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If I could scroll on Instagram as a full-time job, I would. It’s so easy to find anything and everything that interests me all in one place. I’m betting your small business’s customers feel the same.

However, in order to capture those potential audience members, you have to first show up! But how do you show up on Instagram? How does the Instagram feed work?

Instagram itself recently lent a hand with this by releasing insights and tips on how your business page can show up on all corners of the app. We’ll cover everything you need to know, like:

  • What is the Instagram feed—and where can your business show up?
  • How does the Instagram feed work?
  • How to get your Instagram posts to the top of the feed (and anywhere else customers might find you).

Without further ado, let’s jump in!

how instagram feed works - instagram article image

Image source


What is the Instagram feed?

The Instagram feed is the app’s home base where users go to see content from pages they follow. People can continuously scroll to see content from their friends, family, and organizations. This is often a  business’s go-to spot for starting fostering a social media presence.

How does the Instagram feed work?

Instagram recently released more information on how their feed works. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one-size-fits all algorithm that determines how posts are served to users. In fact, Instagram quotes in this recent release that it’s quite the opposite:

“We use a variety of algorithms, classifiers, and processes, each with its own purpose. We want to make the most of your time, and we believe that using technology to personalize your experience is the best way to do that.”

What this means is that each user’s feed ranks items differently depending on that person’s interactions, activity, and interests with the pages they follow. This varies by each section of the app as well, since Instagram goes on to say:

“Each part of the app–Feed, Explore, Reels–uses its own algorithm tailored to how people use it. People tend to look for their closest friends in Stories, but they want to discover something entirely new in Explore. We rank things differently in different parts of the app, based on how people use them.”

how instagream feed works - example of instagram feed

An example of the Instagram feed.


How Instagram ranks posts and pages across the app

Based on Instagram’s explanation, we found there are essentially four factors that carry different weights depending on which section of the app you’re in. Here’s a breakdown:

Instagram feed and story ranking factors (in order)

Surprisingly, your customers’ previous activity with you doesn’t matter as much as your own content does when it comes to showing up in the Instagram feed. See below:

1. Information about the post: This includes signals like your post’s number of likes, the post date, what locations (if any) are tagged, and any other basic information.

Related: Learn how to add a location on Instagram.

2. Information about the person who posted: This is Instagram’s determination of your page’s overall credibility. The platform is evaluating how likely your audience members will find your post to be interesting. It gauges this by looking at how often people interacted with you recently.

3. Viewer’s activity: Thirdly, Instagram looks at what your viewer might be interested in based on the types of posts they’ve liked in the past.

4. Viewer’s history of interacting with someone: Finally, Instagram determines how interested your viewer might be in seeing your post based on their previous activity with you. This means it will be harder for you to show up in followers’ feeds if they have never liked, commented, or otherwise engaged with your past Instagram content.

how instagram feed works - instagram feed image

Instagram explore page ranking factors (in order)

When it comes time to show to a wider audience, the explore page is where you’ll want to appear. This is where people go to find new content from those they don’t necessarily already follow.

You’ll find that your page’s past history isn’t quite as important. Meanwhile, your post’s basic information still reigns supreme. You’ll also notice the signal definitions are slightly different here:

1. Information about the post: Instagram points out in their recent article that popularity matters much more in explore than on the regular feed. If people are generally liking, commenting, sharing, or saving your posts, you’ll be more likely to show up there. This matters regardless of who’s following who, or the post’s date.

2. Viewer’s history of interacting with the person who posted: Instagram acknowledges that the point of the explore page is to show to folks who most likely never heard of you. However, if they have, in fact, visited your page or liked a post of yours in the past, you’ll still be more likely to show up to them in explore.

3. Viewer’s activity: Not only does this look at your viewer’s past activity, but also how they’ve interacted on the explore page in the past.

4. Information about the person who posted: In this case, Instagram is looking to provide explore content from a wide variety of relevant accounts. While it’s looking at page account information, it’s also looking to see how many people have been interacting with your page historically.

how instagram feed works - instagram explore page example

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Instagram reels ranking factors (in order)

You’ll see below that “information about the person who posted” is not factored in here, but the quality of your Instagram reel matters a bit more. Let’s take a deeper dive:

1. Viewer’s activity: Similar to the definitions above, this looks at your audience’s comments, likes, and engagements.

2. Viewer’s history of interacting with the person who posted. Like in explore, it’s likely the video is showing to someone who may not know about your business, but if they have interacted with you in the past, that helps you show up for them again.

3. Information about the reel: These are signals about the content within your video such as audio, technical specs like pixels and whole frames, as well as popularity.

