The Instagram Algorithm in 2019

The Instagram Algorithm in 2019

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When you post photos on Instagram, you probably think your followers will see your photos and may be click Like. But that is not how Instagram works – at all.

Instagram uses an algorithm to determine when your photos are shown, and to whom. Similarly, the algorithm selects what photos you see from your friends.

The details of the algorithm are secret, but IG has occasionally dropped hints, and simple experiments unearth other features of the algorithm.

The IG algorithm can also punish you and greatly reduce the visibility of your photos to others. Once the algorithm has flagged your account – even when you have violated no rules or ethical standards – it is not clear how to make the algorithm happy again and restore visibility of your photos.

My own IG account – instagram.com/coldsreams – seems to have been made nearly invisible by the algorithm. Please go there and check it out.

The New Algorithm

Since the algorithm is secret, we do not know when it began operating. However, IG did make a blog post in late January of 2019 about the algorithm and updates to the algorithm. Therefore, it seems that in early 2019, a new algorithm began to impact viewership of photos on IG. It certainly did for me.

Engagement

The new algorithm favors posts that have engagement with viewers, especially including comments, sharing and even direct messaging. If you do no comment on other’s photos and they do not comment on yours, then your posts will be downranked and be seen by fewer people on IG.

The algorithm is, basically, ranking your ability to drive more views, traffic, interaction and time spent on Instagram. The more IG use you drive, the higher the ranking of your posts and the more visibility they will be given.

If your posts do not drive discussion – engagement – then your account is dead.

Initial Post

When you post a photo on IG, IG does not immediately share it widely. Instead, IG shares it with a subset of your followers and measures their interaction – how many likes it receives, how many comments it received. If the interaction is low, then IG treats that as a proxy for quality – and assumes your post is of low quality. This means IG will not show it to many of your other followers. In fact, your post may not even appear in hashtag search results.

Some people hack this initial “market test” of your photo by using direct message groups to let people know you have a new photo posted and get them to quickly like it.

Even more important, though, is who are the people that like your post? If someone who has tens of thousands of followers likes your post, that is given far greater weight as to the quality of your post. Consequently, people may use this hack with friends that have large followings – to get their post liked by an influencer during the market test phase.

IG and Photo Analysis

There are comments online that IG uses AI-driven photo analysis and interprets photo content as part of the algorithm. It is well known that IG tends to feature attractive people living seemingly perfect and interesting lives (even if not true) – does IG give greater visibility to photos that their algorithms determine are attractive? (The possibilities for many facets of discrimination with this are mind boggling.)

Instagram does use photo analysis to attempt to detect online bullying.

Fiona Brown, well-being lead for communications at Instagram, said the new anti-bullying feature uses artificial intelligence to contextualize the image itself and flag it as harassment.

“It takes several signals into account from the photo itself and, if there’s a caption, from the caption, too.” Brown explained. “An example of a bullying tactic that the photo technology detects is comparing, ranking and rating images and captions, such as split-screen images where a person is compared to another person in a negative way.”

IG is using their database of billions of photos to train image analysis algorithms.

Consequently, it is a fact that IG uses machine analysis of photos.

Post visibility

If the initial market test results in interaction, your post will become visible to more people on IG. The higher the engagement rate, the higher the visibility.

Ghost Followers

Every account has spammers follow their account. These accounts add numbers but do not generate interaction. The problem is that ghost followers skew the market test phase of your post. Let’s say you have 500 followers but 250 of them are ghosts that never engage in your content. Right out the gate, your engagement rate is only half what it might be if you had real users, not bots and ghost accounts in your follower community. In other words -> low engagement due to fake account followers.

In a Kafka-trap way, IG holds it against you when people and bots over which you have no control, follow your account.

Hashtags

Hashtags are used to make your posts easily discoverable. BUT, if use the same hashtags on your posts or repeated posts, IG appears to consider the post as potential spam and down ranks the post. For example, I take photos of cosplayers at comic con events and then post them on IG with similar tags using the event name. A sequence of hundreds of posts with essentially the same hash tags and text descriptions has been interpreted by IG as “spam”.

There is evidence that IG (and Facebook) down rank posts that contain links to offsite information. For example, all of my posts linked to a Flickr album containing all of the photos. Instagram admits to performing machine analysis of the text descriptions.

My Own Account

Around April of 2019, I noticed my IG account began seeing fewer and fewer new followers, to the point that I effectively had net zero new followers in 4 months. Prior to this, I had new followers every day.

I noticed my photo Likes dropped roughly in half, suggesting my photos were receiving fewer views on IG.

I noticed Likes were coming from much the same subset of followers – these are probably the only followers that see my photos due to the algorithm limiting visibility.

I began searching for my photos using the hashtag search feature – and discovered that nearly all of my photos are not seen in search even though I had used those hashtag keywords.

In effect, the Instagram algorithm has made my account invisible and literally killed by Instagram account. I did nothing nefarious other than not know about the secret attributes required by the algorithm and then, play the game using common IG hacks.

Next Steps

Over the next 2-3 weeks, I will attempt to play by the IG algorithm rules and see if my account’s visibility rises. If it does not, then I will likely end my use of Instagram.

I am going to post images, each with as unique a description as I can muster.

I am going to comment on as many other people’s photos as I can, to possibly increase interaction.

I may post some questions on my posts to see if interaction rises (I doubt it).

I suspect the most likely outcome is that I largely end my use of Instagram as its behavior is secret and unpredictable and a poor tool for sharing my photos with the cosplay community.

Some helpful resources on the IG Algorithm:

 

 

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