is for ranging Stories, another one is for the feed content. There is no direct relationship between them. You may appear in a user’s feed if he or she likes your posts regularly. But he’ll never see your Stories. And on the contrary.

Add to that, there are algorithms responsible for the Explore page. And those for the advertisement: they verify an ad for matching the terms of use of the social network, then decide who to see it. 

What do the algorithms consider?

Instagram tracks the key behaviours, which are likes, comments, saved posts and Story replies. The more people interact with your content, the more likely it will be shown to other users.

But how exactly does Instagram work estimating engagement and interactions? Instagram tells about the criteria that the algorithms consider. There are several non-obvious moments:

  • Photo and video recognition. Algorithms do know what is depicted in your post on Instagram. If you like cats, they try to find popular images with the animal to show you. 
  • Adding content to external websites. Instagram sees if your posts are on other websites, which means users shareit out of Instagram. You get more points as a profile with useful content. 
  • Content taxonomy. Instagram algorithms understand the topics of your single posts and content in general. They show it to the users with similar interests.
  • Users’ mentions. The more a profile’s been mentioned in posts and Stories, the more likely the social network will promote it.
  • Image quality. The network is able to estimate the quality of a photo or video. A good picture cannot guarantee getting in the top list, but is a necessary condition.

This is how Instagram algorithm works when analyzing content. Now let's see what we can do about getting better statistics by making this algorithm work for you.

Feed

Back in the day, the mobile app feed had a chronological order. Fresh posts were shown first. And you could anticipate the Reach rate. 

Now the situation is different. Users follow lots of accounts and sometimes it’s physically impossible to view all the content. So how does Instagram work here? It shows posts people interact with most of all. Plus those, a particular user interacts with most often. 

How to increase interest in your posts?

Interaction

Feed is a perfect place to chat with your audience. When you voice your opinion in a post, ask users if they agree with you or not. If you have an online-shop, suggest a discussion about what product they find the best. It’s a good way to start debates. 

Relevant games and quizzes are good for increasing users' loyalty. 

But if there is nothing to discuss or ask - don’t. A good post will get a reaction anyway.

Conscious posts

It comes from the previous item - share content when you have something to say. If you’ve got what to say or show - do it. If you've got no worthwhile content for today, skip posting.

It’s important: if you add several posts a day, they will compete with each other. Instagram can’t show every post with the same frequency - the rivalry is too high.

It’s not a bright idea to announce three important matters, like an event or sales, at a time. Instagram doesn’t show too much content made by one account, so fewer people will see the posts. 

It’s different with re-uploading content. The developers understood that re-uploading is sometimes absolutely necessary - when, as an example, a user needs to change image mistakes - and stopped lowering the Reach for the duplicating posts and Stories which are reposts.

Promotion tools

Say “no” to giveaways!

This is not a good way to gain auditory. The reason is obvious: users subscribe not because of the interest in your content but to get prizes. What's more, they will unfollow you after the end of the prize drawing. This is a warning for IG algorithms. Here Instagram works following the line - users unfollow the account, which means it’s no more interesting to them, and stops showing the profile’s content. Therefore, the Reach rate falls and even the most loyal followers do not see you.

What if you've already held a giveaway?

Get your Reach back. Invest in real advertisement where you have to fight for a subscription. It brings only engaged followers. 

Ask bloggers to promote your account or launch targeted ads when people start to unfollow you. Make the users’ inflow exceed the outflow. Or even them at least. And delete all the bots. Then, a giveaway won’t do much harm. 

Specific and general hashtags

5-8 years ago, at the dawn of Instagram, everyone was obsessed with hashtags. It was a kind of trend. In the past years the view on it has been divided. 

Some say hashtags give little traffic compared with other tools. Especially for business accounts. Besides, they overload the content. 

Others believe hashtags are definitely a working Instgarm tool for organic promotion. Especially for small accounts getting started. But you shouldn’t overuse it. 

According to statistics, hashtags do help. On the search page of one of the most popular hashtag #love (more than 2 billion tags), there are not only big accounts with millions of followers, but also small pages with 1,000-5,000 subscribers. It doesn’t seem to help in gaining hundreds of followers, but if you can reach more people, why wouldn’t you do it?

Attention! Do not use the same tags under every post. Instagram may delete these posts right after the publication. Choose 5-10 most relevant tags and alternate them now and then. 

If you promote a product, focus on the niche hashtags to classify your posts. Thus, you’ll make Instagram algorithm work for you and get to the top of the explore page. 

Look what tags your rivals use and add them in comments to your publications. Algorithms will understand your accounts are similar and may draw their audience to your account. 

