How does a social media algorithm work?
Are you wondering just how the hell a social media algorithm works? Are you confused with the sheer amount of 'opinions' of 'experts' out there? Perhaps you're wondering how you grow your audience and post engagement on your chosen social media platform?
I don't blame you.
I've had my finger on the pulse of all things Internet for over 30 years. I was involved with Beta testing many Microsoft products from Windows 95 and NT4.0 and even a couple of the large social media platforms around today.
It was literally my job to be up to date with all things Internet, Saas and Cloud related.
And if I were to tell you that I could tell you exactly how any social media algorithm works, I'd frankly be lying to you. And any 'expert' who proclaims they know how it's working, is lying to you. Perhaps if they were a whistleblower employed by the social media platform it is very unlikely no one can with certainty say they know how the algorithm works. When you work in these development teams in software companies you are generally employed under strict NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) preventing an employee from 'leaking' information about the code/functionality.
What I can give you is a high-level overview of how the majority of algorithms across all the big platforms function when you engage with the platform and how you can increase your 'favour' with the algorithm.
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What is a social media algorithm?
An algorithm is basically a part of the 'code' that a social media platform runs on. Its purpose is to automate how posts are distributed on the platform, detect activity that goes against the community guidelines of the social media platform and inflict penalties for those who break the 'rules'.
For example, on Instagram, if you follow or unfollow too many people in a short period of time (150-200 in a 24 hour period) it is the algorithm that will place a restriction on your account and you will find that you cannot follow any new accounts for a period of time. If, once you are allowed to follow again, you continually attempt to connect to too many people, you could find that your account becomes permanently blocked.
Think of an algorithm as artificial intelligence (because that is pretty much what it is) that is programmed to enforce the terms and conditions and community guidelines of the platform you are using.
Why the need for automation? Well think about it, Facebook has over 2.5 billion monthly users. Instagram has 1 billion, LinkedIn 600,000+. It would be impossible for these platforms to have teams of people in place to manually moderate the platforms. There are obviously some teams of people who will deal with reported content where the algorithm has not automatically flagged or taken action against it. For example, if you report a post because it's inciting hate speech or something else that is upsetting for you. And teams of staff that will deal with appeals and issues (but good luck to you in getting support from the larger networks!)
Social media platforms want you on the platform as much as possible
The first thing to understand is that every social media platform wants you to be on its platform for as long as possible. More and more platforms are actually limiting the reach of your posts if you post external links. On LinkedIn for example, if you post an external link in the main post your post is shown to very few people. So to get around this, people will post the link in the first comment of the post. Instagram has started to restrict the reach of videos posted that have the TikTok logo on them. It's logical, isn't it? By posting a video on Instagram with the TikTok logo, you're basically advertising TikTok. And why would Instagram want to support free advertising for a competitor platform? LinkedIn and Instagram do this because they don't want you sending people away from the platform.
Social media platforms are businesses
I know, it's a bit of a 'derr' statement but bear with me. Whilst you are able to use the platforms for free, very few people understand the scale of the hardware that is involved to keep these large platforms up and running the majority of the time. Facebook for example has over 2.5 billion monthly uses! If 2.5 billion people tried to access your website in a month, the chances are your web host wouldn't be able to deal with the load on the servers.
So to pay for these 'server farms' (literally warehouses filled with server PCs) these social media platforms have to make money.
And they do this through advertising.
So what has keeping you on the platform got to do with advertising?
Well, think about it. The longer you're on the platform, the more adverts can be shown to you! The more ads that are shown to you, the more the social media platform earns. You see, on Instagram and Facebook, for example, the advertiser gets charged EVERY time their advert is shown to a user. Even if that user doesn't interact with the ad, the advertiser still pays for the 'impression'.
Therefore, the longer you're on the platform, the more money they make!
