Three Reasons Why Instagram's Algorithm is Garbage

Three Reasons Why Instagram's Algorithm is Garbage

The year is 2017 and at this point, it's fair to say that most people are on Instagram. Now I don't think that you have to be and I don't believe that an Instagram presence is a requirement for your success. If you've chosen to forgo this particular media app you're not necessarily missing out. IG is a tool at your disposal and as time goes on, that tool becomes increasingly useless. Here are three reasons why Instagram's algorithm is garbage and may not be worth your time anyways.

1. The Feed Constantly Shows You the Same Images That You've Already Seen and Already Liked

Have you guys noticed this one before? It seems to be a more and more frequent issue these days. The algorithm is repeating the same images in the custom feed over and over. Images that I've already seen, many of which I've already liked. It appears to be opting to show the same content that has already been viewed over fresh content even when something new is available. It's frustrating to open the app only to scroll through images that it showed me the night before and that I already liked. From your potential viewers perspective, imagine that you've just posted a new image, one that you're super proud of and really hope it gets some attention, and the code decides that your followers should see the posts they already saw the day before over your new post.

2. There Are No “Up and Comers” or “Real People” Anymore

The algorithm does a great job at making it seem like there are no real people on Instagram. In theory, everyone's search feed (the screen that it fills with content that it thinks you want to see) should look different based on what content you like and respond to. This means that the experience may vary greatly from person to person. My search feed is full of portrait photography, modeling and retouching work, landscapes, and the occasional cute animal image (who doesn't like a kitten or puppy). The problem is that the overwhelming majority of the images it's displaying are from sources with tens or hundreds of thousands of followers. Of those, it's not clear who is paying for their engagement and placement (a topic for another time). Where are the everyday people posting content? They still exist, right? They have been buried by posts that feel sponsored regardless of whether they actually are or aren't. How is a new artist supposed to be discovered on Instagram when every inch of the screen is already spoken for with influencer content?

To test this, I ran a quick, simple, and admittedly not scientific (so don't freak out too much) experiment testing the average follower count for search feed posts that the code chooses to display for me. I'm talking about the search feed, not the feed of content from people I already follow. I cleared the app cache, refreshed the search screen with a new wave of content, flicked the screen for a quick scroll, and then tapped a random image without looking at what it was ten times. These are the follower count numbers for those ten random posts -

75k
180k
228k
47k
745k
312k
477k
10k
141k
8k

Of those ten random accounts from my search feed, six of them were “feature accounts” or pages that post other peoples work and not an account of a real person posting unique content. The average follower count for those ten pages is 220,300. Only ten posts is a very small sample size but still illustrates the point. My question is where da real people at?

3. Engagement Is in Complete Flux All the Time

This is one I'm guessing everyone has experienced all too often. Engagement seems to be completely unreliable regardless of a person's posting habits. One day a given post might do moderately well or at least meet whatever your expectations are, and the next day a similar post will do wildly better or worse for what seems like no reason at all. Engagement is either up or down all the time, never steady. You can read all the “how-to-Instagram” articles that you want, but if the algorithm is making the final decision about your content, your efforts may be wasted. It's difficult to formulate a plan or identify problems when the numbers are all over the place. Is it possible that because of reasons number one and two the algorithm can't seem to deliver reliability? 

These are just three reasons why Instagram's algorithm is garbage. Have you experienced any or all of these problems yourself? I know it seems like I'm giving IG a hard time and I definitely am. That's because I like Instagram. It's the only social media app that I enjoy and though I know that it's going the way of Facebook and its implosion is inevitable, I still want to enjoy it while I can. There are tons of great artists out there posting amazing and inspiring content. Some with only one hundred followers others with hundreds of thousands. Genuine art and creativity are out there. The problem is that an algorithm has been deciding who gets to see what for a while now. Lines of code are deciding what you want to see for you before you see it. What do you guys think? Do you think that there is any hope left for Instagram (especially anyone new to the platform) or do you think that it's too far gone? Too big-business at this point? Leave a comment with your own Instagram experience. 

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67 Comments

Instagram is garbage. When it was bought by facebook my first thought was "here's another cow to milk". Barely i open my profile, its like automatic, weird pages following me, likes from Mars on posts as old as Stonhenge.
I can't cope with it, so i've decided to use my profile on a closed manner, just for people i know, pretty much like facebook.

