How Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Snapchat use algorithms and what this means for those looking to achieve results in social media marketing.

*This post is correct at time of publishing and will be updated as new changes emerge.

Social media marketer, a job that didn’t exist 20 years ago, is now a highly coveted career choice according to LinkedIn, where social media positions have increased by 1357% since 2010. Yet contrary to popular belief, it’s not a job that’s as simple as sitting on social media all day, especially if you want to see serious results. Mainly due to the rise of the algorithm.

Social Media Algorithms Guide

What is a social media algorithm?

An algorithm on social media is a set of rules that are used to determine what shows when within a user’s social media timeline. In the early days of social media, the timeline or feed was largely chronological. The tweets or posts were shown in reverse order, the most recent at the front. Algorithms take many more factors into consideration than just time; from both user behaviour and how a user might interact with a specific status, through to how other users have reacted to this status and what is trending at that particular moment in time.

Why were social media algorithms developed?

When there were no social media algorithms social media was a level playing field. The only thing that really mattered while posting was the time that you posted. Providing you had posted an update close to when a user was online, it would be seen. As a user, you could scroll through Instagram at multiple points throughout the day and consume all of the updates shown, in reverse order, eventually getting to the “end” of the feed.

Social media algorithms were developed by channels as a way of controlling what is shown and when. There are a few different reasons for this, one of which is to improve the user’s experience (which may include not being exposed to as many brand ads or seeing more statuses from friends and family). Another is to encourage brands to buy ads. If brand posts are no longer prioritized in feed, the brand may then buy adverts to increase exposure, which helps the social media channel to create revenue.

How do social media algorithms determine what is shown?

Social media algorithms differ by channel (which we’ll discuss below) and are adapting all of the time. However, the basic premise can be thought of like a voting system. To take a tweet as an example, the voting credentials may be: number of likes, number of favourites and number of retweets. Depending on how many the tweet gets of each, it can accrue a point. Then there are points for how that tweet relates to that user. So if the person who tweeted is someone the user interacts with often, the tweet will get another point. If they’re related, it gets another point. If it’s a person with a lot of followers, it may get a point for that.

The result being, that no two users’ social media feeds should ever be the same, so personalised are they by algorithm to determine what each user supposedly wants to see most.

Here’s how each algorithm currently works across each social media channel:


Instagram's algorithm

History of Instagram’s algorithm:

Before the controversial algorithm change, Instagram users would view posts in reverse order of the time posted, meaning that upon opening the app, the first image you would see would be the one that was posted most recently by the people you follow. By continuing to scroll down, previous posts would be displayed as posted 10 minutes ago, 7 hours ago, yesterday and so on.

How Instagram’s algorithm currently works:

In March 2016, Instagram announced their new algorithm in order to show their 600 million monthly active users the posts that they are more likely to care about higher up in their feed. It came about as Instagram users missed around 70% of their feed, and as the social media platform is expanding, Instagram believed that this algorithm would improve user experience. The order of the feed is now based on how interested you are supposed to be in the content of the post, the relationship you have with the person posting and the time of the post. Instagram, a channel used by many bloggers as a key source of income, has experienced a backlash from some of its community for introducing the algorithm. There have also been further changes and experiments including people claiming that Instagram was “shadowbanning” their account for no reason (i.e. hiding their posts from any new potential followers by not displaying it in search or recent posts). Instagram later acknowledged that this had been a mistake and revoked the changes that caused it. The algorithm is likely to go under further changes as time goes on and it learns more.


Twitter's algorithm

History of Twitter’s algorithm:

Twitter’s previous algorithm was in reverse chronological order, meaning you would see every tweet from every account you followed, with the most recent tweet being at the top. However upon opening the app, you would be taken to the oldest unseen tweet, and by scrolling up you would view tweets oldest to newest.

How Twitter’s algorithm currently works:

The new algorithm went live in February 2016 and much like Instagram, has been controversial amongst their 328 million monthly active users. The tweets you most likely want to see show up first in your timeline. These tweets are chosen on the criteria that you interact with these accounts quite often and you engage with the tweets that these users share. This is now a default setting, however Twitter provide their users with the option to turn-off these settings and return to the original algorithm. Something Instagram should consider perhaps?


Facebook algorithm

History of Facebook’s algorithm:

To begin with, Facebook’s News Feed was in reverse chronological order. In 2009, the algorithm was changed to prioritise popular posts. It’s notable that Facebook was perhaps the first social media channel to instigate such an algorithm, with the majority of other channels following. The new algorithm meant that in order for the post to be seen more highly in a user’s News Feed, it had be deemed as engaging for the user.

How Facebook’s algorithm currently works:

Facebook’s algorithm was again changed in August 2013 in order to “deliver the right content to the right people at the right time so they don’t miss the stories that are important to them” for their 1,968 million monthly active users. The overall aim of the new algorithm was for posts that people most likely wanted to see, to be in the order they want to read them in. The algorithm responds to your activity and generates your News Feed into an order by the following criteria:

  • How frequently you interact with the friend, page, or public figure.
  • The amount of activity the post generates (such as number of likes, shares and comments from your friends in particular).
  • The number of times you have interacted with this type of post previously.
  • The type of post (i.e. video, image, status, text, link) – video posts are said to still rank more highly than other types of statuses.


How Snapchat's algorithm works

History of Snapchat’s algorithm:

Currently, Snapchat displays a list of stories from people you follow in reverse chronological order, for their 158 million daily active users. The users that post the most rule the top slot, in a similar format to how the prioritisation of other channels worked pre-algorithm. This ranking order makes it easier to see what friends are doing at the current time.

How Snapchat’s algorithm currently works:

Snapchat is currently developing a new algorithm. There has been no information of when the changes are set to be implemented, however, this algorithm is set to affect professional accounts. Snapchat is a great free platform for brands to communicate with a younger audience (71% of Snapchat’s 300 million monthly active users are under the age of 34) and this new algorithm is set to do just that. The list of stories could potentially change so that brands can pay to have their stories at the top of the list, where the user is most likely to click first, to watch the stories unfold in chronological order. To date, there is no notice of an algorithm that would affect other snappers’ visibility.


How Pinterest's algorithm works

History of Pinterest’s algorithm:

Pinterest is a visual social media platform, where users go to seek inspiration, as well as linking blogs and websites for other users. Previously, Pinterest’s home board displayed posts (called pins) in real time and ordered chronologically, meaning the newest posts were seen first by their 150 million monthly active users.

How Pinterest’s algorithm currently works:

In February 2016, Pinterest introduced their new algorithm, Smart Feed, which determines what users see on their home feed. The algorithm is designed to show you a range of content that you care to see, and the content that will have users coming back for more. Rather than pins being ordered as newest first, Smart Feed enables users to see “best post first”. There are various different areas that the content is drawn from:

  • Repins from users you follow
  • Related pins
  • Pins based on your interests

The social media algorithm is changing and adapting at a fast pace. Only recently Twitter was said to be bringing in AI in order to learn what users really want to see and what will keep them on the channel. While user experience is set to improve, brands and bloggers may find themselves in a pay to play environment more than ever moving forward.

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