Social Media Algorithms 101

By Emma Fitzpatrick      

Early this year, you may have seen rumors circulating on social media that got you worried.

On Instagram, users shared images that said something like this: “This is a test. Instagram has been limiting our posts, so only 7 percent of our followers see our posts. If you see this post, comment yes. This will improve our ranking.”

A similar, but slightly different, message made its rounds on Facebook announcing Facebook had a new algorithm that allowed posts from only 26 people in each News Feed.

No need to worry. Both Facebook and Instagram refuted the claims. In doing so, each social platform lifted the veil and described a bit more about how its algorithm works.

Read on to learn more about Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms—and what kind of content is ranked higher.

What exactly is a social media algorithm—and what does it do?

Everyone’s social media feed is unique. The order of content that users see is determined by how they interact with the accounts they follow, and is powered by algorithms.

Adam Mosseri, the former VP of News Feed at Facebook and current head of Instagram, breaks this down further in a video.

Click on image to view video.

Essentially, Facebook’s News Feed is driven by ranking, a set of algorithms that places the content each user is most likely to be interested in at the top of their feed.

To do that, Facebook analyzes signals—or data points—that cover everything from how old a post is to who posted it. Then, Facebook uses those signals to make informed predictions on what content each user will like, paying special attention to how likely users are to comment or share a given story.

Those predictions are weighted and rolled into a relevancy score, which is a number that represents how interested Facebook thinks each user will be in a story. Then, each News Feeds is ordered by those relevancy scores. Recency is also considered, so the News Feed is lightly chronological.

How does Facebook’s algorithm work in 2019?

Facebook’s News Feeds prioritizes posts that will start conversations and create meaningful dialogue. That means content that users are likely to comment on will be shown higher in each News Feed.

Additionally, content from friends and family is ranked higher than posts from businesses or publishers.

What kind of content does Facebook’s algorithm prefer?

Facebook’s News Feed prioritizes content that will generate engagement. BuzzSumo analyzed over 777 million Facebook posts from Facebook Pages to determine what type of content is most likely to create engagement.

Here’s a summary of the findings:

  1. Post more video. Videos get 59 percent more engagement than any other content type. Facebook announced last year that video would no longer, by nature, be prioritized in the News Feed. But because video continually generates engagement, it regularly gets shown more.
  2. Make videos longer than you think you should. Videos between three and four minutes generate the most engagements—and videos under one minute typically generate the least amount of engagements.
  3. Keep text short. Posts with under 50 characters are the ones that people comment or react to the most. And in fact, the more characters you add, the more engagement falls.
  4. Save the good stuff for the weekends. Saturdays and Sundays are the days when people are more likely to engage with your content. Specifically, content posted between 7 and 11 p.m. performs best.

What is Instagram’s algorithm like in 2019?

Instagram’s algorithm is comparable to Facebook’s—here are the three biggest factors at play:

  1. Interest – Instagram wants to show users content that they’ll like. So, based on past user behavior, content likely to resonate with each user is shown highest in their feed.
  2. Timeliness – New posts are shown higher in the Instagram feed.
  3. Relationship – Like Facebook, Instagram wants to show users posts from the accounts they care about. The more users interact like or comment, the more content they’ll see from that account.

What can I do to post content that Instagram’s algorithm will rank higher?

A study hasn’t been done to definitively show which content ranks best on Instagram.

However, based on the above, you may want to consider replicating the success of past content (interest), posting consistently (timeliness) and engaging more with your followers in the comments (relationship).

Emma Fitzpatrick is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and marketer, whose specialties include content marketing, social media marketing and short, snappy writing. Pick her brain at [email protected].