How the Instagram Algorithm Works

by Josh Barney

Instagram has gone from strength to strength in terms of active users (over 1 Billion now), engagement and popular references (it seems like Insta is referenced in every other pop song released this year).

And where there’s people and popularity, there’s an opportunity for businesses.

Instagram are continuously updating their algorithm to improve their user experience…

…but in this article I’m going to explain how the Instagram algorithm works (in 2020) and what you can do to optimise your social media strategy to appeal to it and increase your Insta reach.

Let’s go!

The MOST IMPORTANT Thing To Understand About the Instagram Algorithm

I know that you all want to learn what you can do to be seen by more of your following, appear higher on the newsfeed and reach new audiences on the ‘Explore’ page…

…but before any of that stuff (which I will get to very soon), there’s something you MUST understand:

Instagram is a business.

I know that won’t be a massive shock to most of you, but in order for you to fully understand how to optimise your Insta strategy, you MUST understand how their business model works.

Instagram earns money from profiles (usually businesses) who pay to run ads on their platform, and when more of their users see these ads, they make more money.

So, Instagram’s primary aim is to make their platform as appealing (to log onto) as possible and then to maintain the attention and length of time that their users remain on the Insta platform.


So, before we dive into all the interesting factors that influence how your posts rank on the Instagram algorithm, you must understand how they work (and what their aims are)…

…because when you understand this, you can prime everything you do to help them, and therefore, help yourself.

BTW: Yes, I know a lot of social networks are saying that they’re trying to ensure users don’t become addicted to their platform, but trust me, just like any other business, they (and their staff and owners) want to make their platform as profitable as possible.

The Instagram Algorithm in 2020

instagram algorithm 2019

Now that you know their main aim (as a business), you need to understand how the Instagram algorithm interprets, tracks and optimises content to achieve it.

The more your profile (business or personal) helps them achieve their aims, the higher your post will appear on their newsfeed (and the more people it will reach!).

Remember, Instagram is a platform completely dependent on User Generated Content (UGC), meaning that Instagram are 100% reliant on their users to captivate people and increase their advertising revenue.

Let’s look at the best ways to show Instagram that you’re aiding their success:

User Relationship

Users are more likely to interact with the posts of an account that they have already interacted with.

When a user likes, comments, shares or saves a post, they are much more likely to see another post (from the same account) at the top of their feed when they log on next.

Instagram do this because they want to provide a personalised experience for their users. The more personalised the experience is, the more time their users will spend on their network (in theory), and as we already know, the more money they will make.

instagram algorithm user relationship

This Instagram algorithm ranking factor puts a heavy emphasis on business accounts publishing high-quality content, every single time they time post.

Every post you publish has a knock-on effect for your future posts. This means that posting low-quality content, in the hope that posting MORE will mean you’re seen more, will actually have the reverse effect.

Quality must be prioritised over quantity in your Instagram posting strategy.Click To Tweet

If you haven’t already, make sure your Insta profile is set-up as a business account (it’s free, easy and simple to switch).

You can then use ‘Insights’ to track the performance of your previous posts and optimise your future strategy for engagement.

instagram insights

User Interests

Whilst this Instagram algorithm factor might be out of your control, it’s important that you understand how it works and why it’s actually a good thing for marketers.

Instagram ranks posts on the newsfeed by the interests of their users. In other words, if you show an interest in food, you are much more likely to see posts that feature food.

The Instagram algorithm judges the interests of their users by the pages they follow and the genre of the content that engages them most (using photo recognition technology, hashtags and descriptions).

instagram algorithm user interests

A user’s interests is not something you can impact (everyone has their own preferences), but it is actually a good thing for marketers…

…because whilst more followers sounds like an amazing thing for anybody with an Insta account, it can actually work against you.

If you have a large following, but low engagement levels on your posts it will negatively affect your post’s rank on the newsfeed.

Creating targeted content that appeals to people who have an interest in your niche, is the best way to appeal to the 'user interests' ranking factor on Instagram. Click To Tweet


Old news…isn’t news.

The Instagram algorithm wants to push posts that are up-to-date, relevant and recent, and the best way to do this is to use timeliness as a key ranking factor.

In other words, accounts that post content rarely (e.g. once a week) will only appear briefly on the newsfeed before disappearing out of sight.

BTW: Just because timeliness is a crucial ranking factor, that doesn’t mean you should post 50 times a day. Instagram will see this as spamming their users and actually penalise your rank.

instagram algorithm timeliness

The two most important take-aways for marketers (about timeliness) are:

  1. To prime your posting schedule for the times that your followers are most likely to be online. Use a customer avatar, marketer research and Instagram Insights to discover your optimum times. Check out our Guide to the Best (and Worst) Times to Post on Social Media, to find out more.
  2. To post as frequently as possible without being seen as spammy, or reducing your engagement levels. (This is usually in the 1-3 post per day bracket). Test your posting frequency and track the engagement levels of your posts.

