Have you ever wondered how Instagram decides whether a post belongs to the top of a user’s feed or near the bottom? And have you ever wondered how you’re going to get there so you can be visible to your followers? In today’s article, we tackle how to hack Instagram’s algorithm so you can get on top of your social media strategy.
Ever since Instagram abandoned the chronological news feed in favor of an algorithmic one, businesses on Instagram, especially eCommerce ones, have needed to put extra effort into maintaining their visibility to their followers.
You may think this is only a problem for Instagram influencers, but if you run a business online, whether you earn via your blog or eCommerce, you need the exposure. You need to be discovered by more people.
Thus, you need to prove to the Instagram algorithm that your posts are the type of content that your followers and other users want to see on Instagram. This is certainly possible with some white-hat (i.e., ethical) techniques.
In today’s article, I’ll discuss how to hack Instagram’s algorithm, starting with what the Instagram algorithm is about, then what to do to convince the algorithm that your content is worth showing, then what NOT to do.
Note: no dishonest, policy-violating, shady techniques here. Not our style here.
To hack Instagram’s algorithm, first you need to know how it works.
This isn’t going to turn into an arcane discussion of code and decision tables, but I will share 9 factors that more or less determine how your post will perform in terms of whether it gets displayed to your followers.
Engagement is measured by the number of likes, comments, views (for video posts), saves, shares, send as direct message (DM), and other interactions a post gets.
High engagement signals to Instagram that the post is interesting and engaging to your followers, and will be interesting and engaging to like-minded users.
It isn’t solely about how much engagement your post gets; it also matters how fast your followers engaged with it.
If your post gets plenty of likes and comments just moments after you post it, Instagram interprets your post as high-quality, appealing content. Thus, the algorithm will tend to show it to more of your followers.
Think no one will know when you hurriedly scroll past yet another gratuitous selfie of your annoying co-worker on your feed?
Well, Instagram knows.
Their algorithm factors in how long your followers spend looking at your post; viewing all the photos in a multiple-photo post, reading the caption, reading the comments, replying to comments, etc.
So if you have plenty of followers but they just scroll past your posts, don’t expect Instagram to bump your posts up anytime soon.
Engagement goes two ways. Instagram also looks at how much and how often you interact with your followers.
Do you reply or at least acknowledge their comments? Do you follow back your most loyal followers and engage with their posts? Do you react to posts that you’ve been tagged in?
Instagram has always preferred posts that had pertinent hashtags.
Including hashtags in posts are important now more than ever because Instagram now allows users to follow hashtags. If, for example, you wanted to follow public posts about dropshipping, you can follow #dropshipping and posts with that hashtag will appear on your feed, even if you don’t follow those users who posted them.
As you’ve probably concluded, this is a great opportunity to show your content to other users who aren’t already following you so you can expand your audience.
Instagram rewards users who use most, if not all of their features. It would seem that Instagram likes those who are engaged with their app and try out the new functions they roll out from time to time.
The Instagram Stories that appear on top of your feed are covered by the Instagram algorithm, too. The stories that appear first are from users you’re following that you engage with the most, whether through posts or Stories.
The Instagram Explore page is designed to help users gain more exposure on Instagram with very little effort. This is different from the Popular page that Instagram once had, which showcased trending photos for that day.
The Instagram Explore page is unique each individual user and has a different algorithm from that which applies to your feed.
Your Explore page is made up of posts that are liked by users whose posts you’ve liked. Also, it displays posts of users that Instagram thinks are similar to users you interact with. Thus, when your followers like and comment on your posts, there’s a chance your posts will show up in their followers’ Explore pages.
This page also includes Stories from users that Instagram thinks you’ll enjoy, based on the users and posts you engage with.
Now that you have an idea of how Instagram’s algorithm works, it’s time to learn about ways to hack it to get your posts seen by your target audience the right way.
This first one is the most important and the most resilient to algorithm updates, but also the most overlooked.
People go on Instagram to see beautiful images, so take the time to ensure the quality of the images or videos you post.
Aside from the quality, users will assess your post based on how entertaining, informative, useful, inspiring, intriguing, or exciting it is. In other words, in those few precious seconds they’re looking at your post, they’re subconsciously deciding how valuable your post is to them and if it’s worth liking or commenting on.
Note that you’re aiming to please your target audience, and if you know them enough, you’d be able to post content that you know they’d be interested in. But the only way to be sure is to examine your analytics.
Find out which posts got the most engagement from your followers, and try to do more of that. On the other hand, the posts that got about average engagement is what they normally expect from your feed; that is, “the usual.” Serve those up consistently as well.
The posts that got the least engagement are the ones that your followers aren’t interested in. If it’s way different from your posts that your followers engage with, then it’s probably not the right type of content to post.
But if it’s your usual content that got lower than expected engagement, then it’s probably NOT because of the content, but WHEN you posted it, which brings us to the next item.
