The Instagram Algorithm in 2021 (Maybe Not What You Expected)

The Instagram algorithm is the gatekeeper to success on the platform. Master the algorithm, and you’ll unlock access to more followers and higher engagement. Ignore the algorithm, and your account could be doomed to obscurity—regardless of how good or wanted your content is.

Instagram’s algorithms change from time to time, and we do our best to stay up to date. We have to in order to keep growing our own Instagram account.

We’ve learned a lot taking our account from 0 to 3.2 million followers. We’ve mastered content-producing frameworks, stumbled upon secrets of success, and made mistakes here and there—and we’re sharing everything we’ve learned about Instagram’s algorithm, right here, right now.

Below, we’ll break down how the Instagram algorithm works in 2021 and what you need to do to get the algorithms working in your favor.

First things first, let’s get something out of the way.

There’s No Official Instagram Algorithm Breakdown
We just don’t have it. Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other algorithm-inspired feeds don’t publicly post every attribute that goes into why they push one piece of content to the top of a feed and another to the bottom.

It’s a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because if these companies did reveal every detail that goes into their algorithm computations, then profiles would manipulate their accounts and content to satisfy the algorithm—often at the user’s expense.

Yes, many profiles already do that to an extent, but it’d be on a greater scale.

It’s a curse because plenty of Instagram accounts spend hours crafting top-notch content that never gets in front of the people who’d actually love and appreciate it. What a shame.

However, from time to time, Facebook and Instagram let users know a bit about their algorithms. We know our interactions (comments, likes, views) impact what content we see. We also know that algorithms are different based on the Feed, Explore page, Reels, and Instagram Stories.

Below, we’re going to explain the Instagram algorithm in 2021 as far as we know it. Our tips and best practices include information from Instagram (the source itself), as well as lessons we’ve learned along the way as we’ve grown the Instagram Foundr account to 3.2 million followers.

How the Instagram Algorithm Works in 2021

There’s actually not a single Instagram algorithm at play—there are “a variety of algorithms, classifiers, and processes, each with its own purpose.”

In the beginning, Instagram just featured images chronologically. Now, each part of the app (Feed, Stories, Reels, Explore) uses its own algorithm to help people content.

Here’s what Instagram considers for different parts of the platform.

Instagram Algorithm for the Feed

While Instagram has (relatively) recently added Stories and Reels, the Feed is the platform’s home. You’ll mostly only see content from those you already follow here, and that’s the first significant algorithm nuance.

When you’re on the Explore or Reels tab, content from your friends and family isn’t going to be prioritized. Sure, it’ll be there, but other factors will carry more considerable weight.

Next, the Feed’s algorithm looks at a few other signals to determine what gets preference at the top:

  • Who Made the Post: Is it someone you engage with often? Do they have a large, engaged following? Do they typically produce great content?
  • Information About the Post: Is the content an image or a video? If it’s a video, how long is it? What time of day was it posted? Are you viewing the content on your phone or desktop? Is there a location attached to the post?
  • Your Activity: What type of content have you looked at and engaged with in the past? What are the chances you’ll leave a comment?

Instagram Algorithm for Instagram Stories

Instagram Stories operates similarly to the Feed. Besides ads, the content you see in Stories is from those you already follow, not new accounts. However, you don’t have the ability to like or comment on Stories, so Instagram uses different signals:

  • Direct Messages (DMs): Does a user view your story and respond?
  • Profile Clicks: Does a user click your profile to see more of your content after watching a story?
  • Finish or Skipped: Did your user watch your Stories in their entirety, or did they get bored and skip to the next one?

Users turning on notifications for your Stories or sharing a story with their friends (or on their own Stories) will also impact the performance of your content.

All these actions are signals that impact whether the algorithm will give preference to your content. Create engaging content that’s going to get your users to do something the algorithm likes. Experiment with surveys, stickers, and Q&As to get your followers to take action on your content.

