Instagram Algorithm Changes for 2018: Ranking Factors, Stories, Hashtags

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Instagram Algorithm Changes for 2018: Ranking Factors, Stories, Hashtags

Ah, the good old Instagram algorithm. Released to hoards of unhappy users, the new algorithm sorted users’ Instagram feeds from from most relevant to least relevant, as opposed to the existing sort: newest to oldest.

This algorithm change was way back in 2016, and as mentioned, wasn’t very popular then. Now, two years later, it looks like Instagram is never going back to its old chronological way.

This change was first announced by Instagram in a press release. They promised users that they’d be seeing “the moments you care about first.” According to them, the average user was missing 70% of their feed. The goal was to show users tailored content, based on three main things:

  • The likelihood they’d be interested in the content

  • Their relationship with the person posting

  • The timeliness of the post

For their example, they cited seeing a post from your favorite artist (whose posts you’ve often liked, and profile you’ve visited a ton) the morning after one of their shows. Although you might be checking your Instagram feed 12 hours after the actual photo was posted, that photo will show up first for you.

For the purpose of this article, I’m just going to assume you’re on Instagram, since you’re a human living in 2018—and since you’re reading this article. And you’ve likely experienced this very algorithm at work just by using the app.

You’re more likely to see posts from people that you interact with the most higher up in your feed, even if the post is from a long time ago.

Of course, the goal of the algorithm is to show you the most relevant posts in your feed, therefore encouraging higher engagement rates. But what factors go into how your feed looks each time you log on? Let’s break it down.

How the Instagram algorithm works in 2018

Over the past 2 years, there have undoubtedly been some big (although rather hush-hush) changes made to the algorithm. And apparently, it’s working—Instagram cites more likes, comments, and overall engagement with the new way of serving users their feed.

The algorithm on 2018 works on a type of rewards system; by testing your posts out on a small percentage of your audience, and seeing how well the post does there.

Each time you upload a new post, Instagram will compare your post to similar posts of yours published in the past at around the same day and time, and see how much engagement your new post gets in comparison.

If the post is performing worse than normal with this smaller subsection of users, it will be shown to fewer people, further down their feed. If it’s doing particularly well, the post will be shown to more people, and placed higher up on their feed. You’ll also have a higher chance to make it onto the explore page for certain users, hashtags, or locations.

Here’s a handy infographic to further illustrate the process:

But what are the key factors that control what users see first on their feeds, whose stories they see first, and what they see on the explore page?

Factors the Instagram algorithm takes into consideration:

As mentioned, there are a multitude of algorithmic factors that go into what you’re seeing when you open up your Instagram page, and in turn, which posts of yours others are seeing.

Based on insights from an Instagram spokesperson, we’ve broken down the 8 top contributors to the Instagram algorithm.

Pure engagement metrics

In regards to engagement, the algorithm’s math is rather simple: the more engagement a post gets, the better the content (most likely) is.

But, there are other factors that come into play with engagement, like who’s engaging with your post, when are they engaging, and if you are engaging back.

While engagement is a rather broad term, it can be applied to a few different aspects of your experience on Instagram. Obviously, likes, comments, and views are a part of engagement. But did you know that if someone shares your post with their friends or family over direct messaging, that counts as engagement, too?

The key here is to create content that people can’t avoid—something shocking or funny they’ll want to share with friends and family right away via DM.

All engagement is not created equal

While nothing has been confirmed directly from Instagram, there has been some chatter that the Instagram algorithm weighs comments and shares higher than likes when looking at engagement.

A good way to hack this is to create posts that encourage conversation from your followers. For example, you might want to ask a question about your followers’ experiences with whatever you’re posting about, or encourage users to share the post with their friends via direct message.

Real vs. fake engagement

With post engagement being such a key factor in Instagram’s algorithm, you’d think it would reward any post with a ton of likes, comments, and shares. But that’s not always the case.