Instagram bio

It’s been told a hundred times. Everybody’s kept saying: bio is extremely important. Let's figure out why it’s such a big deal. How does IG work when estimating a user’s bio?

There are two main fields in an account settings - username and bio. Reading the bio text a potential subscriber decides whether your profile will be useful for him. In other words, whether subscribing to you is worth it.

Now let’s look at the Username line. In some cases it is even more important. 

Here SEO principles come into play. Instagram says that 81% of users go to the social network to search for a particular service or brand. The search is performed by the username line.

It is important to mention your business in it. Then, users find you directly without any advertisement. s

It does work. Here is an example: once I needed a tailor. It was late night and no one answered the phone. I wanted to get it quick and preferably online. 

And Instagram helped me - I typed “tailor” in the search and chose the one closest to me. Then texted in Direct and made an order the next day. It’s so simple and what’s more important it’s free - the business got another client with no ad. 

Conclusion: Right username makes Instagram work for you.

Instagram Stories

Stories now are one of the main content types in the social network. According to Instagram data, 500 million users view them everyday. It is more than 70% of active users in the social network. 

Stories also help to sell - clients navigate to your website by a link (if you’ve got more than 10,000 followers) and ask questions about your product in Direct. 

The rivalry here is the same as in Instagram feed. If a user follows, let’s say 200 accounts, and 40 from them added Instagram Stories - you have to compete for the user’s attention. 

How to make Instagram algorithm work for and show your Stories to them?

More interaction

Encouraging reactions has proved to be one of the best strategies. You can get back to the feed top adding a couple of Stories. 

For example, I follow 700 profiles, but have time to view no more than 20. 

I had a simple experiment: chose those appearing in my feed and Stories rarely and sent reactions to their Instagram Stories: after a couple of hours they started appearing in my Instagram feed all the time. 

What you need is to use built-in tools: questions, polls, emoji slider, quiz.

There is such a term - person centered content. It is made for people, allows a client to communicate with a product or brand, and allows a brand to gain more influence and followers. Polls help to recover the Engagement figures that Instagram algorithms sometimes suppress. 

Users are flattered to see you are interested in their opinion. Suggest them to participate in a poll or take some easy quiz. 

Diverse and regular content

Rival IQ made a research in 2021 and shed some light on the question of how does Instagram work. It studied Stories algorithm and users behavior, what it got was people are loath to watch more than 12 Instagram Stories added by one account. 80% of people skip them or close. Both are bad signals for the algorithm. 

Don’t post stories continuously: for a blogger, once or twice an hour is a good pace. The storytelling should imply some logic. For example, one or two Instagram Stories might be reviews of a good product, then something for fun. Mix usability and lifestyle: give advice and don’t forget to entertain. 

If you promote a brand, fewer Stories will suffice. Businesses don’t need to be very active in their profile. The Rival IQ says 25% of the most active brands share Stories 16 times a month, sometimes more. It’s every second day. For a good strategy it will be enough. 

Add a Story only when you have an idea to share. You may add 10 Instagram Stories a day and all they will be just white noise, or you may add 1-2 really good ones encouraging people to buy. Aim for the quality, not the number, then all the other problems will be solved. 

Explore page 

The Explore page is a good tool to draw more followers. Instagram promotes interesting profiles in the tab, so you can gain subscribers organically. The general Reach is fairly broad - according to the social network’s data, more than 200 million people open this page every day.

By the way, here Instagram works like retargeting. Your posts are shown to those who were on your page but didn’t subscribe. 

Here is what Instagram advises to get on the Explore page. 

Clearly defined topic

It’s important: algorithms classify your account and may offer it to the people with similar interests. 

If you have several specifications, they should be related. It’s not an option to promote a real estate agency and a beauty salon in one account. At least because Instagram won’t find users interested in both of the topics.

How to make a topic clear. Use specific hashtags, post products photos. Switch to a Professional account and set the category. Here we described the directions. 

Only unique content

Instagram says its algorithms recognize plagiarism. Practically speaking, it doesn’t affect Reach, it doesn’t matter whether you take a picture yourself or take someone’s content. But you better reinsure and ask the author. If you don’t, they may approach tech supply and your account will be blocked. 

The content uniqueness effect on the Reach rate is not approved. At least for now. The decrease happens when people see the same content in different accounts. In this case the posts gain fewer reactions and get worse range. But it is not determined by the plagiarism algorithms. 

IGTV

IGTV is video content allowing users to upload content with a minute to an hour duration. The social network likes the content and shows it 4 times more often than usual photos or videos. This is what the developers say in their Creator account - a useful profile for content authors. 