Instagram Algorithm for Reels

Instagram Reels is the platform’s latest feature, and they’re investing a lot of time and energy into making it big. You’ll notice Reels is front and center on your navigation bar, and it’s also taking up more real estate on your Explore page.

On a basic level, Instagram’s algorithm favors content that uses creative tools like camera effects, filters, and text. It deprioritizes content that’s been visibly recycled from other apps (like TikTok) or that’s low-resolution.

Instagram prefers Reels that gain likes, comments, shares, and views. It also recognizes when users save videos or add Reels to their Stories.

Instagram Algorithm for Explore

The Explore tab is where users go to find brand-new content that’s relevant to their interests. Because of this, you’ll find that almost all of the images and videos you see are from accounts that you don’t follow (yet). You might see a post or 2 every now and then from accounts you follow, but those fall into the minority.

Instagram says, “t​​he most important actions we predict in Explore include likes, saves, and shares.” The Explore algorithm also considers other factors:

  • Who’s Posting the Content: Is the profile an account that several of your friends follow? Have you interacted with them before (through the Explore page or Reels) but not followed them yet?
  • Information About the Post: Are other users quickly finding, liking, commenting, and sharing this content? Is it recent and timely? Which users have liked this post? What other kinds of content do they typically engage with?
  • Your Activity: Have you interacted with similar content in the past? Do you typically save this kind of content or share it to your Stories?

Instagram’s algorithm is trying to predict your interests. For example, if you follow Manchester United and like their content, the platform might try to show you other football clubs. Or, the platform might think you’re generally interested in sports, and they may try to show you basketball or baseball videos.

If you like those suggestions, they’ll keep showing you more of that content. If you don’t, they’ll move on and try to find something else that’ll keep you engaged.

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8 Ways to Hack the Instagram Algorithm in 2021

Remember the overall purpose of the Instagram algorithm: to keep people engaged and on the platform. Instagram is a for-profit business that relies on advertising to make money.

The more users it keeps happy and swiping around the platform, the better it is for the business. If your content accomplishes that goal for Instagram, the algorithm will likely be in your favor.

With that said, here are our top (proven) tips for getting the Instagram algorithm to work in your favor:

1. Publish High-Quality Content

It doesn’t matter if you figure out all of Instagram’s algorithm secrets—if you don’t master publishing high-quality content, you’ll never see the follower growth or engagement you want. What does great content look like?

We recommend following a process known as modeling. Modeling is when you study what others are doing in your niche and replicating their success. Find other brands or influencers you respect and admire. What’s getting them the most likes and comments?

Take the best pieces of their programs and form your own unique content strategy. There’s a good chance their followers will also like your content, which creates an opportunity to grow your audience.

The more effort you put into your content, the more engagement and growth you’ll see as a result. That might sound obvious, but many people want quick and easy hacks to grow their Instagram account. That mindset usually leads to poor content, a lack of ingenuity, Instagram bots, and a suite of other characteristics that’ll tank your growth potential.

2. Post Frequently and Consistently

The more you post, the faster you grow. However, you have to be consistent. You can’t publish 10x today, 2x tomorrow, and 4x next week—the Instagram algorithm doesn’t like that. It wants to see consistency.

Start by posting 1x a day, every day. You might be tempted to do more, but don’t rush into things too quickly. Remember, the first priority is quality. Once you can get into a habit of producing excellent content regularly, you can begin to scale and post more frequently.

Slowly ramp things up. Experiment with posting 2x a day for a couple of weeks. Then, bump it up to 3x a day.

As of now, we post anywhere from 6 to 8 pieces of content per day, and it works great for our account and followers.

3. Engage with Your Audience

Instagram wants to promote content that keeps users engaged because that’s what’ll keep people on the platform longer.

Respond to every like, comment, and DM. Visit your audience’s profiles to like and comment on their content, too. These types of interactions will get the Instagram algorithm working in your favor, and it’ll also help you create genuine relationships with your followers.

