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 -


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. 

Evan Kane is a portrait photographer based near Seattle. He specializes in colorful location portraits with a bit of a fairy tale flair. Always looking to create something with emotion behind it, he fell backwards into photography in mid 2015 and has been pursuing this dream ever since. One if his mottos: "There is always more to learn."

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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.

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.

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.

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

I closed my fb account many years ago...

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.

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

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

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
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.

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.

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.

Sounds like extortion.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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...

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 :(

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.

Love the overtaxed peasant analogy Chris, pretty applicable haha!

Hahaha thanks man!

What gets me the most is the lack of authenticity on Instagram now. It started out as a budding community for creatives, but it's now just a meat market for fake people, peddling fake lives for cash.

There's an enlightening article in the NewStateman about the reality of these so-called "influencers":

The source article by Sara Melotti makes for even grimmer reading:

I'm now at the point where I don't know if any likes or comments I get are real - and quite frankly I couldn't care less either way. Social media is so transient anyway, so best not to get too attached.

I think the sad truth is that a very large number of likes and/or comments is bought and paid for. That would be a really interesting statistic if there were actually a way to verify it.

I believe I read (don't quote me on this haha, just pulling it out of the memory bank) that something like one in three accounts are inactive, which is a pretty staggering figure if true.

That's some statistic, if it's true. My account may add to that statistic soon :oD

Side note, I read those other pieces you linked. I think the worst part is that nothing came as a surprise.

Pretty much sums up the general social media experience when you read a piece like that and don't bat an eye because you pretty much expected it haha.

Sad but true!

I'm glad I grew up in the 80's/90's, so I can at least appreciate there was a world before all this nonsense started.......and now I'm starting to sound like my parents!

I think it’s fair to say that we’re all just waiting on the next big photo-sharing platform to come along so we can move with it. Instagram is done imo, for all the reasons you listed and more

One truth that I think really applies here is that once a company goes publicly traded, the balance of pleasing investors vs staying true to the platform becomes near impossible.

Furthermore, once dollars are on the line historically the investors interests always beat out the users interests.

I hadn't thought of it from that perspective, you're probably right.

Sounds very similar to the Viewbug site. Scroll several rounds... see the same cycle of photos three times. Wish I had figured that out before I paid for a year.

I hadn't buckled to Instagram yet. This helps keep my conviction strong it's best not to join. Are there any sincere sites out there? With SEO these days being so easily hijacked by bribes and cronies... there doesn't seem to be an upside to the Web.

I think the one things that social media helps to remind us is that there is absolutely no substitute for face to face marketing and networking.

Contacts via the real world always beat out the digital trends as those tend to come and go while people tend to last.

Great article Evan! Lately, I've been noticing the first one you pointed out - showing the same photos I've already seen. There are a lot of people whose work I follow and like, but they don't seem to show up in my feed....

Hopefully, the algorithm will be improved over time. I think it's important to have some sort of filtering of content since there's too much for any one person to consume.

Now, the thing that really bothers me on Instagram is the third party bot services......

Thanks for the comment Dan. Unfortunately, I think that any algorithm improvements will only benefit the Facebook stock price, I wouldn't hold out for anything that actually benefits the user haha

Welcome to "Facebook 2: Zuck's bullshit VS the real people"

The online world will be a better place when Instagram is gone. Unfortunately, something, likely equally bad if not substantially worse, will replace it.
Instagram is fake as f*** and the problem is, everyone knows it and continues to use it anyway. What's that say about the people using it?
EDIT: It's also very much like a pyramid scheme. It's used by people looking to get rich and the people they have to follow/interact with are looking to get rich! So, who's getting rich? Mark Zuckerberg and a very, VERY small percentage of IG users. So... you know... it's like the top of a pyramid! Schemers...
Y'all feel dirty now? Gonna keep on using it? Because you "have to"... right?

I use instagram (@creationheart )

1) to interact by sharing my photos with creatives, designers, models in my city/country,
2) to follow industry leading creatives, magazines and some feature accounts who continue to inspire me,
3) to use it as my creative portfolio for perspective clients

I say I am still enjoying it. But I do hate the fake follow/like/unfollow accounts who are making instagram less genuine and ruining everyones experience. It also makes it difficult to monitor your real progress on engagement.

Right on Felix, I pretty much do the same thing. I mentioned earlier that I have found some incredible artists out there that I definitely would not have found otherwise thanks to Instagram.

It's not all bad, it's just really suffering right now from going after profits above all else.

I couldn't agree more with your article. Before the algorithm was put in place, I was getting 150+ likes on my photos and my followers were growing by the day. The algorithm kicked in when I just topped 1,000 followers, and since then, I'm lucky to get 40 likes, and my follower count has been hovering around 1,055 for all of 2017. I started doing a photo-per-day thing, and even then I'm not reaching anyone.

I also follow only a few celebrity or popular accounts (some of them featured), and most days I see more of their posts than others, like you said. It may be my imagination, but on random days when I do see more of my friends' photos, I also see more ads. I wish I was as optimistic as you about a competitor coming along, but I'm not sure something will come up that will be photo-centric, but also appeal to a wider audience. We can hope though!

I think a really interesting experiment that they could perform would be to revert back to the old system for a week or two and compare peoples activity to that of when the algorithm is in place.

I'm guessing that people would actually increase their IG usage if the old model was restored. This of course will not happen but is nonetheless interesting to think about.

All we can do is try not to get sucked into the void haha.

I also have a love/hate relationship with feature accounts that just post other peoples images. In one sense, it's a great way to just see awesome images. On the other, it hurts creatives trying to get noticed when the only things we see in our feeds and searches are these giant feature accounts with 100,000's followers. Essentially, half my feed is filled with large accounts that don't produce a single image on their own!

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