Understanding the Instagram Algorithm

October 24, 2017

Understanding the Instagram Algorithm

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Olivia Noli

Olivia Noli is the marketing intern at Nuvi.

Latest posts by Olivia Noli (see all)

So far, most of my blog posts have been about optimizing your Instagram account to be more effective. While writing most of these articles, I had to stipulate the limits of Instagram based on the infamous “algorithm.” Since there is so little known about the algorithm and its effects, I have compiled both my primary and secondary research into this post. This information will allow you to promote your business and generate new leads through engagement with followers.

How the Algorithm Works

The algorithm affects everyone who uses Instagram. No exceptions. You’ve probably noticed this on your timeline. Whereas Instagram used to work with a linear timeline, now you see posts from ten hours ago at the top of your timeline instead of something posted two minutes ago. One of the most distinguishing factors of the algorithm is the analysis of engagement and relationships. The software analyzes how each individual interacts with other accounts and then tries to show the posts that the user will find most interesting. For example, if you like everything your roommate posts, you will be more likely to see their content first, as opposed to your neighbor from five years ago whose posts you only like once in a blue moon. The idea here is that the algorithm tries to predict what you want to see based on your past actions.

This also applies to the “Explore” tab on Instagram. The algorithm analyzes the kind of content you already follow and interact with in order to promote other accounts you possibly might like. If you follow several fashion accounts, the Explore tab will include a few other fashion accounts you might like. For businesses, this is an important limitation. Instagram only promotes related high-quality content, so in order to reach more followers, your content has to be top notch.

According to the Buffer App, there are seven factors that the algorithm analyzes to promote content: 

  • Engagement: How popular the post is
  • Relevancy: The genres of content you are interested in and have interacted with
  • Relationships: The accounts you regularly interact with
  • Timeliness: How recent the posts are
  • Profile Searches: The accounts you check out often
  • Direct Shares: Whose posts you are sharing
  • Time Spent: The duration spent viewing a post

These factors regulate what you see, as well as who sees your posts. Interaction is found to be the highest influencer in the algorithm and is a common denominator in most of these factors. The more interactions (likes, commments, and saves) an account or post has, the more visible it will become. For businesses, this means you have to engage your audience, or else you won’t reach new customers or even your current followers. 

Working with the Algorithm

According to Hootsuite, there are a few things you can do to work within the algorithm to promote your content.

  • Focus on quality
  • Know your followers
  • Share live video
  • Try an Instagram pod
  • Partner with influencers
  • Use appropriate hashtags
  • Avoid the shadowban
  • Invest in Instagram ads


High-quality content is promoted through the algorithm. If your photo is low quality, it is less likely to be promoted. To increase the engagement of your current followers, you have to gear your content towards their interests. A random food picture on a business account will draw less engagement from your followers, making your content less visible on the algorithm. This applies to live video as well. Live video draws instant engagement by bringing in viewers. If your video isn’t interesting to your followers, however, they won’t watch the whole video. This means less engagement and less visibility on the algorithm.

Influencers and Organic Growth

Another method to increase engagement is to partner with influencers and work with Instagram pods. As explained in “Growing Your Instagram Following,” working with other people helps promote your content as well as other influencers. Other influencers are ideal as spokespeople for your content and allow you to reach a new follower base. Instagram pods allow you have guaranteed engagement from a set of other influencers. As a quick recap, Instagram pods are groups of influencers who join messaging groups to like and comment on each other’s content. As mentioned, Instagram pods have had to evolve recently as Instagram has deactivated accounts that run pods in the direct messages. Instagram tries to promote “organic growth,” as opposed to accounts who try to hack the algorithm. For example, Instagram limits the growth of accounts who purchase followers rather than gain followers organically. In order to avoid Instagram’s limits to pods, influencers have started hosting pods over Facebook groups and text messaging. They either message each other when they have posted over these new mediums, or they all agree to turn on post notifications for each others’ accounts. This allows them to still increase their engagement without being limited by Instagram administrators.


Using appropriate hashtags is also essential. Without using hashtags, your content will be nearly invisible to other users. Hashtags allow your content to be classified, and can also reach other users who use similar hashtags. The trick is to use relevant hashtags to your content. While using #yoga is great, if someone looks through the #yoga feed (40,668,463 posts), the chances of them seeing your content are fairly slim since hundreds of people use that tag every minute.

You can still use this tag, but use another, more specific tag with it, like #yogapose (2,644,668 posts). Hashtags are like a filter for your content. The more refined your filter, the more specific your audience will be. The trouble is the algorithm limits certain hashtags and you can be “shadowbanned.” Shadowbanned means a couple of things. First, you can be shadowbanned for using the same hashtags too much. To be shadowbanned means that your post won’t be viewed on the hashtag feed.  Hootsuite recommends using authentic content and varying your hashtags every now and then. Another way to become shadowbanned is to use a banned hashtag. Banned hashtags are usually hashtags that lead to content that violates Instagram’s policies, mostly policies about nudity and pornography. Hashtags like #booty are common culprits, however, there are a few like #dogsofinstagram that have questionable content. While your post may be an innocent picture of your dog, somehow someone else has used that tag for a questionable picture and Instagram has banned that hashtag. This means your post may not be visible on that hashtag stream, but your post will not be promoted on the algorithm. This will limit your engagement with your current followers as well as on the Explore feed. A list of some of the surprising banned hashtags can be found on plannthat.com.


Instagram Ads and Business Accounts

According to Hootsuite, investing in Instagram ads can help promote your content; however, there is some debate as to whether Instagram ads help or not. In a poll of local photographers to which 23 responded, 17 people responded that the Instagram ads made no difference to their engagement (with 4 responding that it helped and 2 responding that it hurt their engagement). There is a similar debate about whether or not to change to a business account. While business accounts have their advantages, there seems to be lower engagement. With another poll of these Utah photographers, 16 responded that switching to a business account hurt their engagement while only one person claimed that they experienced higher engagement.


In summary, the Instagram algorithm has lots of limits, however, by understanding the research, you can work around the algorithm to effectively promote your content. By doing so, you can engage new potential followers and generate new leads for your business.

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