You’ve heard the cliché: “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, since their inception in 2010, Instagram has definitely proven that a picture is worth a lot more than that. Today it is rare to see a successful business that doesn’t include Instagram as a marketing tool to promote their brand. But like most modern marketing engines, Instagram is dynamic and changes as both technology and the business climate evolve. In this article, we are going to take a brief look at Instagram’s history then dive into how the news feed algorithm has changed over the past several years. We will also go over what we know about Instagram’s latest updates and what you can do to help your posts stand out as much as possible.
2010-2015: Before the Algorithm
Instagram was officially launched in October 2010 and was available exclusively to iPhone users. The concept was simple: an app that lets you add filters to your photos and share them with your social circle. It wasn’t long before it started catching on and Instagram became a must-have download in the App Store. In its first week alone it gained over 100,000 users and by the end of 2010 (just two short months from launch), the app had already seen 1 million downloads.
During this time, Instagram did not utilize any kind of complicated algorithm; friends’ posts were simply sorted in chronological order, from newest to oldest in real time. There were also no advertisements on Instagram during its first several years, which helped keep things straightforward.
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Here is a short timeline that highlights some of Instagram’s milestones from 2010 – 2015:
- October 2010: Instagram is released on iPhone
- December 2010: Downloads surpass 100,000
- January 2011: Trending hashtags are integrated for easier grouping and searching
- June 2011: Instagram boasts 5 million users
- September 2011: Instagram hits 10 million monthly active users
- September 2011: Version 2.0 is released for iOS
- April 2012: Instagram expands to Android and sees over a million downloads within the first day of release
- April 2012: Instagram reaches 50 million active users
- April 2012: Facebook acquires Instagram for $1 billion in cash and stocks. This also opens the companies up to sharing each other’s data and functionality
- February 2013: Instagram surpasses 100 million users
- May 2013: Photo tagging is added into the app
- June 2013: Video sharing is added, allowing users to publish 15-second clips to share with their social circle
- November 2013: Advertising is added in the form of sponsored posts. Targeted in-app ads show up in a user’s feed just like a regular post
- December 2013: Instagram Direct is added to the app, allowing users to send direct private messages to each other
- March 2014: Instagram now has 200 million active users monthly
- August 2014: The app ups their advertising offerings, integrating new business tools that provide advertisers with basic analytics
- December 2014: Instagram hits 300 million monthly active users
- June 2015: New ad formats are introduced that allow more interaction with viewers. These include ads that can prompt users to install apps, join mailing lists, and visit links
- September 2015: Instagram extends their video ad offerings by adding a 30-second video option for advertisers. At the time, standard users could only share ones that were 15 seconds
- September 2015: Instagram ads go global
- September 2015: The app surpasses 400 million monthly active users worldwide
2016: The Year Everything Changed
For over five years, the way Instagram’s feed was filtered remained more or less unchanged. However, in March 2016, the Instagram feed got a total makeover. In an effort to reduce missed posts, Instagram officially switched from displaying content chronologically to using an algorithm to sort posts. This ushered in a new era for Instagram, as users and brands were now competing for rankings and needed to be aware of what to do to get their posts seen first.
The new algorithm would put the “best” posts first – that is, ones that are determined to be the most relevant or most interesting for a user. Although Instagram did not share specific details about the algorithm initially, they did highlight some of the factors that go into ranking content. These included the likelihood a user would be interested in the post, engagement with the post, post timeliness, the user’s relationship with the account posting, and so forth.
This new feed format ruffled a few feathers when it came to brands on Instagram because it meant they needed to produce great, engaging content to be seen. Brands adapted by starting to produce more Instagram-specific content while taking advantage of features like tagging to build momentum.
An additional algorithm was added to Instagram’s Stories feature during 2016. The algorithm was created using data collected by Facebook and looked at engagement, prioritizing Stories that it pinpointed as most likely to be viewed.