Evan Kane's picture

I've said this before and I'll say it again, I believe that there is room for a genuine new competitor to take on the Facebook / Instagram engine. If not right now, sooner than people might think. Most people from what I've read, heard, and seen seem to be extremely unhappy with the social media giants "in-your-face" advertising style and pay-to-win model.

Who knows, something less corporate might be just around the corner.

Simon Patterson's picture

The problem is that if anyone looks like becoming a real competitor, then FB simply buys it or copies it. Either way, FB kills it.

Evan Kane's picture

Very true. . .and that's one of the biggest issues with very few (one in this case) companies effectively monopolizing the market.

david kidd's picture

I closed my fb account many years ago...

Cathleen Shea's picture

Yep. If the cycle holds. We've been through AOL, My Space, Facebook, Twitter now... a butt load of copycat photo-sharing sites (even got a PM from some dingdong on Fstoppers to join a different site)... a new contender will be along soon.

Kyle Medina's picture

In your face advertising isn't even noticeable. The curated feed is what's terrible.

Evan Kane's picture

Very true, I suppose the genuine sponsored posts (the ones that people are actually paying IG directly for) do kind of take a backseat to the algorithm-meets-influencer feed

Kyle Medina's picture

There has been plenty of times where I've seen a post liked and than later realized it was a sponsored post. meh whatever lol.

Actually there was a somewhat new social network made for creatives. I guess that there was even an article stating it here on FStoppers.com.
Oh yeah while writing this, i've searched for it, it's Ello. The thing is, it's made for creatives and i guess we won't see much people (non creative/clients) there, besides big brands looking for talent.

Iain Lea's picture

All valid points. IG is going the way of FB... they are pushing unwished and mostly useless ads and profiles at their users and all the while engagement with real users when measured via likes/comments/reposts is sinking. We keep growth stats and our feed grew leaps and bounds until around Dec. 2016 at which time IG's announcement from approx. Apr. 2016 concerning Algorithm optimizations (great marketing speak...) seemed to take effect in our geo. Since that time growth has slowed considerably.

We have developed an automated posting system for FB/IG/Twitter/Tumblr which takes care of image selection, tagging, hashtags, links so at least we only have to actively interact with DM/PM/comments.

Paying on a per image basis for a push is just not viable for us... if IG offered a flatrate ie. $49/year with neutral algorithm I would go for that but otherwise am waiting for the next big platform that is not a FB company to come along.

Evan Kane's picture

One real problem that continues to get wildly out of control is influencer based content. Large accounts that act basically like a bot posting on behalf of other companies looking to push products. They are very clearly advertising via IG but are not clearly labeled as such.

Those type of post flood the feed whether they are paid advertising or are trying to slip under the radar. In my opinion it's probably the number one most pressing issue Instagram needs to address. Influencer (god I hate that term!) content needs to be 100% clearly marked as advertising instead of the odd pseudo-ads they are currently operating as.

Call me old fashioned haha, but the idea of an algorithm telling me what it decides I want to see instead of me deciding what I want to see is horribly off putting.

Cathleen Shea's picture

Sounds like extortion.

Donna Macauley's picture

Can I like this article multiple times? Another pet peeve is that genuine engagement is minimal. I'm getting an awful lot of automated follows/unfollows and pat comments that are also probably from an automated system.

When I try to search for accounts to follow, I run into a lot of what you mention, feature accounts. I want to follow the actual artists, not some feature account getting "engagement" from other people's hard work.

Evan Kane's picture

Bots and feature accounts have been and will continue to be a real problem for users. It would be really interesting to have access to the official numbers of genuine accounts versus feature accounts and inactive accounts.

The easiest solution that comes to mind is requiring accounts to be verified via a more scrutinous method. Eliminating bots, while I concede is extremely difficult, should be priority number one in my opinion.

Cathleen Shea's picture

Kind of sounds like our most recent presidential election, eh?

I have to agree with your assessment. IG is starting to feel more like a marketplace than a community. The feature groups dominate my feed. It's very difficult to 'discover' interesting work unless you are delving deep along a click path. I dig the technology (IG stories are one of my favorite things), but the "algorithm" (Sounds like a villainous entity) is ruining the experience. I only go there for the few people I have connected with and to have a place to share my content.

Evan Kane's picture

I agree with your marketplace vs community assessment George. While I don't oppose the idea of feature accounts (they have the potential to act as a community hub for various genres and content) the problem is when the algorithm shifts to show only feature accounts.