So the first step in increasing YOUR reach is to be an active user of the platform. If you only ever come onto a platform every few days and make a post and disappear again, you're not going to be favoured as much as someone who spends an hour on the platform per day, engages with other people and gets shown adverts.
Timing on social media is essential
The first 20-30 minutes after you make a post will determine its overall success.
When you post, your post is NEVER shown to all of your followers/connections. Not even 50% of them. In fact, depending on the platform, your content is initially shown to 1-2% of your active and engaged followers. The crucial part here is 'active and engaged'. Ie, if you have joined several follow loops and have hundreds of ghost followers who never engage with your content, you could be doing yourself in and here is why.
When the platform releases your post to that initial small selection of your followers, the success of your post is in their hands. If several of this initial audience engages with the content in the first 20-30 minutes (depending on platform) then the algorithm will assume that your post provides value to your audience and will then increase the audience that it shows the post to. And the process is repeated.
This is why providing value is so important if you want to get the best possible reach with your content. Think about it, how many viral 'sales posts' have you seen? Generally, things that go viral provide education, humour or entertainment. Across all the social media platforms that I use, my sales-related posts always get the least amount of engagement compared to my average post engagement rate. But we are all business owners, we have to remind our audiences about what we do from time to time. However, just be aware of the importance of engagement in the first 20-30 minutes of your post.
With this in mind, be sure that you are posting at the times where your audience is most likely to be online. Check out my reel on Instagram to see how you can find the ideal times to post based on YOUR audience there.
Mix up your social media post types
Historically, when a social media platform releases a new function, for a period of time, using that new feature will have a much higher reach than other post formats.
For example, on Instagram at the moment (April 2020) Reels is where it's at. People who regularly post Reels are seeing a massive increase in both reach and followers! Only a few months ago, this was the case for Stories.
Keeping up with the new features is important but it's important to vary your post types. If you only ever post reels, especially if you do so multiple times a day every day, you will note your reach for each video will start to drop. So post to reels maximum once every 24 hours. Ideally 2 - 3 times a week.
So if you use Instagram, mix up your grid (default posts) posts with Story posts, IGTV posts and Reels. Also, mix up your grid posts with video posts and not just image posts. And go Live.
If you use LinkedIn create text posts, image and text posts, video posts, Stories and articles (LinkedIn's version of a blog post) and go Live.
On Pinterest create single-image posts, carousel posts and Story posts (if you have access to them)
I think you get the message right? Mix it up!
Engagement is queen (because content is king)
Interacting with others in a meaningful way is also a positive in the eyes of the algorithm. Because why? Well, firstly, you're being social, duh, and secondly, you're spending time on the platform! Ie, you're earning the platform money because you're seeing ads.
Engaging on content also puts your brand in front of the eyes of others.
On the majority of platforms, I am on, I get more connection requests through commenting on other peoples content than I do from my own posts! But don't be spammy! Make meaningful and sincere comments.
Here's a secret about social media psychology. People like to follow people who engage with content! For why? Because they hope that you will also engage on theirs!
So whilst spending time engaging may seem a tedious task, it is definitely one worth putting time into if you want to grow your brand awareness and audience in an authentic way.
Follow the community guidelines
So I've discussed ways in which you can increase your presence and reach on platforms, now let's explore how you can damage your reach and get throttled or worse, blocked.
Basically, doing anything that goes against the platform's terms and conditions or community guidelines will get you into trouble.
Some are obvious, like trying to sell illegal items. Some are less obvious, like using banned hashtags (I'll add a post with known banned hashtags soon, and also how you can check any that you use in your hashtags easily to verify if they are okay to use).
Most platforms will have their terms and conditions, and in those, or perhaps on a separate page, their community guidelines. Some of the typical guidelines include
No hate speech or inciting violence
Glorifying self-inflicted injury
Blatant disrespect to other members
Breach of the above is likely to get your account permanently blocked.
