What you need to know about Instagram's content delivery algorithms in 2021

James Aniston

The algorithm isn't omnipotent

What we thought.

There is a single Instagram content algorithm that tracks all users' actions and determines what to show people in the app. Once you understand how the algorithm works, you understand the whole system regarding Instagram content.


What it really is

Speaking of which, the Instagram team takes the word "algorithm" itself in quotes. That's because there is no single mechanism for ranking content. There are many separate groups of algorithms and classifiers aimed at different tasks. There are such groups in every section of the app - publications, stories, Reels and recommendations. And they work differently in different sections. Also instagram tracker will help you.

If we try to simplify our understanding of Instagram's content algorithm, the key is still user interest. Since Instagram abandoned the chronological order of publications in 2016, the network's main priority is to show people more of what they like or care about.


How to work with it

Focus on content and be attentive to your audience. Get rid of "bots," communicate with subscribers, and encourage engagement (not with non-stop contests, but with live interest and comments).

Decide on the frequency of posts, create a content plan several weeks in advance and try to use the peak hours of audience activity - you can see this information in your account statistics. Use a content planner, such as Canva, to create beautiful visuals and organize ideas.

"Reaches and account statistics are always a consequence of hypothesis testing. Research your audience's interests and needs. Try new things. If a tool doesn't work, think about how to finish it, or do something else. The sooner you abandon ineffective tools, the sooner you'll get the results you want.


No shadow ban

What we thought.

Shadow banning is a curse for bloggers and business accounts. Once you fall into Instagram's disfavor because of a complaint about a single post, the profile is permanently off your subscribers' radar. Writing to support is useless, you need to look for a "specialist.


What is really there

With the shadow ban, as with the algorithm, not everything is so simple. Adam Mosseri talks about it as a kind of abstract concept. People use it to refer to any restrictions that seem incomprehensible or unfair, from deleting a post to having fewer likes and comments than usual. He acknowledges that the rules are complicated, and developers' explanations of their actions may not always be clear to users.

Support receives millions of complaints about content every day, and even a 1% processing error affects thousands of users. Along with implementing the rules, the Instagram team is constantly improving the systems of notification and processing of appeals. At the same time, restrictions imposed on a single post do not affect the account as a whole, unless you systematically violate the rules and knowingly publish false information.


How to deal with it

First and foremost, it's worth accepting that most subscribers don't see what you share because they view less than half of your feed. To improve your audience's reach, be aware of Instagram's guidelines for potentially inappropriate content. Encourage users to be active and share your content. But don't resort to "gray schemes" that Instagram recognizes as suspicious profile activity.


How content is ranked

What we thought

No matter how cool the content in a business account is, don't get your hopes up for free promotion. To be constantly on the radar of your audience, you need to spend more money on advertising.


What's real

We've already found that Instagram's content ranking principles work differently in different sections. While in the feed and stories people more often want to see content from friends and favorite bloggers, in the recommendations and Reels go for news and for entertainment.

According to Instagram's creators, promotional posts and stories are more like exceptions. The vast majority of what appears in a user's feed has to do with their mutual interests with those they follow.


The prominence in the feed of Instagram posts and stories is influenced by:


  • A user's activity - the number of posts viewed and liked, comments, reactions, saves, reposts;
  • history of interaction with other users - how interested the user is in reciprocal communication through comments and tags;
  • account information - how many times other users have interacted with the account in the past few weeks;

Publication "attributes" - geo-positioning, account marks, stickers.

Speaking of the last one on the list. Remember the story of the "Stay home" sticker and the like at the beginning of the pandemic: the sticker gave visible priority in the Stories feed, and everyone added it until it was no longer effective. Roughly the same thing happens on the "invisible front" of ranking posts and stories, only many individual attributes are taken into account.

The other day, you liked a wakeboard instructor's post. Instagram evaluates who else liked this and the instructor's other posts. Then it looks at what other accounts those people are interested in. Maybe they like wakeboarding or something close to it, too. After a while, you'll open the recommendations and see photos or videos of wakeboarding or saps there. And something else you weren't interested in, but the instructor's followers like it. In this way, Instagram tests the hypothesis and "learns" to be more interesting to you.


How to work with it

Above I used the metaphor of "Instagram is learning" for a reason. In all learning, systematicity is important. If you want your content to be properly learned, develop a systematic approach to presenting it.

You don't want to drop your account for a few days and then come back with a ton of interesting news. Publishing posts every hour is not a good idea either. Instagram cannot show too many posts from the same user in a row. This can be clearly seen in the example of a long series of posts, when each successive post gets fewer views.


What we thought

Instagram content output is influenced by app usage scenarios and activity that users often unknowingly display. That's why we get "caught up" by uninteresting promotional posts, and there's nothing we can do about it.


What it really is

In reality, how users interact with others, how often they revisit stories, and like the direct mail posts, does matter. But there are several ways in which you can influence your output:


  • Generate a list of close friends - the option not only allows you to allocate a group of subscribers with whom you can share more personal content, but also affects the priority of content from close friends;
  • hide an uninteresting account - an alternative to the unsubscribe option, in which one user no longer sees updates from another;
  • mark recommended publications as uninteresting - promotional publications in the feed or popular publications in the recommendations can be hidden so that the network no longer shows this kind of thing.
  • Information hygiene is a social trend for 2021. It makes users of social networks more picky about the quality of content they consume, and Instagram is going along with it.


How to work with it

Perhaps the biggest recipe here is unique, high-quality content. Alas, window dressing and appeals like "Girls, get your nails done" don't work in 2021. Even if you put a lot of money into advertising. Quality photos, stylish layouts and informative texts are not a guarantee, but already a good insurance against the marker "not interested.

Another growth area is the personal brand. People are more willing to respond to commercial content if the owner of the business is open to communication and evokes sympathy.


What's real

Few people will remember now that stories was once called "the second Snapchat." Instagram is betting big on this section: continuing to test it and researching user reactions. The same rules apply to potentially inappropriate content in Reels as in other sections. It is known for a fact that the algorithm restricts the display of videos with low resolution, watermarks and political overtones. Otherwise it is a huge field for hypotheses and experiments.


How to work with it

Through Reels, you can interest users who prefer short viral videos. And although at the moment this tool is more unpredictable than understandable, it is worth the gamble. Already because it is a safe way to attract a large number of new subscribers to your account.

James Aniston
Zupyak is a free content platform for publishing and discovering stories, software and startups.