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December 29, 2020
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If I had a penny for every time someone mentioned the words “Instagram algorithm”…

 I would be very, very rich.

In recent weeks, with the release of Instagram Reels, a US election that temporarily blocked certain hashtags, and a major change to the app’s layout, conversations about the Instagram algorithm have reignited.

Many users have been complaining of reduced reach and blame has quickly shifted to – you guessed it – the Instagram algorithm.

In this article, we’ll combat some persistent myths about the Instagram algorithm and share some solutions to help you improve your reach.

Because while everyone experiences fluctuations in reach from time to time, a long-term drop suggests that other factors may be at play.

For example: hashtags, content and how engaged you are as an Instagram user.

So before you cry “the Instagram algorithm hates me!”, let’s first check that your Instagram strategy is as optimized as possible.

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How does the Instagram algorithm work?

Just before we dive into myths about the Instagram algorithm, first let’s address a frequently asked question: How does the Instagram algorithm work?

At the beginning of 2019, Instagram’s @creator account confirmed that its algorithm is powered by a machine and is therefore constantly adapting and improving based on new data.

It also confirmed that it doesn’t favor one type of Instagram content over the other (for example, video over photos), what account you have (personal, business or creator), or whether your content is sponsored or not.

What it does focus on, however, are three things:

  • Relationship
  • Interest
  • Timeliness

Let’s look at what each of these mean and how you can use them to your advantage.

Relationship

Contrary to popular opinion (or popular habit!), Instagram wants its users to have a meaningful time while using the app.

In other words, it wants community and relationships to be an important part of the Instagram experience.

For that reason, engaging with your followers – and your dream customers, if you’re marketing your business via Instagram – is vital if you want the algorithm to serve your content to the right people.

Exchanging direct messages (DMs), leaving comments and hitting the share button are all actions that indicate a close relationship between accounts and will result in a better ranking in each other’s feed.

Interest

Instagram wants us to stick around on the app for as long as possible.

That’s why they continually tweak the algorithm so we’re served exactly the kind of content we love based on our previous behaviour.

So if you’ve liked, commented on, shared or saved lots of content about dogs or branding tips or interiors, you will get shown lots more of that type of content.

Or, if you engage with lots of carousel posts and videos (over static photos) you’re more likely to see more of those content formats in the future.

What does that mean for you as a business or content creator on Instagram?

You want to make your content as valuable as possible to encourage your followers to engage with your account. The more they hit save and share, the more they view your Reels and IGTVs, the better chance you have of the algorithm prioritizing your content in their feeds.

Timeliness

Last but not least, timeliness is a really important factor for the Instagram algorithm.

Posts that are more recent are more likely to be pushed to the top of people’s feeds. This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to post all the time.

What it means is that you should post consistently.

Not only does this keep you front-of-mind with your followers, but it tells the algorithm that you’re a valuable account that shares content regularly.

So, find a posting schedule you can stick to. If that’s 3 main-feed posts a week and 5 Instagram Stories a week, perfect.

The best posting cadence is the one you can stick to – consistently.

Myths about the Instagram algorithm

Want to beat the Instagram algorithm? Here are some myths you have to stop believing.

1. Instagram is hiding my content

In 2019, Instagram came out on Twitter to respond to claims that they were limiting the reach of people’s content to just 7% of followers. They said: “”We have not made any recent changes to feed ranking, and we never hide posts from people you’re following – if you keep scrolling, you will see them all.”

2. Switching to a business account will hurt my reach

All accounts, whether personal, business or creator, are treated equally. However, the benefit of having a business or creator account is the level of insights you get (that you don’t get as a personal account).

3. Instagram boosts content that receives lots of engagement in the first 30-60 minutes

Posts are not prioritized by the algorithm just because they get more engagement in the first 30-60 minutes. That being said, there’s no harm in being online around the time that your content goes live so you can engage with your community.

Instagram Creators 1  Instagram Creators 2  Instagram Creators 3  Instagram Creators 4

4. Video content is better than photo content

Nope! The Instagram algorithm has zero bias towards photo or video content.

5. Hashtags perform best within my caption (rather than as the first comment below my caption)

The placement of hashtags is a question that bugs a lot of us – and there’s lots of conflicting advice. In 2019, Social Insider conducted a study of 650k Instagram accounts and found that 87% of brands place the hashtags in the original post and accounts with less than 5,000 followers saw nearly 37% more reach by placing the hashtags in the original post. However, hashtag placement didn’t have any impact (positive or negative) on engagement.

If you want to know what works best for you, carry out your own experiment. Post your hashtags within the caption for a couple of weeks and then switch over to posting them as the first comment. Monitor your results and see what performs better for you.

