This is not a new topic for me. Several months ago I wrote this article on how the popular page algorithm might work. That has been my most viewed and most commented on post to date. It just goes to show exactly how popular Instagram is today. Despite the recent news that the service is changing hands, I think it will continue to be a major player in social media.
Most people who joining the service naturally want to grow their audience and one of the fastest ways of doing that is making the Popular Page on Instagram. However, Instagram is very secretive with exactly how the popular page works. In Instagrams own words they us a “special formula”, in other words this is their Secret Sauce. You cannot really find a definitive answer to exactly how the formula works.
I have spent hours and hours doing analysis and coming up with my own theories. I do recommend that you read my previous article to get a foundation for what I’ll be talking about in this all new article. Before I get started I want to let you know this is not a post about what activities you can do to improve your changes of making the popular page. I have already written an article that will help with that and I have another one queued up to be published soon on that topic. What this article is about is the theory craft behind the Popular Page. If you can understand how it is that your photo makes the popular page then you can begin to plan a strategy that will help you get there more consistently. Let’s begin…
First off, Instagram is code. There are not hundreds of cheap labor human beings reviewing the thousands of images that get uploaded every minute and determining which ought to be published to the popular page and which ought not. No, the Instagram Popular Page is being determined by computers executing code. This means that it can be reverse engineered given enough information. It all comes down to the maths. I’m going to do my best to spare you the algebraic equations and talk in broader terms.
What we all, for the most part, already know is that your photo must receive a large number of likes within a small window of time. Since my last article, I have evidence to believe that the time window is now 10 – 20 minutes rather than the 40 minute window that was in place months ago. That’s something else we need to note (you are taking notes aren’t you?) the exact formula changes. Regularly. The magic formula is a constantly moving target. This makes it an even more difficult puzzle to solve.
Number of Likes received quickly is the primary factor.
So why do some people only need 50 likes in 20 minutes and others need 300 or more? The number of likes is a direct correlation to the number of followers you have. If you have few followers you need fewer likes. If you have a large number of followers, you need a large number of likes. So likes divided by followers would give you a percentage of likes to followers that you needed to achieve to make the Popular Page. It used to be roughly 10% but that has now changed. The number of followers you have is still a part of the equation but the specific percentage you need to achieve is too hard to pin down now – I believe the percentage is different based on the number of followers you have. But the formula is not so simple as IF Likes / Followers > 10% = Popular! If that were true then new folks who have only 50 followers would make the popular page as soon as they got 6 likes on every image. That is not happening. However, people who have 25,000 followers can get on the popular page with 500 likes which is a lot less than 10%. I think the specific percentage you need to achieve is relative to the number of followers you have, higher percentages are required for those who have few followers and lower percentages are required for those who have more followers.
Hashtags might not help like you think…
There is something else that we can say is almost certain to be true. Likes received from non-followers via the use of #hashtags do not have as much weight on the formula. Suppose James, who has 100 followers, posts a new sunset image and he uses the hashtag #sunset which has nearly 2 million images posted to it. Lets suppose James happens to get lucky and before his photo drops off the first page of other #sunset images he receives 40 likes all from non-followers who are viewing the pics in #sunset. Lets suppose also that James only got about 5 likes from his followers during the same period of time for a total of 45 likes in 20 minutes. That would normally pop James’ photo to the popular page but due to the fact that only 5 of his 100 followers liked his image, I don’t believe he’ll make the popular page. If all 45 likes came from his followers then there would be no question he’d make the popular page as he’s at 45% likes to followers.
Along the same lines as above, it may be that for every #hashtag you add to your photo Instagram increments the number of likes you have to receive. For instance, if the same James whom we spoke about in the previous example still has 100 followers and he posts a new image without using any hastags at all and receives 40 likes on that image in the first 10 minutes of his post, it is very likely he’ll make the popular page. Now suppose that James posts another image right after this and he adds 10 hashtags to his image. This time he gets a total of 60 likes but doesn’t make the popular page. What do you suppose changed? The use of hashtags! I can’t pretend to know the exact math on this, or even if this one has much validity, but from the experiences I’ve heard, and my own experiments, there seems to be something behind this theory. Imagine for just a moment that Instagram added, say 5 likes, to the total count required to reach the popular page for every hashtag you use. In James’ case, he’d have to get an additional 50 likes to make the popular page for a total of 90 likes in the first 10 – 20 minutes. Am I suggesting you stop using hashtags? Not at all. I’m suggesting that the overuse of hashtags is very likely hurting your chances of getting to the popular page. I think you ought to keep your hash-tagging to no more than 10, and that you should only ever use relevant hashtags. Go ahead and post to some of those community tags like #JJ and #all_shots but if you do, I highly recommend you support that by going out to those community hashtags and liking a bunch of photos. This will help support your own photo as you bring attention to your feed within that community hashtag.
