What the Instagram algorithm means for your brand in 2023

Marketing Tools & Tips Social Media Best Practices

In March 2016, one of the biggest updates in Instagram history went live. Abandoning its classic chronological format, the platform transitioned over to its current algorithmic feed that displays content in order of importance and relevance. Now, nearly seven years later, algorithms have become the norm on social media — and yet how they work still remains a mystery to most.

For marketers, understanding the elusive algorithm that impacts their performance on Instagram can make all the difference to their success. To help, we’re here to break down exactly how Instagram’s algorithm works and what you can do to make it work for you and not against you. But first off, let’s dive into what the Instagram algorithm is.

What is the Instagram algorithm?

According to Instagram, there’s no single algorithm that controls what you see on the platform. What most of us refer to as “the algorithm” is actually multiple algorithms, or a system of rules, classifiers, and processes that operate differently depending on where you are in the app, such as your Feed, the Explore page, Reels, or Search.

What the algorithms do have in common is that they look at your in-app activity in order to rank and show posts that you’re most likely to care about. Which actions matter most and how the contents are displayed, though, depends on what part of the app you’re on.

All of this ties back to Instagram’s goal of personalizing your experience and showing you what you want to see. The algorithms are different because each part of the app serves different purposes. For instance, you may care a lot about your close friends’ posts when you’re on your Feed, but you’re probably looking for something completely new in Explore.

So, let’s get into how the algorithm works for each part of Instagram.

How the Instagram Algorithm Ranks Feed Posts and Stories

The algorithm for Feed posts and Stories focuses on ranking the posts of those you follow based on how likely you are to interact. The five interactions that the platform looks most closely at are:

As Instagram explains, “The more likely you are to take an action, and the more heavily we weigh that action, the higher up you’ll see the post.” In other words, the order of posts that you see on Feed and Stories is a result of the algorithm predicting which posts you’re most likely to interact with.

So, how does the algorithm make those predictions? By studying what Instagram calls “signals,” or information about the post, who made the post, and your preferences. From most to least important, the signals that Instagram looks at for Feed posts and Stories are:

It’s important to keep in mind that Instagram is always fine-tuning its signals and predictions over time. The platform has also admitted to taking other considerations into account on Feed and Stories, including:

How the Instagram Algorithm Ranks the Explore Page

While Feed and Stories mostly display content from people you follow, the Explore page is designed to help you discover new things. That’s why the algorithm for Explore is focused on finding and showing relevant posts you may not have seen before.

To find posts that you may be interested in, the algorithm studies signals such as the posts you’ve liked, saved, and commented on before. From there, it’ll look at who else has interacted with those posts and find similar posts and accounts that those users have also engaged with. Those related posts are what the algorithm will show you on Explore.

The Instagram algorithm has curated this explore page for a user who clearly has an interest in food art and food photography

Of course, the order that those posts are displayed isn’t just random. Once Instagram has a collection of posts that it wants to recommend, the algorithm then ranks each post based on how interested it thinks you will be in it. It makes those predictions from studying, in order from most to least important, the following signals:

Additionally, Instagram has built-in rules for what it recommends. Called the Recommendation Guidelines, these standards are in place to keep the platform from recommending low-quality, objectionable, sensitive, or inappropriate content. For instance, posts that include violence, tobacco use, etc. tend to not be recommended.

How the Instagram Algorithm Ranks Reels

As Instagram puts it, “Reels is designed to entertain you.” Similar to Explore, the Reels algorithm is all about finding and showing you video content that you will find interesting, regardless of whether you follow the Reels’ creator or not.

Start analyzing your Instagram Reels with Rival IQ.

Get my free trial

To find entertaining Reels, Instagram regularly surveys users and asks whether they found a Reel entertaining or funny. The platform also states that it keeps an eye out for smaller creators, presumably keeping tabs on the entertainment potential of up-and-coming creators.

Overall, though, Instagram’s priority is to find Reels that you’re most likely to:

So, what signals does the algorithm look at to predict whether a Reel will be engaging to you? In order of importance, they are:

How the Instagram Algorithm Ranks Search Results

Like most other parts of the app, Instagram tries to show your Search results in order of what they think is most relevant to you. The main difference here is the extra element of your input, or what you put into the search bar.

Typing “space,” in the search bar shows you top, accounts, audio, hashtags, and places that match the search.

To predict what results will be most relevant to you, the algorithm looks at several signals. The most important signals it uses, in order of importance, are:

To keep Search safe, Instagram avoids showing accounts, posts, and hashtags that may be sensitive according to its Recommendations Guidelines. This could mean you have to scroll lower to see a particular account or type in the full username to find it. Anything that violates the Community Guidelines is removed from the platform and doesn’t show up in search at all.