We’ve all seen an Instagram account that look a little fishy. Whether it’s an unusually high number of likes on one post, a sudden spike in followers in a short period of time, or comments that don’t quite match the photo, you know something is a little off when you see it.

Well, according to some sources, Instagram notices this, too. And when a post is teeming with suspicious activity, it falls lower and lower on people’s feeds. Paying for fake engagement is a good way to drop off of people’s feeds and get fewer eyes on your content.

Length of engagement

On your blog or YouTube channel, you know that the length of time someone spends viewing your content can greatly affect how well your content ultimately does. The same goes for Instagram under the new algorithm.

The longer people view a post, the higher it will rank in other people’s feeds. If someone is scrolling through their feed and stops on your post—whether because of an enticing photo, video, or catchy caption—the algorithm will note that.

To the algorithm, the more time people spend viewing a post, the more interesting that post might be to other people. So, it will place that post higher up in other people’s feeds.

After looking at length of views, the algorithm also notes how long after a post has been shared that people are still viewing the post. Are people still going back to a post a week after it’s uploaded to show their friends? Has someone recently discovered your photo and shared it with their friend over Instagram’s direct messaging feature? All of these things will factor in to whether your post gets seen by more eyes or not.

Your own engagement

Just as the Instagram algorithm rewards posts with high engagement rates, it’s also been speculated that the algorithm rewards you, the user, for doing some engaging of your own. You’ve got to give a little love to get a little love in return.

First, the algorithm looks at how quickly and how often you’re responding to people’s comments on your own posts. Obviously, the quicker and more often the better. Plus, it’ll only pad your Instagram posts with more engagement, and encourage other users to do the same. Be quick to reply to any comments made, and make sure you’re responding to all of them.

The Instagram algorithm also looks at the number of likes and comments you’re dishing out to others posts. The more comments you share on other people’s posts, the more the algorithm narrows down the types of posts you’re actually interested in, and will show you more posts like these.

There’s also some speculation that posts from more actively engaged users are shown higher up in other people’s feeds, but there’s no concrete evidence there yet.

Relationship with poster

This factor might be considered the most important factor in the Instagram algorithm: your relationship to the person posting.

Most likely, you’ll be liking and commenting the most on people’s posts that you really care about. So even if your friends’ little brother’s account only gets around 10 likes per photo, if you’re consistently one of those 10 people, you’ll be shown his content more often than content from other users.

Let’s use that scenario as a quite literal example on my Instagram account. Some background on me as an Instagram user: I am not a big commenter. Sure, I’ll throw out my fair share of likes, but it takes a lot for me to actually comment on someone’s post.

Long story short, my friend’s little brother entered a “create your own ice cream” contest at a Los Angeles ice cream shop, confusingly named Sonny’s Amazing Italian Ices. What he needed was to have the highest number of comments on a post featuring his ice cream flavor, and they’d make the flavor. So, I commented.

Shortly after, I started seeing Sonny’s Instagram posts popping up early on in my feed. It would be a grouping of posts from my favorite accounts (both friends and celebrities alike), and then a Sonny’s post. These posts have since fallen from my feed, due to complete lack of interaction. But it was a moment of the Instagram algorithm in action.

Usually, the people whose posts you’re commenting on are the ones you like the most. But keep this in mind when interacting with other Instagram accounts, and think of how this can work in your favor—get people to comment on a post of yours, and it’s likely they’ll be seeing more of you for weeks to come.

Your search history

Ever Google something, and then see a banner ad on a website for exactly the thing you were Googling? Instagram’s algorithm has a similar process for in-app searches.

Instagram keeps a record of the users you’re searching for, and if you’re following them, will place them higher up in your feed. The idea is that if you’re searching for this user, you’re probably not seeing the posts from them that you want to see in your feed. So, Instagram is going to give you more posts those people.

Timeliness of content

Overall, Instagram wants to keep your posts relevant. So, the algorithm will still try to keep the timeliness of content in your feed as up to date as it can, without letting you miss any super-relevant posts that you may have missed since the last time you checked into the app.

