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The Instagram Algorithm 2018 – Adapting like a Boss

Digital Marketing

Sylvia Wong Director of Digital Marketing

Has there been a change to the Instagram algorithm in 2018? We’re only a few weeks into the new year and rumours are spreading like wildfire right now about dropping engagement. There hasn’t been an official announcement from Instagram, so take the rumours with a grain of salt. Here’s how you can prepare yourself for algorithm changes so you can adapt like a boss.

What’s the Instagram Algorithm?

If you’re a long time user of Instagram, you may remember that the news feed of images (from accounts you follow) was chronological. As the platform grew (and was bought by facebook), they estimated that most users miss 70% of their feed. Their solution in March 2016 was to implement an algorithm so that your feed would no longer be chronological but based on the content you’re most likely to engage with. After just a few months, they reported that people were liking photos more, commenting more and generally engaging with the community in a more active way.

Why would a social network do that? Well, their mission is to keep you in the app for as long as possible. And the best way to do that is by showing you content you love.

How do Algorithms choose content?

If you’re familiar with SEO, Google frequently has algorithmic updates (adorably named Google Penguin, Google Panda etc.) The thing is, although they tell you some of the ranking factors and what the algorithm will do (like penalize keyword stuffing, content thin sites, or sketchy backlinks), they’ll never tell you HOW. Because if they were to reveal that, then it would be easy for spammers to manipulate the system with blackhat methods to get their websites ranking. Not cool.

Essentially algorithms exist to program systems to understand what real people want to see.

What an Instagram spokesperson has revealed is that these are the 5 main ranking factors:

1. Relationship

If you’ve been using Instagram for the past year, you’ve probably noticed that your best friend’s photos and stories show up at the top of your feed. So if someone interacts with your profile or direct messages you frequently, Instagram can see your close relationship and ensures they catch your posts.

2. Timing

Even though posts aren’t shown chronologically, Instagram will still try to prioritize recent content on your feed and explore page. This is actually a net benefit for businesses posting content because the lifespan of a post is now extended beyond the first few hours. Posts still receive engagements a day or two later, as the algorithm still shows it to your most dedicated followers. Posting at certain times of day is becoming less relevant to getting higher engagement.

3. Engagement

Likes and comments are the biggest and most public indicator of your profile performance and how engaged your audience is. A lot of people assumed that the algorithm change meant that, if you were following Selena Gomez, you would always see her posts at the top of your feed. This is untrue as it’s not based on the total engagements from the community, but more on how YOU engage with Selena’s content.

4. Direct Shares

It’s not all about the engagements that you can see publicly. Dark social is becoming a buzzword because a lot of users are starting to share posts in private messages and group chats rather than commenting directly on posts. This may be keeping it low key to other users but Instagram sees users engage with that content and it shows an interest in that person or company.

5. Profile Searches

Searching for a specific profile shows a strong interest in them; much more so than if someone finds your account from a tag. A profile search sends the signal to prioritize that content to the user.

So what’s the problem?

Users (particularly businesses who use Instagram to attract leads or make announcements to their followers) have been a bit panicked, to say the least. People are seeing their engagement rates dropping and everyone wants the chronological feed back. Rumours are spreading about monetization and penalties like shadow banning. There’s a huge sense of fear spreading in the community, and this tends to happen every time there’s some change to a social network.

The thing is, these platforms are “free”. If you want to take advantage of them to reach your target clients, you need to think like a marketer. Instead of fearing a change, embrace it and adapt so that you’re always ahead of the curve…

How can I stay Ahead of the Instagram Algorithm 2018?

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Sure, new rules and ranking factors get added and the algorithm will be adjusted from time to time. Even the ones listed above may be outdated now that there are new features like Stories, Highlighted Stories, sending stories privately, saving posts, and more. But essentially they’re trying to stop those who learn how to manipulate the system like fake accounts and spam bots. You can stay ahead of any changes by avoiding suspicious behaviour and keeping it real.

  • Don’t use bots – If the platform is trying to stamp out fraudulent accounts and bots, avoid looking like one! The bots that buy you followers go so insanely fast and the increase is obvious to instagram (and to marketers who know how to vet out influencers). Don’t buy comments and likes either as most come from low quality profiles and look fake too. While you’re at it, don’t like or comment too quickly and do that aggressive follow/unfollow strategy thing.
  • Switch up your hashtags – Do you use the same hashtags for every post? Avoid the repetition. It’s been discovered that Instagram will stop indexing your photo under certain hashtag feeds if you use them too excessively. This is to target bots that try to take over tag feeds with their photos; don’t act like a bot! Implement a smarter hashtag strategy and shake it up.
  • Use location tags – Another way to get your content seen is by adding a location tag. Maybe you don’t want to tag your exact location, but adding a city helps if you do any local business.
  • Limit comment pod activities to 3 weeks – If you’re creating “comment pods” and networking with peers to boost your engagement, it works well to show that your content gets comments! And it’s great, not just for the engagement boost but to actually network and create new relationships. Limit your pods to go for only 3 weeks though because Instagram will start to recognize that your engagement is only coming from a small group of people.
  • Post Stories – While posts are not always pushed up the feed, Stories are always at the top for users that follow you. Use them! Stories are an opportunity to get real and show your followers who you are in a less curated way and send them to check out any posts they may have missed.
  • ENGAGE! – “If you build it, they will come” is the complete antithesis of social media. Don’t expect anyone to engage with you if you don’t engage first. Figure out where your tribe hangs out, what hashtags they use and always look for new people to follow, even as a brand.
  • Make content that your users love – If you have a business account, check the insights frequently and make similar content. Is there a pattern in photos? captions? topics? Which posts are most liked, most saved and most commented? Follow that pattern because followers love consistency!

The bottom line is that algorithms are being made to predict what you or your followers want to see. They’re trying to predict human behaviours, so create content that your humans want to see and you’ll be just fine. Instead of blaming the algorithm for your dropping engagement, consider that your content just might need some major adjustments. Authenticity always wins.

3 Replies to “The Instagram Algorithm 2018 – Adapting like a Boss”

  1. Hey, Sylvia! Nice post! Thank you for sharing all this info with us!
    About hashtags, I always use one hashtag that I’ve created on my posts, with my name. Do you think is better to change this behavior? Thank you!

    1. Hi Alice, Thanks so much for reading!

      If you’ve made a hashtag and you tag absolutely every post that is in your feed with it, how is it different than your feed? Consider what someone will see if they click on it. If it’s the same as your entire profile, it’s not adding any value. I think it’s unnecessary if you’re not doing it to differentiate a specific type of post.

      Most of the time, no matter how niche an account is, there will be some categories that form. Maybe you share a mix of things like your work, food you’ve eaten, and photos of yourself. If you wanted to add some value, you could make individual hashtags for each category like #WORKbyalicemenabarreto #alicemenabarretoEATS #alicemenabarreto. Now imagine the experience someone will get when they click on each of those! It would be like a curated feed of only that type of post. So if someone is most interested in what you eat, they can see all those posts in one place!

      All that said, if your account is private then your hashtagged posts don’t appear in hashtag feeds. So if you’re using any of them for outreach, they’re not showing anywhere. But if you’re curating your current feed for people who already follow you, the above strategy works!

      Hope that helps!


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