The Instagram algorithm decides that your content is worth showing to more of your followers in the first few minutes you post your content. Thus, you need to be posting when your followers are online to increase the chances of them seeing your post and engaging with it.
Plenty of scheduling apps can give you the gist (i.e., “this is when you should post, and this is when NOT to post.”) if you don’t want to wrestle with raw data from Instagram Insights.
Since the Instagram algorithm considers the engagement you get from your Instagram stories, it’s a good idea to get in there, too.
Your post stays on your Instagram home page until you delete it, while Instagram Stories are only visible to your followers for 24 hours before it goes into your archive.
Instagram Stories have more features now than ever before, such as polls, hashtag and mention stickers, and numerous face filters and text fonts. Using these (just maybe not all at the same time) can contribute to encouraging your followers to engage with your Instagram stories.
Another benefit of being active on Instagram stories is that you get an added opportunity to be on other users’ Explore pages, especially when your followers are engaging a lot with your Instagram stories. Again, you want to be on as many Explore pages on as many users as you can to increase your brand exposure.
The Internet’s general direction is toward watching more videos than ever, which is why Instagram has expanded from a photos-only format to a photo-and-video platform.
Videos take longer to consume and thus are generally favored in the Instagram algorithm. But to catch your followers’ attention and keep it, the videos you serve up should be of high value to them: entertaining, informative, or entertaining AND informative. Otherwise, your followers won’t have a reason to watch your videos and the effort is all for naught.
On your Instagram story, the limit is 15 seconds, so this is good for short updates and quick announcements to your followers, like a flash sale or a coupon code that’s only valid for a limited time.
On your Instagram feed, your limit is 4 times more at a minute. Maximize this time and post high-quality, information-packed videos to make sure your followers don’t scroll past it.
Instagram Live is where things really get interesting, though. You can broadcast your live video for one whole hour. Thus, you can use this for a whole lot more than merely entertaining your followers. There are so many possible things you can do in an hour to promote your brand.
Inform your followers beforehand, maybe a week or a few days before you do the broadcast so those who are interested can participate. You can do a live question and answer event where the viewers of your Instagram live video can ask you questions that you can immediately respond to. You can even hold an entire interview in that amount of time.
Moreover, you can save your Instagram live broadcast as a story so it’s available to your followers for 24 hours. Those who weren’t able to attend your live broadcast can still watch it for an entire day after you did the broadcast. This gives you a chance to add engagement beyond the actual live session you did.
Instagram has always preferred posts that have hashtags that are actually related to the post, especially now that users can follow hashtags and even have the power to tell Instagram that an image or video doesn’t belong in a hashtag page.
It’s tempting to copy and paste the exact set of Instagram hashtags into every single post and call it a day. But having too many of your posts marked with “Don’t Show for This Hashtag” could raise a red flag on your account and negatively impact your other content, as this behavior might be perceived as spammy by the algorithm.
The right approach is to tailor the hashtags you use for every post you publish. It helps to have multiple hashtag sets so you don’t have to type these over and over. Even though you’ve saved these sets, you still need to check these hashtags and see if they’re relevant to the post. Feel free to add or delete hashtags that aren’t pertinent.
Another tip is to post the hashtags in the actual caption. Placing your hashtags in a separate comment is technically allowed but now seen as spammy behavior.
A problem with this is that having the hashtags too close to the main caption can be too distracting and can turn off your followers. Use 5 or more full stops and line breaks to separate your caption from your hashtags.
Insert your caption here.
#hashtag1 #hashtag2 #hashtag3
Another way you can increase engagement through hashtags is to participate in trending hashtags. If there’s a trending hashtag that’s related to your brand or your products, seize the opportunity and get right in there. Timeliness is a big factor here, so make sure to participate as soon as you spot a trend.
Writing lengthy yet interesting captions can help you hack Instagram’s algorithm in that your followers tend to read it and thus spend more time on your post instead of scrolling to the next thing.
However, lengthy captions don’t happen spontaneously; you’ll have to sit down and focus on writing them to make it just right. Think of it as a mini-blog post that you want people to read, think about, and react to.
As with blog posts, captions work better if they have calls to action (CTAs). From “swipe for more photos” on posts with multiple photos, to “comment with your answer” on posts with a question, CTAs are an invitation to engage that at least some of them are willing to accept.
It’s as simple as asking your followers to do something after reading your caption. Ask them a mundane question about their weekend plans, or a question about your products, or tease a new product and ask them what they think and if they’re going to order. Then, ask them to leave comments with their answers.
It’s not only in the captions where you can spark discussions; you can do it within your posts and even your stories as well.
The Instagram algorithm rewards authenticity and posts that promote connections with followers. When you plan your content, add posts where you pose questions, post about topics that invite reactions, or ask for feedback.