Other activities that can alert the algorithm to your account are:
Sending frequent and mass sales/commercial direct messages, especially when you are not connected to those accounts you are messaging. It's likely if you check your message requests of most platforms you will find messages there from accounts that no longer exist. I certainly have several on both Facebook and Instagram. Not so much on LinkedIn and none thus far on Pinterest.
Participating in follow loops. Folks, please try to appreciate the damage being involved in follow loops and pods is causing to your brand. All platforms are against these types of activities, because why? Because they want you to spend time on the platform. They want you to 'earn your stripes' as it were and put in the time (so they can earn money from you remember?) to build your audience authentically. Follow loops and pods are basically against the community guidelines of most larger social networks. And maybe more important, what you are showing your audience is that you're okay with taking the 'shortcuts'. When a client is looking to spend money with someone, especially someone who provides a service, like social media management, or website design, or virtual assistant services or copywriting, for example, they are not likely to be jumping up and down to spend their money on someone willing to be 'half-arsed'. Because the assumption is you will do a half-arse job for them. Most people are aware of follow loops and pods these days and in the vast majority they are frowned upon and ridiculed. I will write a post going into more about follow loops and pods and why you should avoid them if you are serious about your business/brand and want others to take you seriously also.
Mass commenting the same comment. You've surely seen those 'promote it on X' comments that you will get on your posts from time to time? Especially so on Instagram? If you take a look at these accounts they are all fake accounts, most will have 0 posts and will not be around on the platform very long due to the algorithms detecting their spam behaviour and blocking the account. So refrain from such mass commenting and target your ideal clients with authentic comments based on their post.
Using banned or spammy hashtags. There are many banned hashtags on Instagram (I will create a blog post soon listing those I'm aware of) and also those that are considered to be 'spammy' for example #followme, #follow4follow etc. If you use a banned hashtag in your hashtag set, your post will not be displayed to anyone and the only way it will be seen is if someone goes to your profile. You can check if a hashtag is banned by searching for it on Instagram. If there are no search results for the hashtag then it's safe to assume it's been banned. If you regularly use spammy hashtags, like the follow hashtags, then you also stand the risk of your reach being throttled so if you HAVE to use them, use them sparingly.
Buying followers. You have to understand that the algorithm is absolutely going to notice when an account suddenly acquires 1000 (or more) new followers in a short period of time. DO NOT BUY buyers if you are serious about your account and business and don't want to end up having your account blocked!
Using 3rd party Instagram statistical tools. There are many 3rd party apps out there that will provide information on your followers and unfollowers, who is engaging on your content and who isn't. Sounds like pretty useful tools don't they? The only issue is, for these apps to work, you have to provide your login credentials. These 3rd party apps are usually designed by freelancers or small, often unheard of businesses. Yet people are happy to provide their login details to these 'unknown organisations'. It's no wonder then that the large platforms are clamping down on accounts that share their login details with these 3rd party tools. Trust me on this one folks! I created a test account on Instagram to put this to the test. I used one of these Instagram insight apps and within 4 days, the test account was permanently blocked. Stay away!
Using the same hashtag set over and over. If you post the exact same hashtags every time you post on social media, especially so Instagram, you stand the real risk of your account being restricted. Restrictions are typically minimising the number of people who will get to see your posts. So always have at least 3 or 4 different hashtag sets and use hashtags that are also specific to your post.
Whilst I (and anyone else) cannot absolutely tell you the exact way that algorithms work, I hope that the above known things about them will provide some insight into what you should and should not do on social media.
The first 20-30 minutes after you make a post are most important to the overall success (or failure) of your post.
Post when YOUR audience is most active.
Mix up your post types. Image posts, video posts, text-only posts (on those platforms that support text only), Story posts, IGTV posts (Instagram), Reel posts (Instagram) etc.
Engage with other posts in a genuine and meaningful way.
Spend time on your selected social media platforms daily.
Don't break community guidelines for your chose social media platforms.
Avoid follow loops, pods and spammy hashtags.
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