The farthest back I’ve seen posts from is one full week, and I think that’s around the upper limit of old content that Instagram is willing to show. They want you to be entertained by what you see, but not put off by how out of date the content is.

Relevance of content

While you’re browsing through your feed at any given moment, the algorithm is recording what type of content you’re looking at the most, and trying to narrow down specific interests or topics that you like to consume content from.

If you’re constantly looking at food-related content—whether it’s on the explore page, or right in your feed—you’re likely to see more and more of that as you spend more time on the app. 

It’s actually very easy now for a social platform to analyze an image, and categorize that image into a high-level category, like food, art, and landscapes, for example. Image recognition tools like Google Cloud Vision can analyze and classify image content into a number of niche categories, some as specific as “lion” or “sailboat.” And the process gets more accurate as it analyzes more content.

There’s nothing that confirms that Instagram is currently using this type of technology, but it’s something that is very possible, and easy to put in place at an app of that magnitude (Google has a readily available back-end integration for engineers).

Hashtags

You’ve probably gotten the hang of this whole thing by now. Instagram wants you to see the posts you care about first, and they want these posts to be very high quality content.

We know that hashtags are one way to get more eyes on a particular post. Not only will people searching for a particular hashtag have the opportunity to see your post (and you can now follow hashtags—more on that in a minute), but your hashtags will also tell the algorithm what your post is about. And their guidelines? The more tailored, the better.

The algorithm seems to reward posts with niche hashtags that are extremely relevant to the content of the post—but make sure you’re not including too many of them.

Other factors

While these 8 listed are the most common and widely accepted things that affect what posts you’re seeing in your Instagram feed, Emily Quinton at MakeLight put together a list of other potential factors that we haven’t mentioned that Instagram might take into account:

  • How regularly you open the app

  • How regularly you post

  • How many likes an image has in total

  • What an image's recent like-rate is

  • Whether the post is a video or carousel image post

  • Whether an image is from a "business" account versus a personal one

Instagram Stories algorithm

For the most part, the Instagram Stories you see most frequently are calculated similarly to photo and video posts in your feed. Users whose content you’ve liked, commented on, shared, or generally engaged with the most will show up first in the Stories section at the top of your feed.

Naturally, if you’re watching someone’s Stories a lot but not visiting their profile or engaging with their posts, they’ll still show up towards the beginning of your Stories queue.

And with people watching Stories instead of visiting people’s profiles and engaging with traditional posts, it’s led to an interesting phenomenon within the Instagram platform—are Stories more important that actual posts?

I saw a great tip on how to hack your Instagram Story to get more eyes back on your content, and it’s relatively easy. All you have to do is take a screenshot of your profile, in grid mode.

Then, upload the photo to your Story, and using Instagram’s markup tool, black out the most recent post. Add in a catchy CTA about your new post, and you’ll entice users to click out of your story to view your profile.

If you’re looking for more exposure for your Stories themselves, it’s helpful to tag them with a popular hashtag and/or location.

“If your account is set to public, and you share a photo or video to your story that contains a hashtag, location or location-based sticker, it may appear on that hashtag or location page,” according to Instagram. You’ll be able to see where your story is being shared when you look at who’s seen your story.

Search & Explore page algorithm

According to Instagram, the way posts are chosen for each user on the Search & Explore page has to do with the posts you like, and the accounts you already follow (much like the other parts of the algorithm).

You’ll also be shown video channels occasionally, and these, according to Instagram, “include posts from a mixture of hand-picked and automatically sourced accounts based on topics we think you'll enjoy.”

As far as what content of yours makes it onto the Search & Explore page for a specific user, the criteria is about the same as posts in your feed. The more likes, comments, and shares a post gets, the higher the chance that post has to end up on that Search & Explore page.

If you have a public account, your Stories are also eligible to be put on the Search & Explore page for specific users. Tagging your Stories with relevant hashtags and locations can help here, too.