Why does Instagram work like this? Probably it wants to compete with YouTube. Long video works good for business: Livestream conducted a survey in association with New York Magazine, they learned 80% of consumers like to watch video, not photo when it comes to brands. 

IGTV is good for your product reviews. You can upload a film about a company’s history or show the inner workings. 

If you are a blogger, you may film guides with practical materials or go live: answer the followers’ question and then save the video in IGTV.

You may be interested in how to go live on PC, mac, or laptop

Shop page

Instagram provides data that more than 90% of its users are subscribed to commercial accounts and actively buy online. To make the purchases easier, the mobile app’s added Shop feature. One can find it above the Highlights. 

A user searches for products and finds your account, from which they can go to a website and place an order. According to statistics, brands grow their sales up to 20% using it. 

If you have an online-shop you should try it for sure. By the way, you can tag items in posts, photos and videos, and in IGTV. 

Instagram cuts the Reach rate of the posts from the Shopping page. Because the content is not useful, but purely commercial. Post a carousel and tag items on its last photos and videos to save the highest Reach level. 

By the way, Shopping enlarges the ads possibilities - you can promote concrete goods and link selling website pages to them. 

You can set the Shopping feature in the Settings menu, “Campaign” section. 

Ads algorithms

Instagram advertisement algorithm works in its own way. 

They are responsible for the ad verification, which is done not by the moderators, but the machine studying system. Facebook workers are involved only in complaints consideration and contentious cases. 

We should admit the system is not perfect. Even the most innocuous ad is often not approved, and it’s not clear at all what to change. 

Let’s look at the most common problems and solutions:

If your ad is restricted

Instagram runs a tight ship. The first source for the ads restrictions is the law of a particular country, the second one - Facebook advertising policies. 

You can't promote weapons, medicines and drugs, everybody knows that. But there are a host of restrictions that are not so obvious from the first sight. Speaking from experience, the reasons for the ban are usually the same. 

  • Do not persuade the product is the best, guarantee the best prices, promise a client becomes the most beautiful, appealing and seductive.
  • You can’t promise income - don’t write the product gives the opportunity to earn money, even if it really does. 
  • “Before” and “after” comparison is prohibited for the beauty and medicine services. Facebook opposes discrimination and comparison of people by any appearance characteristics. 
  • Don't approach personally or use evaluative judgments. You can’t write “You have diabetes?”, “Don’t earn enough?”, “Want to get more beautiful?”.

Go easy on contentious product promotion 

Reformulate an offer - instead of “easy money” you better write “we help to get a mach-needed job” for online-courses, “Got a cavity?” replace with “Dental clinic: help to treat cavities” and so on.

It should be native advertising without a call to buy the product.

If you specialize on alcohol, tobacco or goods for adults, forget about the target. Only bloggers can help here.  

But you should be careful - recently they do not tag the account in such ads. 

Thoroughly formulate the offers - IG algorithms are taught to react on the particular words. Don’t use “prize”, “money”, “the best” and so on. 

The boundaries in target are always blurred. Even experienced specialists face the  algorithms don’t verify their advertisement. If there are doubts, compare your offer with what your rivals have launched. Check it in the Facebook Ads library. Choose a location and category, then type a keyword. Note, the service does not always work from a computer correctly, but still usable from a mobile browser.

Don’t use deep links

Earlier, if you advertised an Instagram profile using Ads Manager, the link would open in a smartphone browser. There was a problem - if a user wasn’t logged in a browser, he couldn’t subscribe and view the content. 

Now it is opened in an in-built Instagram browser where every user is authorized by default. Though the conversion is still bad in comparison to the direct linking with the app.

To avoid that, users have started to add deep links which open the advertising profile right in the app.

The other problem has appeared due to that. Instagram doesn't approve of it. The links are considered an attempt to bypass the mobile app security and are banned right away. 

Should you use deep links now? 

We do not recommend it. There are possible sanctions right up to the ad account ban. 

Besides, the latest update Instagram browser looks as native as may. The whole point of a deep link is lost. 

The bottom line

Let’s summarize the information and remember the main points:

  • The network algorithm works to show relevant content to each user. 
  • To encourage Instagram to show you more often, mark a category, use relevant hashtags, post visual content related to your topic.
  •  Competing for the users’ attention is high. The more likes, comments and other kinds of interaction you get, the higher is the possibility your content will be shown more often. It applies both to your real and potential subscribers who can get to your profile from the Explore page.
  • The same is about Instagram Stories. Use polls, quizzes, and other engaging tools so that people interact with you more often.
  • Be aware of the ads. Don’t use stiff phrases. Bet on creativity and engagement - such advertisement will be more likely verified and get good response.