How Users Can Control What They See On Instagram

While the algorithm tries to recommend posts its users are most likely to enjoy, Instagram understands that it doesn’t always get it right. That’s why there are also several features that users can leverage to directly influence the algorithm and improve their experience. These include:

Since 2022, Instagram has also allowed users to switch to a Following feed, which shows posts from the people they follow in chronological order. While this feature technically doesn’t impact the algorithm, it was a significant development since it gave users back some control over what they see and how they see it on Instagram.

Pick from the choices the app provides so the Instagram algorithm understands your preferences better, and curates relevant content for you

2023 Updates Affecting the Instagram Algorithm

As with any social platform, Instagram is constantly trying to upgrade the user experience by adding new features. Here are the 2023 updates related to the algorithm that you should know about it.

Mark ‘Not Interested’ on multiple posts in Explore

Users can now hide multiple posts in Explore that they’re uninterested in, as opposed to one post at a time like before. Additionally, doing so will impact their recommendations in all parts of the apps, including Reels, Search, and more.

Posts on your explore page give you the options to like, view profile, send as a message, not interested, and report.

Hidden Words apply to recommended posts

While users were already able to hide comments and DMs containing specific words, Instagram will now work to stop recommending content that contains a user’s Hidden Words in the caption or hashtag. A user’s list of unwanted words, phrases, or emojis can be accessed by going to Settings, Privacy, then Hidden Words.

Example post shown contains an image of an orange tree. Clicking on the ellipsis and picking the "don't suggest posts with certain words" opens a pop-up where the words fruit and orchard are input. The orange tree post is then hidden

10 Tips to “Beat” the Instagram Algorithm

As you can probably tell, the algorithm plays a massive role in whether your Instagram posts are seen by your audience.

Undoubtedly, the best thing brands can do to “beat” the algorithm is to create interesting content that encourages their audience to pause, like, comment, save, share, or, even add their Instagram account to Favorites. Doing so will signal to the algorithm that your posts are worth recommending and boost your reach.

Ready to analyze your performance on Instagram?

There are also some hacks that brands can use to get on the algorithm’s “good side.” Here are 10 tips that we — and Instagram itself — recommend.

  1. Appeal to a niche. The algorithm is all about delivering personalized results to each user. Playing to your audience and their particular niche will help you much more than trying to appeal to the general public.
  2. Post in popular formats, like carousels or Reels. Instagram recommends posts that fit the kind of format that users seem to enjoy so keeping up with popular formats will help you be seen by more people.
  3. Use a fitting handle and profile name. This makes it easier for your audience to find you on Search.
  4. Include relevant keywords and locations in your bio. This is important if you want to show up in Search when your audience looks up certain keywords and places.
  5. Add relevant keywords and hashtags in the captions of your posts. For a post to be found in Search, you should put keywords and hashtags in the caption (not comments).
  6. Avoid back-to-back posts. Remember that Instagram avoids showing too many posts from the same account in a row.
  7. Don’t spread misinformation. Posts tagged as misinformation will be ranked lower and shown less throughout Instagram.
  8. Follow Community Guidelines. Violations will be removed and repeat offenders will have their content shown less or even suspended.
  9. Keep Recommendation Guidelines in mind. While posting sensitive content isn’t a dealbreaker in the way a Community Guideline violation is, your posts will be recommended much less if they fall under what Instagram considers low-quality, objectionable, sensitive, or inappropriate.
  10. Leverage analytics. How can you know if you’re successfully “hacking” the algorithm if you don’t measure your performance? You can figure out what’s working and what’s not with an analytics platform like Rival IQ, which offers a suite of metrics and research tools for social post analysis, competitive analysis, and more.

Rival IQ can help you find hashtags that generate the most engagement.

The Wrap Up

While Instagram’s ever-changing algorithm may seem like some big mystery, it’s nothing that brands can’t handle. At the end of the day, the algorithm is there to get the most relevant content to its intended audience — something that brands can use to their advantage. So, create engaging content for your niche, incorporate the above tips into your social strategy, and then let the algorithm do its thing!

Therese Nguyen

Therese is a former marketing manager turned freelance content writer based in Dallas. Working with agencies and B2B brands, she specializes in covering the latest developments in marketing trends, insights, and strategies. When she’s not writing, you can probably find her researching her next travel destination, wrapped up in a book, or jamming to BTS’ entire discography.

Ready to start analyzing?

Start measuring the impact of your social media campaigns with our 14-day free trial.

Start Your Free Trial