When your followers do react or answer, treat your comments like a conversation. Reply to them if you can, or just react if the comment is a bit of a dead-end. Letting your followers know that you value their opinion is key to forging a deeper connection with them.
It’s going to take time to reply to each one, but it’s worth doing for the engagement and for truly knowing what your followers think of you, your products, and your brand.
Starting multiple conversations with your followers means having to keep up with them, even the older ones.
Remember, some of your new followers might only be commenting to a post you’ve published weeks or even months ago. From your perspective, it’s understandable if you overlook these posts because it’s been a while, but from your followers’ perspective, it’s nice to be noticed and not ignored.
This is where an Instagram scheduler will come in handy. Most of them can help you keep track of your Instagram comments so you can pick up on a conversation even if it happened a long time ago. Some even have the capability to keep track of comments from a specific user.
It’s difficult, but to get engagement, you have to give it. Responding to your followers’ comments makes them feel connected to you, plus it increases the chances that your posts get seen by other users.
Instagram rewards users that use their new features when they’re introduced. They get actual testers that will probably notice a few bugs that may have slipped past their own testing. Plus, the early adopters tend to set how that feature is used by other users.
Always keep your Instagram app updated, and tune in to their official blog for features and their latest Weekend Hashtag Project theme (so you can participate). You can also tune in to their press release site for their latest announcements of changes to the app, as well as their Instagram for Business blog for other announcements, updates, and best practices when using their features.
When you plan your content, spend some time to design what your profile page looks like. Aside from being a potential first impression to new followers, having a distinct style will make you stand out from everybody else and your customers will be able to identify your post just by the visual style.
For example, you can have a go-to border and go-to font you always use. Pick out a color palette that you can use for your pictures as a filter or as an overall theme. Or you can simply place your logo somewhere surreptitious to brand your photos.
Whatever style you choose, make sure that the mood or the feel of the design is one that you’d like to be associated with and that fits your brand. For instance, bold and colorful visuals fit brands that are perceived as “fun” while simple, minimalist visuals fit brands that are perceived as “professional.”
It might take some time to figure it out but once you do, stick to it. That should be your signature style as long as you’re catering to the same target audience and selling the same products.
Now that you’ve learned what you can do hack Instagram’s algorithm, we now need to touch on the Instagram “no-nos”; that is, what you should NOT do on Instagram. These aren’t only for the sake of the Instagram algorithm, but for the sake of keeping your Instagram account free from getting banned or blocked.
We’ve all heard that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
Well, I beg to differ.
Negative publicity can harm or even kill your business.
Just ask these 5 unfortunate brands.
Trending topics are attractive, and you’ll want to get in on the action. But using hot-button political or social issues to promote your brand opens you up to a huge potential backfire. Tread very, very lightly.
Even when you’re riding on a trending topic that isn’t controversial on the surface, avoid making a statement or a stand that can offend or alienate a group of people.
The last post you want to be making is an apology post.
How many Facebook posts with “tag a friend” or “like if you agree, love if you disagree” or “react your vote” have you seen lately?
If Facebook’s efforts are working, then it shouldn’t be too many.
Facebook has started to crack down on these “engagement bait” type of posts.
This is seen as an artificial means to gain engagement, as opposed to organic means like asking for help, advice, tips, or recommendations, or genuinely asking for opinions and feedback.
But why am I mentioning Facebook in an article about Instagram?
Because Instagram is owned by Facebook, and it isn’t farfetched to think that Instagram will be the next platform they ban engagement bait on.
Study these examples of engagement bait and veer away from them. Instead, start genuine conversations on your posts.
There are plenty of tools and applications that are Instagram-approved. But there are plenty more that aren’t.
Using applications that aren’t Instagram-approved can cause your account to be banned from posting and your posts to be hidden on feeds.
Previously, Instagram’s Terms of Service didn’t allow other applications to post on a user’s behalf, especially on computers. Scheduling applications sent notifications instead, reminding you to post on Instagram.
In February 2018, however, Instagram introduced changes to their software so that other applications can now post on an Instagram user’s behalf. There are still many restrictions, though. For example, you can only post a single photo at a time. If you want to schedule multiple photos in a post or a video, you need to do it the traditional way; that is, logging in to the Instagram app on your phone and posting them.
A simple way to know if an application is Instagram-approved is to pay attention to the login screen when the application asks you to login to your Instagram account.
This is what the page looks like; all the actions that you authorize the application should all be enumerated. Plus, pay attention to the URL.
It should start with “instagram.com” because you’re logging on to your Instagram account.
Lastly, not everything is allowed by Instagram to be automated. Always be updated on Instagram’s Terms of Service so you don’t accidentally use unauthorized apps.
Speaking of automation, Instagram has been cracking down on bots that automatically search, like, comment, and follow other accounts without the account owner’s intervention.