Remember, there’s a person behind every username and comment. People get excited when brands (even small, local brands) interact with them, and it encourages them to like, comment, and share more. This creates a recurring cycle of engagement, algorithm promotion, and more engagement.

4. Write Incredible Captions

Your Instagram Feed is made up of 2 components (only 2): media and captions. People come for the videos and pictures, but they stay for the captions.

Provide context to your images. Tell stories. Your goal is to use an image or video that gets your audience to stop scrolling and take a look—then, you need a powerful caption that’ll get them to read and take action on your content.

Your audience is made up of different personas and personalities. Some like to read, others like to watch, and a few will want to glance. Use all of Instagram’s functionality to capture all your audience’s interests.

Want inspiration for writing excellent Instagram captions? Check out Gretta Rose van Riel on Instagram to see what first-class captions look like.

5. Create Carousels

Instagram carousels are posts with multiple images or videos that users swipe to look through. It gives you additional opportunities to engage your audience, provide value, and earn that like or comment.

Mediocre carousels will feature several disjointed pictures that maybe the caption ties together. Incredible carousels flow together smoothly, telling a story from start to finish or expounding on a thought in more detail.

Check out Chris Do on Instagram to see how it’s done. Notice how the images in his carousels are connected. You can do the same thing (for free) using a simple design tool like Canva.

6. Spend More Time on Your Stories

Instagram Stories give you additional real estate and engagement tools to draw in brand-new and returning followers.

Think about your typical Instagram experience. Sometimes you open up the app, and you probably notice a story you’re interested in from someone you follow. You watch it, watch another, and watch a few more before closing the app and getting back to your day.

Another time, you might open up the app and begin to scroll through your Feed, ignoring the Instagram Stories at the top entirely.

By putting your content in your follower’s Feeds and Stories, you’re getting multiple opportunities to engage and interact with them. Engage them more, and Instagram is going to show your content more.

7. Use the Right Formatting

Instagram has preferred sizes of content. Use the proper sizing, and Instagram will favor your content. Fail to use the appropriate sizing, and they’ll ding your performance with the algorithm.

Here are the maximum sizes for square, vertical, and horizontal images:

  • Square: 1080px x 1080px
  • Vertical: 1080px W x 1350px H
  • Horizontal: 1080px W x 566px H

While you can use any size within those measurements, it’s best to make your images as big as possible to maximize the resolution.

8. Look at Your Data

There’s no one-size-fits-all Instagram strategy. Some content performs better with some niches, and some accounts (for one reason or another) blossom while others plateau.

The answer to why this happens is hidden in your data. Not Instagram’s global data, not your industry’s data, not your competitor’s data, and not so-and-so influencer’s data—your own data.

Look through your analytics to see what’s going on. Are your videos getting more engagement than your images? Your audience might prefer that content—so, the algorithm is learning to cater more to your videos than your images.

Are you getting more engagement when you post at 7am versus 11am? Your audience might be more active at that time, and the algorithm might serve your content to more users then.

Users Determine Their Own Viewing Experience

Instagram has algorithms to determine what factors to prioritize, but your followers (and would-be followers) impact the algorithm on a day-to-day basis.

What they like, view, and comment on influences the algorithm. However, equally as important is what they don’t like, watch, or comment on. Every interaction or non-interaction is a signal to the algorithm.

Other signals include:

  • Follows
  • Unfollows
  • Blocks
  • Shares
  • Link clicks
  • Reports
  • Bookmarks
  • Mutes
  • Hides

The algorithm ultimately helps users see what they want to see, and they get to control that experience with every interaction they have on the platform.

Ready to Grow an Engaged Following?

Tired of spending time on Instagram with little to show for it? We’ll help you put an end to that once and for all.

Sign up for our free Instagram training to learn the step-by-step processes we used to go from 0 to 500K+ followers in just 12 months. We’ve created a replicable framework for creating amazing content, growing huge followings, and turning followers into income.

Ready to put your Instagram growth on overdrive? Register for the course now to get started.

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