Growth Hacking the Instagram Algorithm: Every Update is an Opportunity

Growth hacking the Instagram algorithm to get your posts seen comes down to 5 main factors. At the very least. As a point of comparison, Google's ranking algorithm contains over 200 factors. Each of these factors could contain 50 or more variations. This means Google’s algorithm could depend on  10,000 factors, or more.. It's a running mystery whether or not Facebook's newsfeed algorithm is on par with Google's, as far as complexity is concerned.. The big question with the algorithmic feed that Instagram introduced in the summer of 2016 is this:

How does the Instagram algorithm compare to these 2 giants in complexity?

Fortunately for Instagram marketers,  it is much, much simpler for two primary reasons:

1. Types of Content: Instagram has 2 types of content you can share - photos and videos. On Facebook, you can share text statuses and links. You can also add stickers and feelings to all 4 types of content. On Google? Essentially infinite.

2. Types of Engagement: Instagram has 4 ways to engage with content - liking, commenting, sharing via Direct Message (Direct Share) and saving. What type of engagement is missing from Instagram that's found everywhere else? Shares. You can only share to friends via DM, but not to your profile.

You need 3rd party tools like Later to share others' content to your profile. On Facebook, you can share to your profile, Pages, Groups, friend's profiles or in private messages. Facebook also redesigned their Like button in 2016. They added 5 new Reactions to give emotional context behind the standard like.

There are so many layers to engagement on Facebook that it can be overwhelming to tackle.

Instagram is sleek and simple in comparison.

Instagram is a Growth Hacker’s Paradise

Instagram is our favorite social network right now because it evolves so quickly. New features are rolled out faster than any other platform. More importantly, Instagram's algorithm gets major updates often. With a performance-driven mentality and an established growth process, every algorithm update is an opportunity.

While marketers who aren't as quick on their feet panic at their decreasing engagement, growth hackers brainstorm new tactics. If even just one of these new tactics is successful, they're ahead of the curve. We'd love to lay down the law and explain in great detail every facet of the Instagram algorithm. Every Instagram marketer would. But that's never going to happen.

However, what we can do is outline 5 key factors to dominating the Instagram algorithm every step of the way. These are the factors most likely to keep their importance in the Instagram algorithm in the long term.

1. Relevancy: Relevancy is the basis of all algorithmic social media feeds. Its intent is to show you content that you're most likely to be interested and engage with. In fact, Instagram themselves said this in their announcement of the algorithmic feed:

"The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post."

Data analytics have come a far way, even in just the past year. Alongside this, photo recognition technology has developed rapidly as well. Facebook took 10 months to create cutting edge photo recognition software to aid their blind users. This feature automatically adds contextual alt text for all photos shared on Facebook. By creating alt text for photo uploads, blinder users can use existing screen reading software to know what their friends are posting. California-based developer, Adam Geitgey developed a Chrome and Firefox plugin that lets you see this data. And it's pretty fucking accurate.

Instagram likely uses a similar form of Facebook's photo recognition software. People, environments, events and objects are only a few things that can be accurately attributed to images.

The bottom line here is that if you prefer certain types of content, Instagram knows. And it knows in many more ways than just image recognition. Hashtags used on content you engage with, the amount of time you spend looking at a post and tagged locations are a few examples of other relevancy factors.

2. Engagement: The more engagement a post gets, the higher its total reach, placing it further up in the ranking algorithm. It’s the most obvious factor on the list, but not the most important. At the time of writing this article, Relevancy is the first ranking factor with Engagement as a close second.

In an interview with Business Insider in March 2016, an Instagram spokesman told the world that Instagram won’t purely be a popularity contest. Posts with less engagement that are more relevant to you take priority over those that are less relevant with higher-engagement.

Engagement doesn’t merely include front-facing, trackable metrics though. Direct Shares aren’t reflected in the analytics Instagram provides to Business accounts. Another example is time spent viewing a post. We don’t have data on this, but Instagram does.

3. Relationships: Much like Snapchat’s Best Friends feature, Instagram ranks the people most important to you. As sociopathic as that sounds, it’s quite the opposite. Instagram wants to make sure you don’t miss posts from your close family and friends. Unlike Snapchat, there’s no way of knowing who your best friends are.

Snapchat’s Best Friends are based on who you interact with the most often, but we speculate that Instagram’s ranking of relationships is a bit more complex. Other than posts you interact with, this could be determined by looking at who you DM or even who you search for.

Other than engagement-based factors, we have a conspiracy theory on relationship rankings. Get your tin foil hats ready!

Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012. Guess who has a lot of data on your entire life? Facebook. Your interactions on Facebook and even conversations on Facebook Messenger could potentially be ranking factors on Instagram.

4. Timeliness: Timeliness is a ranking factor that's so straightforward it can be dumbed down into a simple equation. Recency + Relevance. People want to see new content that's relevant to them. Newer posts are more likely to appear in the feed because who wants to see week-old photos? Not us, that's for sure.

5. Profile Searches: When you search for a profile more than once, Instagram ranks them higher in the newsfeed algorithm. That way, you don’t end up wasting time searching for them anymore. Instagram found that after implementing this ranking factor, the total number of profile searches went on a steady decline. Can’t argue with data.

The Takeaway: Don’t be afraid of change. Embrace it. Embrace every single update Instagram and every other social network throw at you. Take it as a personal challenge as a performance-driven marketer. Use our long-term ranking factors as a baseline. Form your own theories and test them out. Growth hack the Instagram algorithm every step of the way.

Chris Tweten