It makes the user experience feel mechanical and really does work to eliminate any real sense of connection with other people if the only content people are being show is re-post accounts.

I accepted an invitation to be on Instagram's suggested user list twice. In hindsight, this is the worst decision I've ever made for my Instagram account. My followers skyrocketed and my engagement plummetted. I once had over 120,000 followers and was only getting 500 likes per photo. Turns out, most of these new followers are users that would sign up for the app, follow all of the suggested users, and never use the app again - essentially, fake users.

I've worked hard to block a lot of these users and am now down to 65K followers, but still my engagement is awful. It's embarrassing trying to explain this engagement rate to brands and companies who wish to work with me. I wish there were a way to use some sort of criteria and delete followers who have been inactive for X number of years and reside in X geographic location.

It would seem to me that being chosen for the suggested user list should be something that would be an honor and get your work in front of many people who are real and not destroy your account, but that has not been the case.

Evan Kane's picture

Whoa, that's really interesting to hear Casey, though unfortunately it doesn't surprise me. Bots are a real problem that can't be denied.

Some possible solutions (some less feasible than others) -

1. Periodically wipe all accounts that have been inactive for however many months or years. For example, all accounts that have not actively engaged in the last year get deactivated.

2. Require more rigorous verification system for creating a new accounts such as somehow tying it to a real person instead of an email address. Bot systems are too easily able to generate emails or phone numbers to create infinite new accounts.

3. Significantly increase crackdown and identify accounts that purchase followers and engagement in an attempt to drive people away from false numbers and back to active users.

The sad truth is that anything that we might come up with as a potential solution would likely result in hurting Instagram's $$$. This of course means that no solution that affects their bottom line would be taken seriously regardless of whether or not it's in the best interest of the platform.

Wayne Denny's picture

There's a solution to this. There's an app called Cleaner for iPhone (not the iPad version - install the iPhone version on your iPad if you have to). It's around $2-3. I had around 1800 followers, but my engagement sucked. I told the app to look at people who haven't used IG in 60 days (options are for 30, 60, & 90 days). I dropped down to around 800 followers, and my likes never changed.

What the app does is blocks & then unblocks your followers. So they're no longer following you, but if they decide to start using the app again, they can find you and do so. Works pretty well especially if you're deleting people that you know IRL, but don't want them to see that you've blocked them.

Unfortunately, that app is nearly impossible to use with anything over 15K or so users. You have to load the users 200 at a time before taking any action on them. I spent 15 hours one day to load them all, began to perform an action and the app crashed. Gave up after.

What’s exact name of the app?

Wayne Denny's picture

This is what I used. Granted, reviews on the store don't seem all that positive, but I've had no issues with it. And a friend of mine that turned me on to it had around 10k followers and used it with no issues. But if you have more than that, you may run into issues. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/cleaner-for-ig/id1019607006

Chris Rogers's picture

Yeah i hardly ever use my instagram now. I actively block the "feature pages" as I find them. I hate those pages. if it's not your work i don't want to see the page. When I go to discover new artists and photography it's nothing but the same stuff over and over and over. always promoted pages or pages that get thousands of views. I never see any real people on instagram unless i find them off of instagram.

Evan Kane's picture

Though I don't really have much hope for IG's future (such is big business), I do still find myself liking the idea of IG and still enjoy using it.

I can say with absolute certainty that it's because of Instagram I have found some incredible positively inspiring photographers that I would never have found on my own.

Wayne Denny's picture

It definitely has an upside. I've met several people the past year or two that I now consider good friends because of IG. I also found an excellent second shooter through there, and the local community in Orlando is great with meetups and opportunities for photographers. But that doesn't mean everything you wrote above isn't true...

Chris Rogers's picture

Wow that's pretty cool! I'm glad you were able to have that kind of experience! That's the kind of stuff I like to hear social platforms creating. Community vs. "hey buy this stuff". I'm not saying FB should never advertise or push influencers on IG but I wish they would balance it out. all I see are profiles that rake in the numbers :(

Chris Rogers's picture

Absolutely! The idea behind IG is awesome! I feel as if Facebook is letting money become too big of a part of what IG is today and it is taking away from what made it great in the past. For me, IG has become a place where numbers are king and the user experience is the overtaxed peasant lol.

Evan Kane's picture

Love the overtaxed peasant analogy Chris, pretty applicable haha!