6. Instagram shadowbans specific accounts and content

Shadowbanning is the term for when a platform hides a specific user’s posts from the hashtag feeds or searches of those not following them. While Instagram has always denied the use of shadowbanning, the company does use “machine learning to determine if the actual media posted is eligible to be recommended to our community,” as confirmed by Will Ruben, Instagram Discovery Product Lead.

What this means for you, is to be mindful of any banned hashtags you might be (inadvertently) using and ensure your content is high quality (and doesn’t violate Instagram community guidelines).

Otherwise, keep doing what you’re doing and don’t obsess too much over shadowbanning.

Note: Instagram’s algorithm does notice unusual behaviors like a huge spike in likes or followers (usually the result of bots)…

… so it goes without saying that you should never engage in growth tactics like these.

The reasons your reach might be down

Using the same hashtags

One element of a great Instagram strategy is mixing up the hashtags you use with each post.

It’s all too easy to slip into the habit of finding one set of hashtags that seem to work well, and then reusing them again and again and again.

But this will do nothing for your reach.

Put it this way: if you’re experiencing a dip in reach, then if you keep using the same hashtags you’ll keep seeing the same results.

And you may even be penalized by the algorithm, since Instagram’s community guidelines clearly state that “posting repetitive comments or content” is not okay.

So don’t be tempted to copy and paste the same hashtags repeatedly. Instead, conduct some hashtag research every couple of months so you have a bank of hashtags to choose from.

Research hashtags that are relevant to:

  • The type of photos you share
  • What your account is about
  • Your ideal customer and what matters to them

You’ll start to build up a great selection of hashtags to choose from and increase your chances of achieving impressive reach.

Using banned hashtags

One reason it’s important to review the hashtags you’re using on a regular basis is because you don’t want to mistakenly use any banned hashtags.

These are hashtags associated with content that go against Instagram’s guidelines and therefore any post that uses this hashtag will be hidden, hurting organic reach and growth efforts.

And you might be surprised by some of the banned hashtags. They include:

  • #beautyblogger
  • #todayimwearing
  • #newyearsday
  • #workflow
  • #saltwater

To find out the full list of banned hashtags, you can use a tool like Flick or start by browsing through this list.

If you want to check an individual hashtag, search for it on Instagram and if it’s banned, you’ll see the following message.

Banned Hashtags

Using popular hashtags

Another hashtag pitfall is using very popular hashtags with your content.

Want to experience great reach from hashtags? Make sure you primarily use niche, less popular hashtags.

If you type a hashtag into Instagram now, you’ll see a number alongside that #. This tells you how many other posts (hundreds, thousands or millions) have been shared using that hashtag.

You want to use hashtags that have between 1,000-150,000 posts attributed to them.

Otherwise, you’ll be competing with much bigger Instagram accounts whose content will drown out yours.

The key to a successful hashtag strategy is to be as specific as possible. Ensure the hashtags are related to your content and what your account is about, and keep them as niche as possible.

You can find out which hashtags your competition is using and build a library of your own hashtags using Iconosquare. Find out more in our article about how to find Instagram hashtags that are right for your business.

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Lack of proactive engagement

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you’ve got to give engagement to get it.

And the same can be said for your reach.

If you are treating Instagram as a one-way platform, broadcasting content without spending time actually getting to know people through the comments and DMs, your reach will always be limited.

So if you’re feeling frustrated with your reach, try focusing on something else.

Specifically, focus on engaging with your community.

Because achieving good reach means nothing if you’re not building relationships with new and existing followers.

Prioritise time each week to check-in with the people showing up for you.

Go through the accounts that regularly like your posts, leave comments, watch your IGTVs/Reels, and send you DMs. Respond in kind by leaving comments on their recent posts and interacting with their Stories.

Do this regularly and you’ll notice an increase in your engagement.

And the best part is: not only does this kind of activity build relationships with people that will eventually turn into customers or clients, but it will also take your mind off obsessing over reach.

Mediocre content

So we’ve talked about hashtags and why they might be the cause for lower-than-usual reach.

However, there comes a time when you’ve got to stop blaming hashtags and take a  long, hard look at your content.

Because ⁠here’s the thing:⁠

  • Hashtags aren’t a parachute
  • They’re not a life raft, a safety net or a magic pill
  • They’re not going to save rubbish content

That’s not what they’re designed for.⁠🙅‍♀️

They’re designed to help categorize the millions of images and videos uploaded to Instagram every single day, and to make sure the right content is served to the right people.⁠

They’re an important part of any great Instagram strategy.⁠ But, you can survive without them.

Yes, that’s right.

