The Instagram algorithm is one of the most debated topics in social media today. How does it work? Is it out to get you? What is a shadow ban? Should you use engagement pods? How can you beat the algorithm?
The truth is, the algorithm is not out to get you nor do you need to fight against it. It’s just a bunch of code, although very complex. Instead of wasting your energy using hacks to “beat the algorithm” (which ultimately won’t work in the long term), learn how the algorithm can work for you.
I have low engagement because the algorithm holds back my reach
Hands up if this is you. People often blame the algorithm for low engagement by claiming that the algorithm held back a post’s reach. But the opposite is true. Low engagement CAUSES low reach, not the other way around.
When few people engage with a post, the algorithm concludes that that post is not interesting so it REACTS by showing it to fewer people (read: holds back its reach). This also means that if more people engage with a post, the algorithm will conclude that that post is interesting. So it’ll show it to more people. Highly engaging content will get shown to more and more people which is how a post goes viral.
How does the algorithm actually work?
The general idea is that when a new post goes live, it initially gets shown to a small percentage of your following – usually to your most loyal, engaged followers based on their past interaction with your account. If you get good engagement from that first set of people seeing your post, the algorithm may decide that your post is interesting and it will show it to more people.
But if I had greater reach I’d get more likes
Think of it this way: Say your post gets shown to 1000 people and it gets 10 likes. You can argue that you need greater reach to get more likes. But if you’re only receiving 10 likes per 1000 people, the engagement the algorithm sees won’t actually increase with the more people that see your post. 2000 viewers will mean 20 likes and so on. The algorithm has already concluded that your post isn’t very engaging based on its initial performance so it won’t show it to more people.
Instead, concentrate on earning more likes from that first set of 1000 people. Getting 20 likes instead of just 10 out of 1000 people will tell the algorithm that your new post is more engaging than the last one so it’ll show that post to more people.
How do I get more likes and comments?
You need to earn it. The best way to earn likes and comments on your post is to create quality content that compels your followers to want to like and comment. It’s that simple.
But my content is good. Why is my engagement low?
TRUTH BOMB: You are not the judge of what your audience finds engaging. Nor are your family and friends.
Maybe your images ARE fantastic, but if your followers aren’t liking and commenting, then your images aren’t actually ENGAGING. If it was, then they would. Numbers don’t lie.
Good doesn’t always equal engaging. Your images may be objectively great photos, but they’re competing against thousands of other objectively great photos. Engaging photos and/or captions stand out from the crowd and pull your viewers in. They compel people to stop, like and comment and not just scroll by thinking “yet another landscape/street style/food flatlay photo”.
Sharing highly engaging content, posts that entertain, educate or inspire your audience, is the magic ingredient to making the algorithm work for you.
How do I make engaging content?
Look at your posts that had the highest engagement. You’ll probably find that they have certain commonalities. Do your quote posts get the most comments? Do your food spreads get the most likes? That’s what your audience considers engaging content. Learn from your most successful posts and use that knowledge to create better content that your audience wants to see.
Also look at your worst performing posts to see what they have in common too. How do they compare to your best posts? This is a great way to learn what your audience finds uninteresting.
Does asking questions in my caption help?
Yes! Asking questions in your caption is a great way to encourage comments. But not all questions get the same reaction. Think of your captions as the opening to a conversation you’re having with your followers. Share stories, insights, or tips that make your followers feel included in that conversation.
If you’re new to this, start by asking simple questions that aren’t too open-ended. Make it easy for your followers to chime in. “Or” questions are great examples of easy questions. Ask your audience if they prefer beach vacations or big city holidays. Or ask them if they like coffee or tea. The trick is to ask questions that your audience can easily answer and may feel very opinionated about, but in a light-hearted, casual way.
Is shadow banning real?
A shadow ban is when the posts on an account can’t be seen on any of the hashtags used. Many people claim to have suffered from shadow banning and blame it for their account’s low reach.
Instagram has officially stated that shadow bans are not a real thing. However, hashtags themselves can be banned. If you use them on a post, it may disable all other hashtags used on the same post since the algorithm has flagged that post as possibly in breach of Instagram’s community guidelines.
You can check to see if a certain hashtag is banned by searching for it in Instagram. For example, if you search #boobs, instead of seeing the 6.8 million posts using that hashtag, you’ll see a message stating that all those images are now hidden.
To learn more about choosing the best hashtags for your account read: How to pick the best hashtags that will increase your reach.
What about engagement pods?
Engagement pods are groups of Instagrammers who all agree to like and/or comment on each other’s posts as a way to “beat the algorithm”. But tricks that game the system are inauthentic and brands are catching on. Engagement out of obligation is not true engagement. It’s misleading and can damage your reputation if found out. Also, pods break down and disband dropping your engagement back to where it started. Ultimately, all that energy is better spent earning real engagement the good ol’ honest way.
The bottom line
Create highly engaging content that your audience wants to see. That is how you get the algorithm to work for you.