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Cracking the code: exploring changes to Instagram’s algorithm

In recent years, Instagram has evolved into much more than a platform to upload selfies to. With businesses now increasingly present on social media, and with the stratospheric rise to prominence of the influencer generation, social channels have the power to make and break reputations. 

Now as the world’s fourth most popular social media platform, used by more than 28 million people in the UK alone, Instagram has become a one-stop shop for agencies, businesses and creators alike to connect with audiences on a global scale. 

Building and maintaining a presence on a platform like Instagram has never been more important – but, in order to get a real gauge on what both social media channels and consumers want, it is paramount to stay on top of the latest algorithm changes. 

In short, algorithms study behaviour on the app and use previous activity to decide what content you see. They also help maintain order, assist in ranking search results, control your organic reach and decide what you see on the app and what you don’t. 

But how does the changing algorithm impact the way we use social channels – particularly when it comes to visually-led channels like Instagram – and how do we crack the code? 

What is the Instagram algorithm and how does it work? 

Many Instagram users will have probably noticed changes within the app recently. Maybe their engagement has been lower than usual, or perhaps they haven’t received as many likes on a post? This is likely down to algorithm changes. 

An algorithm is a mathematical set of rules specifying how a group of data behaves. With the algorithm constantly changing, some users have found it difficult to stay relevant on the app, especially if they aren’t clued up on how to use hashtags and other features. 

The algorithm ultimately decides what shows up on your page and acts like a spy by tailoring the app to your interests based on what you’ve been interacting with most. The algorithm works in such a way that it prioritises content it thinks you’ll like (based on your previous usage) and pushes content it thinks you won’t like to the bottom of your feed. 

On the whole, this means that content posted by people you follow will no longer show in chronological order, but in order of what the app predicts you’ll want to see first.

So, what are some of the key areas of interest? 

Hashtags 

Instagram newbies will often rely on hashtags to boost their engagement, but recent changes to the algorithm mean that people who use too many hashtags in their captions will receive lower engagement on their posts as a result. This is known as ‘shadow banning’ – the content is still visible through search, but users are penalised by the algorithm and their content is shown to fewer accounts in the main feed. 

This may sound a little odd considering we’ve always been actively encouraged to use hashtags where possible, but this is all part of the new algorithm that users will need to become accustomed to. The consensus now is that up to five hashtags and no fewer than three should be used, and that they must all hold relevance to the theme or topic of the content featured in the post. 

Carousels 

Another way in which the algorithm has recently changed is that if a user is shown a carousel post that they do not engage with, the next time they see it, the second photo in the carousel will be shown. This is a clever way of Instagram encouraging users to engage with a post by showing you an image that you hadn’t previously seen. 

Video content creation 

If you’re a content creator and you aren’t actively utilising Instagram’s newer features such as reels, IGTV and other forms of video content, you may find it difficult to keep your account visible to all of your followers. 

Those frequently on the app but not using these new features have reported being penalised by the algorithm, so it’s becoming increasingly important to diversify the forms of content that you create on the platform. 

By creating content such as reels and IGTVs and adding them to your Instagram grid, you’re more likely to reach new and existing audiences due to your content being more engaging. 

Stories 

The algorithm that Instagram uses for its stories is very similar to that used for grid posts. The stories that are shown at the beginning of your story feed are from the profiles that you interact with the most on a daily basis. 

Although stories are designed to be binge-watched (so it is likely that followers will come across your content by mindlessly swiping) it’s also important for content creators to consistently post to their stories. This gives the creator a better chance of reaching their audience as they view their daily stories. In turn, the more views you receive, the better your overall profile ranking.

What kind of impact does the changing algorithm have on our use of the app? 

The algorithm has a huge impact on our free will. As users and content creators, we expect to use the platform and be presented with content from accounts we actually like, follow and engage with. But often we are seeing content directed to us by the app predicting our interests based on previous behaviour. 

In particular, the explore page is full of content suggestions that are generated by the app analysing our likes, search history, and how long we’ve spent looking at particular posts. Liked a couple of pictures from an interior design account? Well, get ready for more of the same, as Instagram will likely begin sending you suggestions for similar content on the platform. 

When it comes to the algorithm, the more you understand it, the better your experience will be. Recognising how your in-app behaviour is monitored and why certain kinds of content are targeted at you will certainly impact how you use the platform – and perhaps make you think twice about some of the content you mindlessly like, share and hover over on a daily basis. 

How can individuals, agencies and businesses keep up with algorithm changes to get the most out of the platform? 

  • Harness the power of hashtags! Use between three and five on each post to maximise your visibility – but make sure they’re as relevant as possible to the content of your post.
  • Embrace carousels. By adding multiple pictures to your grid posts, if it’s missed or not engaged with the first time around, the next time your followers see it, they’ll be presented with an alternative cover image to encourage engagement.
  • Utilise video content by creating reels and IGTV videos – the more engaging your content, the more likely you are to creep higher up your audience’s Instagram feeds. 
  • Post consistently on stories and consider doing Instagram lives to help boost your overall engagement. 

Building and maintaining a presence on a platform like Instagram has never been more important – but, in order to get a real gauge on what both social media channels and consumers want, it is paramount to stay on top of the latest algorithm changes.