(More) Instagram Algorithm Factors

There are multiple other factors that will affect your ranking on the Instagram newsfeed, these include:

  • User Frequency: How often a user logs on to Instagram. Somebody who logs on every hour is more likely to see posts from more of the accounts they follow, than somebody who logs on once a day. The less a user logs on, the more work the algorithm has to do to provide them with the most relevant posts (to them) since their last Insta session.
  • User Session Duration: People who visit Insta in short bursts have a much more focussed top-of-feed than those that spend a long time scrolling through the feed.
  • User Following Size: The more profiles an account follows, the more content Instagram has to sort and prioritise. This means that if you publish multiple posts a day, competition will probably be too high for them all to appear on that user’s feed.

Instagram Algorithm FAQ

Before you implement these strategy changes into your Instagram strategy, let’s resolve a few of the most commonly asked Instagram algorithm questions:

  • Will posting Instagram stories help you rank on the Instagram algorithm?   

Instagram do not use Stories as a newsfeed ranking factor. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t help you.

If you are able to actively engage an audience regularly with your Insta Stories, they will be much more likely to engage with your feed posts (as they are actively interested in your content).

Insta Stories are a great way to build a relationship with your following, which will definitely help you in the long-run.

instagram algorithm story

  • Do posts from personal accounts appear higher on the Instagram feed than business accounts? 

In short, no. Instagram doesn’t care what kind of account is creating the content that they show to their users.

They want to make the Insta experience as personal and relevant as possible. It doesn’t matter if the content is published by a business or personal account, as long as it engages and keeps users on their platform (for as long as possible).

But, when you think about it – are you more likely to engage with a post from your close friends or family, or that of a brand?

  • Do video posts rank higher than photo posts on Instagram? 

It all depends on the user.

Instagram want their users to keep coming back to their platform, so, if they engage more with videos, they’ll probably see more video content.

BTW: Video is an amazing way to capture the attention of your followers on the newsfeed and drive engagement. If you aren’t already, you should definitely test it out.

  • How can I appear on the Instagram Explore Page?

The first thing you should do is pay close attention to the algorithm ranking factors in this article…

…and then understand that the ‘Explore’ page uses a suped-up version of the newsfeed algorithm.

That means that as well as timeliness, relationship and interest, in order to feature on the Explore page, you need to drive engagement and you need to do it as quickly as possible.

Instagram will show recent posts that have very high engagement on the explore page. Use hashtags, post at the perfect time of day and prioritise high-quality, engaging content to give yourself the best chance. You could even try running an Instagram ad to boost your chances.

Instagram Algorithm Conclusion

This article has (hopefully) dispelled a few Insta myths, helped you build a new and improved social media posting strategy and given you a few Instagram ideas.

Above all else, it’s crucial that you understand what Instagram want to achieve and how your posts can help them do this. The best way to do this is prioritise quality over quantity and be an active (and social) user.

And if there’s any Instagram algorithm FAQ’s that you think I’ve missed, leave us a comment and I’ll get back to you ASAP.

Want more marketing strategies, tactics and advice? Check out one of our most popular ever marketing guides: 

Josh is the Founder of We Imagine Media, an award-winning content marketer, best selling author and creator of the He creates and strategises content, sharing the most successful tactics with his lovely audience. He hates writing in the third person, follow him on the social links so he can get back to writing as himself.

5 Responses

  1. Hi Josh,
    Are using ads on Instagram now like using them on Facebook pages? I know if you don’t use them on Facebook pages it’s very hard to gain any traction. I’ve used them often on FB but not Instagram and wondering if that’s what is needed today there.
    Thanks for your tips on Instagram!

    1. Hey Lisa,
      Yes we do run Instagram ads and they’re converting really well.
      We do this in different ways, sometimes we include them in the FB ads placements and allow FB to optimise for their most successful placement. FB does this by analysing the results from each placement and then running more where they’re doing best.

      We also edit placements in the Ad set level of FB Business Manager to purely run ads on Insta.

      Your campaign objective, advertising goal and offer will determine whether you should run ads on Insta. i’ve actually just written an Instagram advertising ebook about how to do this with highly targeted audiences. We’re working on the PDF hosting now, if you’re interested, send me a direct email to [email protected] and I’ll send it over for a first look before it’s available.

  2. Very informative information for Instagram users. I got some new information from your article. Thank you so much for sharing this informative article. I will share your blog in my group. It will be too help everyone. thanks and keep posting.

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