Unravelling the mystery of the Instagram Algorithm

Why you see what you see on Instagram

As mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle and Stonehenge, the Instagram algorithm continues to be an enigma. Today, we’re unravelling the puzzle of why you see what you see on Instagram.

“Why aren’t people seeing my feed posts on the gram?”

One of the most common questions we get from Instagram creators is: “Why aren’t people seeing my feed posts on the gram?” They often blame the algorithm (and quite frankly, the algorithm gets the blame for a lot of things it’s not responsible for—like boring content!), but we’re going to deep dive with a little help from the head of Instagram who recently explained how everything actually works.

Instagram’s Adam Mosseri wants people to feel good about the time they spend on the social media platform, but they also need to understand how ranking works.

In this blog we are going to address how Instagram ranks content in feed and stories, how they rank explore, how Reels rank, shadowbanning and how to have an Insta-worthy experience.

Rewinding to 2010, Mosseri says Instagram was just a chronological list of square photos. It wasn’t until six years later they realised people were missing almost three-quarters of the content that they had the potential to see while scrolling through the platform. They also weren’t seeing more than 50% of photos and videos from friends and family members. This is when Instagram introduced a way of trying to ensure you don’t miss out on seeing what you are interested in (ranking content) to make the most of the time you spend scrolling on the Instagram platform.

Unravelling the Instagram Algorithm

What is the Instagram Algorithm?

Essentially, the algorithm is simply a fancy pants word for the process and even though you’ll hear creators and marketers talking about ‘the’ algorithm as if it is just one piece of code , there are lots of different algorithms. These processes are used to forecast what you might like to see, based on your interests, the people you interact with and what you’ve viewed before.

How do the Instagram Algorithms work?

At the initial stage, the algorithms look at what content is available. For example; when you go to your favourite restaurant, even though the waiter knows you by name and you mostly order the same thing—you still scan the menu just in case there’s something new you might fancy. And this is what Instagram does, scans all the available content, looks at what you haven’t seen and tries to predict what you might like.

Adam Mosseri explains it best in his own words. “When you open up your feed and stories, Instagram takes a look at all the feed and stories posted by the people you follow and we try and assess how interested you might be in each and everyone one.”

The second step is to take a look at your history, what you’ve looked at in the past, information about you and your friends and then each piece of content gets a score based on how interested you are in each post. Mosseri admits it’s not a perfect science and sometimes Instagram makes mistakes about what you want to see.

The algorithms also look for what Mosseri describes as “signals”

  • Is it a video or a photograph?
  • Is it about something you’re interested in for example; supplements such as Gen-Tec or is it popular content with a lot of likes?
  • Information about the content creator. Are they actively posting on Instagram? Are you a close friend?
  • Information about you. Are you only interested in funny memes or do you watch a lot of videos as opposed to photos? What motivates you to hit the like button? What kind of content do you save for later?
  • Your history about the interaction you’ve had with the person who posted. It looks at how much you comment or like their content.

For the Instagram feed, they take all of the above information and use proxies to predict how much time you might spend with each post (This is why video and carousel posts are better because you take time to watch or swipe left). It also tries to predict whether you are likely to save for later, comment or even visit the profile.

Each post is given a score based on Instagram’s predictions and the information collected, so that is why, Mosseri explains the feed is “roughly chronically based on what they think you’ll be interested in.

Unravelling the mysteries of Instagram ‘Explore’

What shows up on ‘Explore’ is not necessary because you have liked or followed a particular brand or person, it’s because based on the signals you’ve sent Instagram, they think it’s content you might like to see. The process of what shows up on your Explore page essentially uses the same signals that Instagram uses to determine what you see in the feed. To look at all the content available on Instagram is not really practical, so they try to narrow it down to a few different groups or interests that might pique your curiosity.

Known as collaborative filtering, Instagram looks at your history, the things you’ve shared and the other people who have shared or commented on similar things. Then Instagram expands it’s search to see what kind of content people you follow or comment are sharing, saving and commenting on. It’s a little confusing, so let’s give you a better example of how it works in real life.

Let’s say you follow Social Mama Community, Elisha Fiorentino is a boss babe and mother and she shares heaps of great baby products and cute videos of her son. Instagram wll look at who else likes, comments, saVes and shares her content. The others that follow Social Mama may also follow Earth Markets, who are a family-run fresh produce store on the Gold Coast and post family-friendly recipes and how to pick and store fruit. So Instagram may show you healthy family recipes that you may be interested in. You’re also more likely to see content from creators who you’ve interacted with at some stage. Instagram then filters this information based on how likely you are to save the post for later, like or comment. 

Instagram Reels

In the words of Adam Mosseri himself, “Reels are designed to entertain!  Short-form, mobile-first videos that are funny and exciting to watch.” Most of the content in reels isn’t because you followed someone but because using the algorithms, Instagram has predicted you will like that content they show you!

Shadow Banning

This is a term people throw around like confetti when they don’t seem to get the engagement or interaction they think their account should attract. There is never a guarantee that your posts are going to constantly reach the same number of people each time. It depends on the amount of competition and people’s interests change. On special holidays such as Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Valentines and Christmas, you’re competing with a lot of extra content from people sending their heartfelt thanks to loved ones. Instagram is endeavouring to be more transparent about why they take the actions they do regarding removal of content. You can avoid censorship by adhering to the community guidelines and advertising policies. Most of the guidelines are focused on safety—not inciting violence or hate speeches. There are also recommendations

Watch Adam Mosseri’s informative video on the Instagram Algorithm

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