Just when you think you’ve mastered Instagram’s algorithm, it quietly changes yet another feature, and before you know it your engagement rate has bottomed out and you’re left wondering what the hell happened.
It’s a familiar scene: You’ve created the perfect post, and you’re about to bestow it on your followers like a gift from the social media gods. You press ‘Share’ and wait for the likes to roll in. But something’s not working, three minutes have already passed and there’s not a single notification in sight. Has the connection dropped? Software bug? Or, shudder to think… shadowban?
Chances are, it’s down to a new algorithm change, and while this is far less horrifying than the thought of actually being shadowbanned, it can seem just as difficult to outmanoeuvre. Staying on top of Instagram can feel like a full-time job, especially since the app has a tendency to tuck updates away on the Help Centre rather than making public announcements.
With this in mind, here’s what you need to know to master the latest algorithm update and win on Instagram in 2018.
Have you ever wondered why one of your posts can generate 150 likes and your next one struggles to reach 15? This is probably because posts may now only be exposed to 10% of your followers. The upside is that if your post gains a lot of interaction shortly after being uploaded, Instagram will take this as a sign of quality and ‘release’ it to more of your audience.
What’s more, since Facebook announced its own new algorithm change (business pages will see a further drop in exposure where posts are deemed passive or ‘meritless’), Instagram is now perfectly positioned to take over as the primary social media platform for organic branded content.
Tip: if you’re promoting your brand on Instagram, you should switch over to a business account if you hadn’t already.
It is now thought that your own engagement could affect the way Instagram prioritises posts. In other words, if people leave comments on your photo, you should respond to them within 60 minutes — failing to do so could see its reach completely tank. This is Instagram’s way of making sure accounts which are putting out quality content and are actively contributing (but not spamming!) are most prominent. Tip: turn your push notifications for comments ON.
On the subject of spamming, Instagram is cracking down on ‘bot’ activity. We’ve all seen those painfully generic comments: “Great Shot!” “Awesome!” and “Nice one!” but from now on they won’t count as engagement whatsoever. This is good news as Instagram has faced issues with Botting for a while, but it looks as though 2018 is really going to go some way to filtering them out.
Tip: to avoid accidentally being considered ‘bot-like’ yourself, only leave relevant comments which contain at least four words.
Hashtags have always been an integral part of Instagram, but the new algorithm looks as though it could change the way they work and how we should use them. Firstly, although you’re allowed to include up to 30 hashtags in a post, it is thought that using five unique hashtags achieves optimal results.
The new algorithm also seems to favour hashtags being changed regularly. So if you’re the type of Instagrammer who uses the same old selection of tags that you copy and paste under every single post, it’s time to wake up and smell the shadowban. Instead, use relevant combinations and terms that are specific to that particular post.
You should also consider the number of search results for each hashtag. Find the balance between hashtags with very few results and hashtags that are so popular your post will be buried within seconds. The sweet spot is generally considered 10,000 – 500,000 results
Interestingly, while it has been proposed that putting your hashtags in the comments section of posts (as opposed to the caption) will now prevent them from appearing in search results, our research has found this to be inaccurate. A reason for this may be that Instagram is trialling the change in a few choice countries before rolling it out as a ubiquitous feature.
It is, however, best to avoid editing captions within 24 hours of uploading (the same goes for deleting a post then reposting it straight away) otherwise your engagement could fall through the floor.
Tip: triple check for typos before you hit ‘Share’!
A further point worth mentioning, at the end of last year Instagram announced that users can now follow hashtags. While this isn’t hot off the press, it’s still important because it means if you take a more considered approach to your hashtagging, your posts will consistently appear in front of your target audience.
When Instagram stories first arrived on the scene back in August 2016, the general assumption was that Zuckerberg and his team were simply trying to recreate Snapchat. While the core principle of sharing a video that lasts 24 hours was the same, Instagram Stories have far surpassed expectations in terms of usage and capability.
In June 2017 Instagram Stories recorded 250 million active daily users; almost 100 million more than Snapchat at the same time. Many have attributed the record growth due to its appeal to both individual users and brands, with a plethora of features including being able to geotag locations and @ accounts. Stories has also just released a new Type Mode, which allows users to bypass photos and add creative text-only pages.
Tip: if you haven’t started taking advantage of Instagram stories, now’s the time. It makes your brand more relevant, improves account visibility, and provides data on those who’ve engaged.
Until recently, users’ feeds were only populated with content from accounts they followed plus occasional sponsored posts, but that looks to be changing as Instagram has gradually rolled out its Recommended for You feature. As the name suggests, these are posts which have been curated for users based on their activity and the types of accounts they follow (similar to the Explore page).
While some Instagram users have expressed irritation at having recommended posts pushed to their main feed, the main aim of the update is to make users’ experiences more tailored to their specific interests, by bringing relevant content to the fore. The feature could also benefit brands, due to the fact your content may be exposed to more people within your target audience but without always having to rely on paid promotions.
Something else Instagram has recently implemented is the Last Active feature. If you navigate to your direct messaging area, you can now see when any account you’ve been talking to was last active. Although this has been a standard feature on the likes of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp for a while, it’s still a fairly bold move for Instagram which, until now, had placed less prominence on direct messaging, and therefore was not a major channel for customer service.
Tip: Make sure you respond to customer queries quickly. Alternatively, it is possible to prevent people knowing when you were last active, by simply going into settings and toggling the ‘Show Activity Status’ tab. In doing so, however, you won’t be able to see the activity status of other accounts.
With 800 million daily active users in 2017, Instagram is an essential space for businesses to be, but it’s a little more complicated than simply gathering a following and hammering out your brand message. Firstly because that’s going to fall on deaf ears, and secondly because Instagram is sharper than ever when it comes to quality-control.
While the myriad of updates, features, and constant revisions can sometimes feel like a never-ending puzzle; the fundamental reality is that it’s driven by a need to improve user experience on a platform that would otherwise be saturated with bots and meaningless content.
Algorithms are always going to evolve, but as long as you consistently provide authentic, engaging and creative content, you can win on Instagram.
If you’d like to get more out of social media in 2018, say hello.