New algorithm changes in 2018

While it’s great to know the ins and outs of the Instagram algorithm now, it’s an ever-changing beast. And there have already been a few changes in the algorithm for 2018.

This roll out right before the new year has been one of the worst-received updates by the Instagram community. While a user is browsing through their feed, in addition to seeing sponsored content every 4 - 7 posts, they’ll now occasionally see a section of content that’s “Recommended for You.”

Source: TechCrunch

According to Instagram, these are a scrollable carousel of posts that are recommended for you based on likes from the accounts you follow. An opportunity for Instagrammers here might be to try to get an account with a large following to like one of your posts, and hope that it’s shown to their followers in their Recommended for You section—unless they choose to hide it.

Yes, you can hide this (and thank heavens, due to the feature’s backlash). You’ll just have to tap the three dots above the recommended posts, and tap “Hide.”

Tailored hashtag searches

When it comes to searching hashtags, sources have stated that in the past, the same top posts are shown to every user, no matter their engagement history, account relationships, or other factors. This is no longer true in 2018.

Now, the hashtag searches are different for each user. For example, I took my personal Instagram account and Dealspotr’s Instagram for a test drive. For quality assurance the searches were done in the same minute (also a case study of how fast my battery life drains). Take a look at the different results:

There are 2 of the same results, in different spots in the lineup, but the other 7 posts are all different. Even the top image for the #luxuryfashion hashtag is different for each one. Evidence that the algorithm is at work, even when showing you “top” posts for a hashtag.

Ability to follow hashtags

In the interest of gathering communities together around similar interests, and possibly to put more content into some users’ more inactive feeds, Instagram has made it possible to follow hashtags.

Instead of constantly searching for #pizza, like one might do when they’re hungry, you’ll be able to actually follow that hashtag, and be shown popular photos and videos that end up in that hashtag in right your feed.

If you haven’t yet followed any hashtags, you’ll likely see a pop up in the middle of posts as you scroll through your feed, reminding you to follow a few.

As you can see, I got a nice smattering of hashtags to follow, from dogs to poets to Will Ferrell. I also got #NationalPizzaDay, which seemed rather relevant based on my hashtag search history. But also, keep this in mind: your followers will always be able to see which hashtags you follow.

So yeah, it’s great to tag your posts and stories with relevant hashtags to try to game this new system. But with new opportunity comes new responsibility.

Instagram has begun cracking down even harder on spam/irrelevant hashtags, along with hashtag abuse. No longer are you going to be able to freely post a ton of hashtags as a comment on your posts, and use things like #like4like or #ifollowback.

Also, users will now be able to mark posts as irrelevant to a certain hashtag—meaning your posts could fall off people’s feeds. For example, if you’re seeing a model post his headshot in the #pizza hashtag, you can click on the three dots above the photo and tap “don’t show for this hashtag.”


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - make your hashtags relevant.

What you’ll need to do is start looking at your hashtag strategy as closely as you would a keyword strategy for a blog’s SEO. Pick a small group of relevant, narrowed tags that relate to your content, and go hard at those.

The more relevant your content is to the hashtag, the more likely you are to show up in people’s feeds following that hashtag, and in the search results of that hashtag.

The future of Instagram’s algorithm

While there are many opposed to the algorithm still, it doesn’t look like it will be changing anytime soon. But Mashable’s Damon Beres came up with two features that might make Instagram more digestible to its users by taking a cue from it’s big brother, Facebook.

  1. The ability to sort posts by “Most Recent”

  2. A function that would allow users to pick specific accounts to “see first,” before the regular algorithm comes into play.

While it’s unknown what the next updates will be to the Instagram algorithm, the best thing you can do is stay aware of how the platform is working. The more you use Instagram, the more you’ll see the algorithm at work. Test out posting different types of content at different times of day, using different formats (video, multi-photo post, etc.) to see what works best for you.

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This guide was published on March 6, 2018, and last modified on March 6, 2018.
Stores related to this article: Instagram, Samsung, Apple

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