How the 2021 Instagram Algorithm Works

We hear a lot about social media strategy, paid vs. organic and of course, the infamous Instagram algorithm. But does the algorithm even matter? Our answer: Absolutely. The algorithm is more than an arbitrary set of rules. It’s your key to unlocking the Rubik’s cube of do’s, don’ts, and maybes that end up defining the success of your business or brand. 

Here’s the thing — there are a lot of myths surrounding the algorithm. And depending on which ones you hear (or pay attention to), you may be committing some major social media faux pas that could cost you some of your followers. The solve? Educate yourself on the matter. Learn the algorithm, master the algorithm, be the algorithm. Okay, we’re joking about the last part there… you get the gist. Follow along to learn how to optimize your profile this year! 

What is the Instagram algorithm? 

Some Instagrammers aren’t about the metrics or the algorithm. If that sounds like you, you may be wondering what we’re even talking about. The algorithm tries to get smart about your interests, likes and dislikes — and then feed you content that you’ll find valuable. Instagram usually files your interactions into one of five different categories. 

  • Frequency
  • Following
  • Interests
  • Relationship
  • Timeliness

We’ll break these down below. 

  1. Frequency

    Instagram recognizes that some people open the app every hour but others… not so much. In an effort to optimize feed experience, the algorithm considers frequency with which people use their Instagram app. What do we mean? 

    Let’s say you only open Instagram daily — every night around 9 pm (just before you wind down!). For you, scrolling may be tough if you’re inundated with posts. Some of these posts matter to you, but others really don’t. If you’re caught in the mess of a ton of posts, you may click out of the app before you can get to the ones that matter a lot to you. That’s why Instagram factors frequency into the algorithm. By knowing how frequently you check Instagram, the algorithm can help curate a feed that works for you. In this case (someone who doesn’t check often), you probably won’t get as much of a chronological feed because the algorithm will work to give you the ones that are most interesting to you. On the flip side, if you check often you may expect to get more of a chronological feed.

  2. Following

    This one tends to go hand-in-hand with frequency but not always. The algorithm looks at your following count — that is, how many people you follow. Similar to the frequency that you use the app, the number of people you follow factors into your feed. If you follow a lot of people, it’s inefficient to have every single post pop up in your feed, especially if you go on rarely. See how these go hand-in-hand a little bit? If you do follow a lot of people, the algorithm works its magic to try to curate a feed that you’ll enjoy — which means leaving out some posts that Instagram thinks you won’t enjoy. For anyone who has a small following, you may see every post in your feed. That’s just part of the algorithm.

  3. Interests

    At the end of the day, the algorithm exists to optimize the experience for all parties. For businesses trying to reach their target audience, users who are scrolling and influencers who are trying to nail down their traffic. One of the major ways that the algorithm does this is by honing in on interests. 

    Think about the like button. When you “like” something, the algorithm picks up on two things: 1) You might be interested in this topic and you might want to see more content that is similar to it 2) You don’t hate this. Let’s tackle both of these separately.

    You might be interested in this topic or wanting to see more content that is similar
    Pretty straightforward. If you like a post about baking, Instagram can infer that there’s a possibility that you enjoy baking. When looking through hashtags and related profiles down the line, Instagram may incorporate baking-related posts into your feed. This is subject to change as Instagram gains more insights on your likes and dislikes, but your likes are a good starting point for the algorithm to learn.

    You don’t hate this
    Instagram can’t necessarily assume that you LOVE anything you’re throwing a like. So the takeaway when you do like something can simply be that you don’t hate it. Because if you’re not liking something, the algorithm is going to assume that it’s one of your dislikes and therefore may not send that type of content to your feed.

  4. Relationship

    Ever feel like you see every post for some people but NO posts for others? There’s a reason for that, and it’s called the algorithm. Another thing Instagram considers is your relationships with other users. After all, it’s not just about likes and dislikes and how often you flip open the app. It’s a way to connect, learn, laugh and converse with others. The algorithm tries to define your loved ones by looking at your interactions and mutual interests.

    It’ll first look at the way you’re engaging with others. Are you liking the same people’s posts? Are you and your friend commenting on the same kind of content? Are you exchanging direct messages with someone often? Look at these things, whether as a business owner or an Instagram lover, to be able to better understand the role relationships play in the Instagram algorithm.

  5. Timeliness


    Recall that we talked about chronological feeds. That means you’ll see posts in order by recency. This is also a standalone factor for the algorithm. Many people use Instagram for news and commentary on current events, so the algorithm works hard to curate a feed that is as timely as possible. Does it always happen? No. But it’s definitely committed to making a feed that makes the most sense. In other words, it’s rare that you’ll see a post from 3 weeks ago right before a post from 2 hours ago. 

    There are lots of ways to try to crack the code of the Instagram algorithm. We can’t guarantee it’s a quick or easy journey, but it pays off in the end. And if you find yourself with limited time to devote to your profile, you can always count on Social Tuto to help guide you into a success!

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