Here are some major milestones for Instagram in 2016 that are worth mentioning:
- March 2016: Algorithm added to feed that will rank posts for new visibility
- May 2016: Additional business tools are added that allow Instagram’s 200 million advertisers to see more post insights including reach, demographics, and impressions
- May 2016: Instagram unveils a new logo to mixed reactions
- June 2016: Instagram passes 500 million monthly active users
- August 2016: Stories are added that allow users to share temporary videos and photos with their friends. These Stories are playable for up to 24 hours
- September 2016: Instagram boasts 500 million advertisers globally
- October 2016: Instagram launches a desktop app for Windows 10, reaching even more of the world
- November 2016: Live video streaming is added in the app
- December 2016: Instagram grows to 600 million monthly active users
2017: The Algorithm Evolves
Throughout 2017, Instagram’s ranking algorithm continued to evolve. Although precise details of the changes were not shared publicly, the factors that the algorithm looked at started to become more clearly defined. These included:
- Engagement. This is essentially the popularity of a post based on how people are interacting with it
- Time Spent. This is influenced by how long viewers are spending on each post
- Relevancy. This refers to how likely a user is to be interested in a post, based on similar past interactions
- Sharing. Direct-message sharing helps bolster a post’s ranking even though only the recipient can see your message
- Connections. Posts rank higher in someone’s feed if they are from a person or account whom they interact with regularly
- Search History. When a user looks up a profile often, it indicates their interest in that account and Instagram will rank their newer posts higher in the feed
- Timeliness. This simply looks at how recent a post is to further determine its relevancy
Here are a few milestones for Instagram in 2017 that also affected its growth:
- February 2017: Multiple photos and videos can now be shared in a single post
- May 2017: Stories are now searchable by location and hashtag in Instagram’s Explore section
- June 2017: Instagram brings more transparency to sponsors by adding a “Paid Partnership” identification when influencers are paid to promote brands over the app. This new tool also makes it possible for advertisers to get data from paid sponsorship posts
- September 2017: Active monthly app users reach 800 million
- December 2017: Highlights and archives for Stories are added to the app
- December 2017: Instagram starts rolling out recommended posts
Today’s Instagram Algorithm and How You Can Make It Work for You
Just a couple months into 2018, Instagram has already made headlines with several changes to their feed algorithm. The focus remains on engagement; posts rank higher based on relevancy and interest, but also views, likes, comments, saves, shares (by link or direct message), and other interactions. The algorithm also takes the Stories feature into consideration, looking at engagement as well as replies and other factors. So how do you use this new ranking algorithm to your benefit?
Tips for Ranking Higher on Instagram
- Create quality content specifically for Instagram. Social media is not one-size-fits-all. Be sure your posts are photo-centric and don’t be afraid to get a little creative
- Be timely. This is pretty straightforward, but it is best to post content when it is most relevant. This goes beyond sharing what is current. Try to be aware of when your audience is active and share posts at times you typically see the most interactions and likes from them
- Be consistent. A strong brand is a consistent one. Post regularly, plus be sure your Instagram has a clear voice and your posts fit your brand. Everything should be cohesive and reflect your business in a positive way
- Share videos and stories with multiple photos. The more time people are spending on your post, the better the ranking will be. Share content that encourages your audience to engage and spend more than a quick second scrolling past your posts
- Know your audience. Be sure you are creating engaging posts that appeal to your target user and encourage interaction. Try to put yourself in your ideal consumer’s shoes. Ask yourself if a post will be relevant to them and bring them value. What are you providing to your audience? Would they want to see and share your content?
- Interact with your followers. Reply to comments, answer questions, address concerns, and so forth. Instagram’s current algorithm looks at engagement above all else, so engage with your audience! It will not only help your feed rankings, but will strengthen your overall brand experience
- Utilize the Stories feature. If a user is viewing your Stories regularly, it shows they are interested. As a result, your regular posts will place higher in their feed
- Use hashtags. The newest Instagram algorithm puts more weight on posts that have specific hashtags. Be sure yours are relevant because users can now subscribe to follow hashtags!
- Encourage your followers to tag their friends. Give your followers a reason to tag their friends in your posts for greater reach and engagement
- Take advantage of Instagram’s other features. Don’t neglect the arsenal of tools Instagram offers such as link sharing, location tagging, captioning, and more
- Partner with influencers. Whether they are micro-influencers who spread the word for free or macro-influencers who are paid to do so, followers trust their opinions and they can spread the word about your brand in a genuine way
- Advertise — and pay attention to your analytics. If you are looking for a surefire way to appear in people’s feeds, it may be wise to invest in advertising on Instagram. They offer many great business tools for their advertisers that show insights on post performance and audience characteristics. If you run ads, be sure you are paying attention to these analytics insights and tweaking your campaigns accordingly
- Keep your finger on the pulse. Instagram has gone through many changes since its inception, including several updates to its ranking algorithm. It is definitely going to keep evolving, so keep up with the latest news, additions, and changes so you are always on the ball
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In less than a decade, Instagram has gone from a new concept to an undeniable social media force. One thing is clear: they are ready to keep evolving as technology does. With constant algorithmic updates made to the app’s features as well as their algorithm, it is more important than ever to be savvy about how high-quality content is being ranked. Using the insights and tips above should prove a great first step toward getting more visibility and results from your Instagram account.