Let’s face it — the Instagram algorithm has not been our friend lately. Don’t you miss the good old days when your Instagram feed was time-based? As long as you posted at a peak time of the day, you were golden. Well, times have changed with the new Instagram algorithm. Now it’s become more difficult to reach your full audience.
Change is hard. When Instagram rolled out its new algorithm, most users were up in arms about it. Many still are, and rightfully so.
However, I recently came to terms with it and even enjoy the new way of doing things. Instagram has undergone challenging, yet necessary, changes to ultimately enhance the user experience. And that, it has.
If you’ve recently experienced a sharp decline in your Instagram engagement, fret no more. This algorithm can, and will, work for you. Over the past several months, I have been examining my analytics and those of other influential accounts. As a result, I have uncovered some of the reasons why Instagram pushes certain posts and suppresses others. Based on my data analysis, research, and a bit of trial and error, here are some key techniques to help you beat the Instagram algorithm.
Write Long Captions
Pictures with lengthy captions tend to perform better than those with shorter captions. Based on my data insights and observations of other accounts, the optimal caption length appears to be 4-10 sentences.
I evaluated various criteria to determine the “ideal” caption length. For example, I posted two identical photos a couple of months apart; one with a brief quote and another with 7 sentences. Keeping all other variables the same (i.e. hashtags, geotag, and time of the day), the latter post had a 37% higher reach.
While I’d like to think that my heartfelt words in those 7 sentences contributed to this improvement, it was much more than that. Instagram strives to enhance the user experience for everyone, and longer captions are one way of achieving that.
Writing longer captions is also a great way to relate with your audience and foster a deeper sense of community. Hence, Instagram’s algorithm now pushes longer, more thought-out, and more engaging content. So, get the pad and paper out, and tell us your story!
Don’t Use Engagement Groups
Authenticity is key. As part of Instagram’s quest to enhance the user experience, they’ve penalized accounts that use engagement groups to artificially boost their likes and comments.
For those of you who are not influencers, you may be wondering what engagement groups are. Essentially, they are groups of users who exchange likes and comments on each other’s posts. The ultimate goal is to appear more popular by boosting likes and comments.
Some accounts have been outright banned for engaging in this practice. Others have been “shadow banned”, which is Instagram’s way of limiting their reach (i.e. preventing them from being visible in hashtags).
Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.
If you use Instagram Analytics, you can precisely see where your likes and comments come from—whether it’s Home, Hashtags, Location, Profile, and Other. The screenshot below, taken from one of my posts, evidences these insights further:
Leveraging these insights, Instagram can easily detect which users are using inauthentic means to boost engagement. For example, if most of your impressions come from that “Other” category, Instagram can tell that your likes are coming from non-organic sources (i.e. a link shared from an outside app). No bueno.
At the very least, if you use engagement groups, Instagram will penalize you by showing your content to fewer users. I know a few influencers who use engagement groups, and they’ve been hit really hard with the new algorithm. I predict that the next algorithm will be even more unforgiving towards those who use them.
Use Popular Geotags
Instagram’s new algorithm is geared towards showing users the most popular destinations. As such, Instagram is more likely to “push” hot places like Barcelona and Santorini than, let’s say, Pittsburgh and Sacramento. No offense to those two wonderful cities; this is just how “trending” with big data works.
In order to maximize your reach, it’s best to use geotags that people frequently use. For example, if you post a picture of a remote waterfall in Iceland, you should use the “Iceland” geotag rather than an “Ófærufoss” one (which has only been used 7 times, ever). As tempting as it may be to showcase this exotic waterfall in your geotag, you’re better off saving the exact location for your caption instead.
Using popular geotags will allow you to maximize your reach and exposure. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you’ll even get featured on the Explore page! That was the best day of my life (kidding, but not really).
Use 5-15 Targeted Hashtags
Prior to the new Instagram algorithm, it was best practice to maximize the number of hashtags in your post, up to 30. This is no longer the case.
In order to foster the best user experience, Instagram favors posts with a few targeted hashtags over those with a myriad of them. As they say, quality over quantity is key.
In the past, some people overused hashtags such as #likeforlike and #photography, which didn’t specifically describe the content in their posts. Instagram subsequently found out that some users were spam-liking/following accounts that used these hashtags. For that reason, I presume, the new algorithm encourages people to use fewer, targeted hashtags rather than a barrage of cliché ones. My internal data seems to indicate this as well.
I have played around with hashtags for a while now, and my magic number is 12 per post. When I use 8-12 hashtags, I garner 150-180% more hashtag impressions than when I use 26-30 hashtags. Additionally, I always put them in my first comment, rather than the body of the post. There is no conclusive data to support why I put them in a comment vs. in the body; I just think it looks cleaner.
Below is a screenshot of my Instagram Analytics from a recent post when I used 12 hashtags. Note that roughly 25% of my total impressions came from hashtags. This is a new, wonderful phenomenon. Thanks for the love, new IG algorithm!
Another key hashtag strategy is to ensure that you can properly rank for some of them. In other words, you should choose hashtags that are not too big, yet not too small. The idea here is that you want to be visible in the “Top” posts for at least a few of your hashtags.
Based on my hashtag analysis, my general rule of thumb is as follows:
- Accounts with 10,000 followers: focus on hashtags with 100,000-150,000 posts
- Accounts with 20,000 followers: focus on hashtags with 200,000-250,000 posts
For instance, if you have 15,000 followers, you definitely shouldn’t use hashtags like #travel (which have over 300 million hashtag posts). Given the sheer frequency of people who use that hashtag, it would be virtually impossible to be visible to others. Unless you are Rick Steves or Nomadic Matt, you will neither rank in the “Top” posts nor show up under the “Recent” posts for more than a few seconds.
The key takeaway here is that hashtags are very important with the new algorithm, so use them wisely! I recommend tracking your favorite hashtags in an Excel spreadsheet to see which ones perform the best.
Tools to Help You Understand the Algorithm
Each content creator has his/her own unique niche and story. As such, some of my techniques and strategies may work slightly differently for you.
Therefore, I recommend that you do a little data drilling of your own to discover what works best for your account. Below are a few useful tools to help you analyze your data and engagement:
- Hype Auditor: This website allows you to gauge the “quality” and “authenticity” of your followers (or those of other accounts). I recommend trying the free trial version. Many brands use this platform to analyze whether or not to collaborate with influencers.
- Fohr: This influencer marketing platform provides detailed insights on your engagement rates and trends over time. It also quantifies your social media “worth” to brands. As such, I would consider Fohr a quintessential media kit tool that every influencer should have.
- Reachbird: This website provides excellent analytics on pretty much every metric. I recommend trying the free trial version. Using Reachbird, you can analyze your engagement rate, hashtag uses, and top commenters, to name a few. You can also view the metrics of your top-performing posts to help you discern why certain content performs better than others.
Beating the Instagram Algorithm
I hope you found these techniques to be helpful in your quest to beat the Instagram algorithm. Keep in mind that what works for me, may not necessarily work for you. But at the very least, I hope these tips will allow you to focus your attention in the right areas.
If you’d like to learn more about my approach to travel and content creation, feel free to follow my blog.