Instagram really doesn’t like fake actions on their platform anymore, so they’re shutting down companies that used to offer this service, as well as banning and even blocking accounts that used these bots.
How do they know? Instagram has developed the technology to differentiate between bot engagement and real engagement. It can now recognize patterns in how you post, follow, like, and comment. Anything that looks like spam gets flagged and your account may get banned.
Even if you don’t use bots, your account can still be banned.
When you act like a bot, Instagram will think you’re a bot.
Thus, you need to ensure that you don’t follow bot-like behavior.
Don’t post too many posts in a day. 3 posts a day should be enough.
Same for likes, follows, and comments; don’t do them en masse. As a general rule, limit yourself to 200 likes, 60 comments, and 60 follows/unfollows an hour.
Remember when everyone used the #like4like and #follow4follow hashtags?
These tags might have worked or maybe still works to get you a few extra likes or follows, but believe me, they aren’t going to get you likes from the people who matter, which is your target audience.
Stick to the hashtags that are specific and relevant to your post.
Another thing to not do is exploit trending hashtags even when they have nothing to do with what you posted. If you try this route, you’ll just get branded as a spammer and Instagram may take appropriate action. So just don’t.
Instagram bans hashtags when they’re being abused and associated with posts that violate Instagram’s community guidelines. Some of these posts include posts with nudity in the form of genitals and intercourse, posts containing hate speech, or posts glorifying self-harm.
So what does this have to do with you, a rule-abiding, guideline-following Instagram user?
By using a single banned hashtag in your Instagram post, you make your post hidden/undiscoverable for ALL of the hashtags in your post.
For example, when you use the banned hashtag #woman alongside a relevant hashtag like #toesocks, your post won’t show up even on the #toesocks hashtag page.
When you think about it, that’s kind of unfair that you can’t use the hashtag #woman when you’re obviously posting about a woman and aren’t violating any of the terms, but Instagram prioritizes the whole community rather than individuals. The only thing we can do for now is play by their rules.
There’s no way for you to know intuitively which hashtags are banned by Instagram (there are currently hundreds of thousands of banned hashtags), so you’ll have to check your hashtags individually to be sure.
This article outlines how to check if a hashtag is banned and lists down some of the “seemingly okay” hashtags that are actually banned.
If you want your Instagram strategy to be a success, you have to accept that you can’t fight the Instagram algorithm; you need to work with it to beat it.
Agreed, it’s a lot of work. But the stakes are high in an online business. People don’t only browse their feeds to keep up with their friends and family. They now use Instagram to make informed decisions about which products to buy from what businesses.
To sum things up, here’s a quick recap of the concepts we just discussed.
When you create a new post, it gets shown to a percentage of your total followers. Then Instagram measures how fast and how often your post gets engagement (views, likes, comments, shares, and saves). The level of engagement gets compared to your previous posts on similar days and times.
If your new post gets more than the average engagement for that day/time, then your post gets shown to a larger percentage of your followers, and it appears higher on their home feeds. By contrast, if your post underperforms, it gets shown to less of your followers and will appear lower on their home feeds.
The algorithm also looks at other factors, such as subsequent engagement, if you engage with the commenters, as well as your hashtags and how relevant they are to your post. When your post has high engagement and judged by the algorithm as high-quality, chances are you’re going to see your post on the Explore page on your followers’ followers, increasing your exposure.
Before you go on Instagram and strategize, I just have some more reminders for you.
I’ve stressed this a number of times throughout the article, but I feel that I really need to stress this again.
Always follow Instagram’s Terms of Service.
Breaking Instagram’s rules may benefit you for a short time, but Instagram always finds a way to make you pay for it. It’s just not worth the future aggravation, so always play by the rules.
Planning and executing a social media strategy can be made easier when you know what is and what isn’t working.
Instagram is no exception to this.
More than just finding out which of your posts worked best, Instagram analytics can help you understand how your overall Instagram strategy is working. Is engagement really increasing? Are you gaining more followers? If so, are you gaining engaged followers who are likely to turn into customers?
Knowing is truly half the battle when it comes to social media, so keep your followers close and your numbers closer.
Instagram aims to make you use the app for as long as possible.
When your audience likes what they see, they’ll keep coming back on Instagram and spend more time on it.
As Instagram improves how they measure how much people like the content they’re browsing, their algorithm will change from time to time. You should keep abreast of these changes, sure, but what shouldn’t change is your desire to make more meaningful connections with your audience by producing high-quality, compelling content.
Which “hack” are you going to try first? Which Instagram “no-no” are you guilty of doing in the past? Share your experience in the comments!
JoAnne is your average, everyday, sane stay-at-home mom who believes in the power of the internet to make dreams come true. She has an insatiable appetite for chocolate, as well as all things internet marketing. She keeps up with the latest trends in blogging, affiliate marketing, e-commerce, and more.