4. Information about the person who posted: Again, Instagram does take popularity of the overall account into consideration here.

how the instagram feed works - instagram reels example


Tips to get your business to the top of the Instagram feed

Let’s put those signals into practice and see how you can apply these new Instagram ranking insights to your business’s social media marketing strategy.

Be consistent in your activity

As we can see from above, both your page’s activity and your viewer’s activity matters in some capacity across Instagram. When you post regularly, you heighten your chances of showing up on Instagram from driving more engagement. Additionally, you also become more credible by having recent, consistent activity.

Your best bet is to create a social media schedule and stick to it. Try carving out specific times to post. If this seems too time-consuming on top of running a business, use an online social media tool like Sendible or Hootsuite to “set and forget” your posts.

how instagram feed works - scheduling instagram posts

Interact with your followers

You’ll also want to set times to like, comment, and interact with your followers. Follow them back and engage with what they post. And remember to always respond to their comments on your posts. You can also tag customers in posts, captions, or comments. The more recent, historical interactions people have with you, the better!

Connect with people through “close friends”

If you want to take your connection with your audience a step further, “close friends” is a great option. Close friends lists are lists any Instagram user can create to only share stories to those people. In Instagram’s article, they mention this as an option to help users focus in on what they want to see.

If you incorporate “close friends” into your Instagram stories strategy, you’ll give your audience a sense of “exclusivity.” It has even been found that social accounts, Instagram included, can see up to a  10% growth rate once they go for private or exclusive strategies like “close friends.”

how the instagram feed works - instagram close friends

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Be sure each post provides value

Instagram is still going to look at the quality of your individual posts. Be sure there’s accurate, appropriate, and relevant information within each of your posts.

If you feel like this is a struggle, think of it as you would with general marketing goals. Try assigning a “goal” or “point” behind each post. Think about what your audience might want to learn more about. Sidenote: it also never hurts to give your post an extra proof-read for copy accuracy and adequacy.


Tips to show on the Instagram explore page

Stories and posts are ranked in a similar fashion since they both are part of the main feed. However, the explore page is a whole other section of the app that can be just as rewarding for your business. Here are few more tips on how to show up there, too:

Follow social trends

Instagram looks at the quality of your posts, videos, or reels when judging their eligibility for the explore page. One tactic to be a top pick is to follow trends. Recycle popular audio clips, run contests, or post on hot industry topics that will help boost engagement and attract new viewers.

Remember, you want to use your presence on the explore page to build up new audiences. Since they’re not familiar with you (yet), use post content that they already know and will take to.

Post engaging, media-rich content

It’s no secret that Instagram has expanded its capabilities well beyond standard photo posts at this point. To keep up with that trend, try incorporating videos or reels into your Instagram strategy on top of your set photo posts.

50% of consumers prefer videos to go along with content they engage with. After all, a high engagement rate makes all the difference when it comes to ranking on the explore page! To assist in video creation, you can go the free route simply by using your phone. Or, try an online tool, like Wochit.

how the instagram feed works - instagram small business content example


Tips to show up in Instagram search results

In addition to their release of ranking factors, Instagram added another article to their behind-the-scenes series to provide more clarification on showing up in the search portion of the app.

Showing up on Instagram search is mostly dependent on the searcher’s activity and query, but here are a few things you can do to help your business pop up:

Use keywords on your profile

Since Instagram bases search results off of what the user is looking for, you can treat Instagram search similar to SEO.

You’ll want to include keywords in your bio, hashtags, and post captions so that Instagram has all the information it needs to know you’re a match to your ideal searcher.

Include hashtags in your posts

Speaking of hashtags, they’re are the best way to capture more views on Instagram search because there’s a whole separate “search by hashtag” section! This is key to finding new followers and audience members because people search for hashtags when they want to see fresh content or are unsure which type of account to look for.

Increase your chances of showing up in the hashtag portion of search but using popular hashtags and keeping your use of them consistent. Plus, people can even follow their hashtag searches to see more of your content.

how the instagram feed works - instagam hashtag search example

Evaluate your profile information

Another way to make your profile quick to find on search is make sure your handle is something that will easily grab searches. If you use an obscure name, people won’t know how to look you up. You’ll also want to make sure your bio is clear in what your business is about, so that Instagram’s algorithm can further understand how you’re the right fit for the search.

how the instagram feed works - small business instagram example


How showing up on the Instagram feed can help your business

Understanding how the Instagram feed works is the first step towards turning the platform into a social media win for your business.

When you appear in the Instagram feed, explore page, or search results, you’re reaching your followers and your potential followers—all for free! This allows you to cast a huge net and broaden your audience at no cost. With about 1 billion active users on Instagram today, there’s tons of Instagram growth potential you can tap into once your business starts showing up more!

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