Likes from popular users may really help.
Here’s another tasty bit of information to mull around in your head and make this even more complicated yet! What search engine has absolutely the most relevant searches above all other search engines? Google. Why? Because Google uses the best algorithms. If you want better search ranking on Google, one of the best ways to do it is to be linked to from other highly ranked pages. Why am I talking about Google search engine ranking? Because make it into the top 10 in search rank puts you on the first page of results on Google and that is not unlike getting to the Popular Page on Instagram. (I’m actually not sure which one is harder to accomplish to be honest!) Getting linked to by other “heavy hitters” is a proven strategy to surface good content. The Instagram team has some smart people on it, and I’m pretty sure they’ve heard of Google. This leads me to believe that there may very well be a large amount of weight assigned to receiving likes from people who have a large following. How would that work? If your image receives 100 likes all from people who have less than 100 followers that might not mean as much as receiving 100 likes all from people who have over 5000 followers.
You are competing against everyone for limited space.
When you post a new image you are jumping into the pool with everyone else who is also posting images at the same time. You are competing against those people for the limited number of spots on the Popular Page rotation. You may post an image and get on the popular page with only 75 likes and the very next day you post another image and don’t make it after receiving 125 likes in the same time frame. What gives? Well, on the second day you where competing against different people who were all getting likes at a different rate. In general this isn’t going to effect you that much because the sample size has grown so large that, for the most part, you are going to be competing for likes against the same general counts. These types of factors have a greater impact on smaller control groups, but with a pool of 30+ million users, they are going to have next to no impact; it may still make or break your photo getting to the Popular Page. This is exactly why I’ve always said to be aware of the time of day you are posting. Even worse, don’t spam your followers with a bunch of images all at once or you’ll be competing against yourself for a coveted Popular Page spot!
I have gotten many, many questions and comments about why and how people are experiencing wildly different counts on the number of likes it takes to make the Popular Page on Instagram. That can easily be answered by two of the the things we’ve already established: 1) The formula is constantly changing and 2) You are competing against a pool of other photos for limited spots on the popular page. I would also like to suggest one other wild and crazy theory and this is my last one, for now anyway… When I was in banking I was responsible for a 4 billion dollar credit portfolio. My specific job was to develop automated strategies for determining the absolute most profitable scenarios for handling delinquent and over the limit credit accounts. I created competing strategies, one was called the “Champion”, and the several others I would create where “Challengers” that would compete against the Champion. At the end of every month I would evaluate the performance of these different strategies. The one that produced the most revenue and reduced the most delinquent accounts would become the new Champion and I would then design a new Challenger strategy to compete with it. Since we know Instagram wants to eliminate certain types if images from the popular page (I don’t need to elaborate here, we ALL know what I’m talking about) and surface “the most recently interesting” images the only way they can consistently improve their formula for surfacing the right kind of images is to run competing strategies against each other and compare the results. What this means to you is that you might not be operating under the same formula as other people; you could be in one of many control groups in a champion or challenger scenario.
Lets simplify and summarize what we’ve discussed:
- You need a certain number of likes within a small window (likely 10 – 20 minutes)
- Hashtags may help a little but they don’t help a lot
- Likes from people who have large numbers of followers may have more impact than likes from those with small followings
- You are competing against a pool of other photos for a limited number of spots at that current point in time
- There may be control groups with competing formula which differs from one person to the next
I hope this new article on how to make the Popular Page on Instagram was helpful to you. You may also like the Instagram article I wrote: 8 Rules for Rapid Instagram Growth. I’m @appdaptation on Instagram. If you like what you’ve read on this blog, consider popping by and saying hello on Instagram!