How Does the Instagram Algorithm Work and What’s up with Reels?

Have you noticed that your Instagram feed doesn’t look like what it looked like before? You’ve started seeing more sponsored posts or suggested reels, and it feels like you have to continuously scroll until you finally see one of your friend’s posts. 

You’re not alone; many Instagram users share similar frustrations. That leaves us with the question of what does the Instagram algorithm really look like, and how can you manipulate this system in your favor? 

The Basics of the Algorithm

To begin, Instagram doesn’t have one algorithm that decides what users see on their pages. Instead, the app uses multiple algorithms to tailor posts, reels and other content to each users’ needs. 

On a broad level, the Instagram algorithm is a set of rules that dictates which content shows up on people’s feeds (explore page, reels, hashtag pages, etc.). The algorithm cross references content that’s posted on the app with users’ engagement levels on similar content. The goal is to provide users with content that they are interested in viewing and interacting with. 

In a blog post from 2021, Adam Mosseri, CEO of Instagram, gave more information on how Instagram works. In it, he denoted a few key aspects of what the algorithms look for when deciding which content to show users. Mosseri said the majority of what people see is content from people they follow with the exception of some sponsored content mixed throughout. (We’ll get into the sponsored content controversy later in the article). 

Feed and Story Posts

For now, let’s take a look at the specifics of how Instagram chooses to put content on your feed and story pages: 

  • Post Information: This is how popular the post is – how many people liked it. It also looks at smaller information like the time of day it was posted, if the location is close to the user, and how long the video is (if applicable). 
  • Who Posted the Content: This helps Instagram determine if you, as the user, would be interested in someone’s content. The algorithm looks at how many times you interacted with the account in the last week. 
  • Your Activity: This is how many posts you’ve liked or interacted with. It helps Instagram understand which posts and accounts you interact with the most. 
  • How Much Do You Interact with Someone: This tells the algorithm how much you enjoy seeing someone’s content based on how much you like, comment or share their content. 

If you spend a few seconds on a post, like it, comment on it and share it with others, Instagram will likely push that content to the top of your feed. 

According to Mosseri, “The more likely you are to take an action, and the more heavily we weigh that action, the higher up you’ll see the post.

Reels

Instagram’s algorithms also rank reels to generate and predict content that you, as the user, would like. The purpose of reels is to entertain you, and they are most likely content from users you don’t know or follow. To figure out what content is most relevant to you, Instagram look into certain characteristics: 

  • The algorithm looks at what kinds of reels you’ve liked, commented on or interacted with in the past. This helps Instagram determine which content you’d like in the present. 
  • If you have interacted with the person/account in the past, Instagram uses that as a gauge to see how relevant the content is to you. 
  • Information about reel such as its popularity, audio tracks and video content allow Instagram to determine how popular the reel is with other users. 
  • Instagram also looks at the popularity of the user, and tries to ensure small creators also have a chance at high visibility. 

As a recap, Instagram’s algorithms look at: 

  • Who you interact with. The more times you interact with someone’s content – like, comment or share – the more likely the algorithm will place that user’s content at the top of your feed. 
  • What kind of content you interact with the most. If you consistently interact with a specific type of content, then Instagram will show you more content similar to that – specifically on the explore page and reels. 
  • What time the content was posted. The algorithm will show you the most recent content posted, so you will most likely see and interact with content that’s posted when you are active on Instagram. 

What’s Up With Reels and Sponsored Content?

Instagram released reels in 2020, and since then, they’ve seemingly taken over Instagram. Many people have openly discussed their dislike of reels by claiming it’s a rip-off of TikTok and consists of “naked unoriginality.” 

Despite some pushback from users, Mosseri said people favor video content and Instagram will center around more video content over time. He said that Instagram recommends content and accounts to users so they can discover new things they might not have otherwise known about. 

The issue is that some people who use Instagram don’t want to see content from people they don’t know. This adaptation to reels and sponsored content is a stark difference from when Instagram was first created. For many people, all they want to see is pictures of their friends. Now they have to sift through reels and sponsored content to actually find those pictures.

In an interview with the Verge, Mosseri said Instagram will take a step back on pushing reels and sponsored content on users. Now, Instagram allows users to filter their home pages by following and favorites. 

  • Following: Posts show up on your home page based on the most recent post from the accounts you follow. 
  • Favorites: Accounts you interact with the most will show up at the top of your feed. 

Despite this temporary dip in recommended and sponsored content, I expect Instagram will increase the amount of recommended content in the near future. For Instagram to compete with TikTok – the most downloaded app in 2021 – it must keep up with how users consume and interact with content. 

So now you know how Instagram’s algorithms tailors posts and other content toward you, and you know Instagram is temporarily taking a step back from sponsored and recommended content. 

But where does that leave you? Will you continue using the app even if it no longer serves the purpose of sharing pictures with your friends? 

If you answered no, you won’t use the app, I’m not sure Instagram – or more specifically Meta – would change their course of action. The trend toward video content is strong, and it looks like these Instagram changes will continue to adapt until the version we knew in 2010 no longer exists. 

For better or worse, Instagram is changing, and if you are a business professional or just an everyday user, you might want to adapt to these changes.