Even without posting any hashtags at all, there’s every chance you could experience good reach if you’re sharing brilliant content.

However, if you’re trying to combine average content with strategic hashtags, or worse yet, combining average content with unstrategic hashtags, then there’s your reason for poor reach.

Good content always wins.

So take a look at your recent content and Instagram analytics to see how it’s performed. Have you generated many comments, shares, saves, website taps or follows?

These Instagram metrics tell you how engaging your audience thinks your content is. If the numbers are low for some or all of them, it might be time to rethink your content strategy.

How to improve your reach on Instagram

Connect with your followers

If you’ve been using a varied selection of strategic hashtags and your content is far from mediocre but still you’re experiencing a dip in your Instagram reach, then I suggest you focus on something else.

Instead of obsessively checking your Insights, my number one tip to combat a lull in reach is this:

Focus on connecting with your followers.

For the next couple of weeks, make chatting with your community a priority. Leave comments on their content, interact with their Stories and follow up with forgotten DMs.

While reach is important to help increase your brand awareness and get you in front of new audiences, nothing is more important than building relationships with your existing followers.

It’s those relationships, nurtured over time, that will turn followers into customers and clients.

Here’s a few other things to try if you’ve noticed a dip in reach lately.

Create Instagram Reels

If you’ve resisted creating Reels up until now, this might be the time to give them a go.

Instagram didn’t change the layout of the homepage for no reason – they believe video is the future of the platform.

So why not give the algorithm what it wants and turn some of your content ideas into Reels? Once you get into the swing of making them, Reels don’t take much time at all to create and publish.

Follow our step-by-step guide to use Instagram Reels and start experiencing a big boost in reach and engagement.

Be more consistent on Instagram Stories

While sharing more consistently to Instagram Stories won’t necessarily increase your reach, it will certainly improve your engagement. Particularly if you use Story stickers strategically to increase interactivity with your followers.

Make a plan to share 4-5 Instagram Stories consistently for the next few weeks and include stickers like the poll, quiz and question stickers. This will encourage your followers to share their opinions and help to create a loyal following that feels connected to your brand.

Go Live

Going Live is a great way to improve your reach on Instagram and stay front-of-mind with your followers. This is thanks to the push notification your audience receives when you start filming. Not only that, but you’ll also jump to the front of the Story feed once you go Live, which is the perfect way to capture your followers’ attention.

Read our step-by-step guide to creating engaging Instagram Live videos and try experimenting with this type of video in 2021. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the increase in reach and improved connection you experience with your community.

Create shareable and saveable content

If you haven’t already, I recommend creating shareable and saveable content on a regular basis. The clue’s in the name for these types of content: they are designed to get shares and saves from your audience.

When someone saves or shares your content, these actions send a positive signal to the Instagram algorithm. The more a post receives, the more people it will be shown to and the higher priority it will be given in the feed.

Shareable content is typically:

  • Humorous
  • Inspirational
  • Controversial
  • Relatable

For example, this post from women’s health and wellness brand, Hers.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by hers (@hers)

Or this, from life coach Africa Brooke.

And as you’ll notice, shareable posts tend to be text graphics, memes or repurposed Tweets.

Saveable content on the other hand is typically educational content that people save to reference later, e.g.:

  • How to
  • Tips
  • Words of wisdom
  • Step-by-step tutorial

The typical formats for saveable content are infographics or text graphics, IGTVs or carousel posts.

For example, this post from ClickUp guru, Court from @theelevateeffect.

And this from plant educator Nkhensani.

Post less main-feed content

If you’ve been trying to keep up with a busy posting schedule, try posting less content to your grid. Two-three times per week is great.

If you cut down on your main-feed content and slightly increase your video output, you may notice an increase in your reach and impressions. Especially if you start creating regular Instagram Reels.

Not only that, but video content is often more effective at building intimate relationships with your followers and more powerfully demonstrates the impact of your products and services through how tos, tutorials and interviews.

Less pressure to post main-feed content every single day + more video + intentional engagement with your followers = a winning Instagram strategy (and a big thumbs up from the Instagram algorithm!).🙌

Conclusion

Do you feel more confident about how you can improve your reach on Instagram?

By now you’ll know that there’s plenty of things to review and optimize before questioning whether the Instagram algorithm has an evil vendetta against you!

With the right content, hashtags, and a willingness to engage with your followers on a 1:1 level, you’ll see your reach back to normal in no time.

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About the author
Bella Foxwell

Bella Foxwell

Bella Foxwell is a door obsessive and Instagram educator, teaching small businesses, solopreneurs and content creators how to build engaged communities on Instagram in less time. Read more from Bella on her website: bellafoxwell.com

More posts by Bella Foxwell

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