Understanding the Social Media Algorithms

Jennifer Barker

Business Development Strategist

How many contacts do you have on social media? Probably hundreds - if not thousands - that include friends, family, neighbors, coworkers and probably even some strangers! When you log into Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, it would be impractical to see all of their posts. The social networks agree - there’s no need to see everything from everyone. That’s why there’s a handy way to give users what they want - the algorithms.

Today’s most popular social networks use algorithms to determine which posts to show users first. The purpose of algorithm-based feeds is to provide a better user experience - and it works. Though the algorithms aren’t always a favorite of marketers, it does make user feeds much more intuitive and personalized.

Personalizing the User Experience

The idea of using algorithm-based feeds started with Facebook in 2006 and gravitated to Twitter in 2015. Instagram is also moving in this direction as they recently reported that users miss an average of 70 percent of their feeds.

From a user’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter how the algorithms determine which posts to feature first. They just care about being shown the things that matter to them. But as a marketer, the nitty gritty's of the algorithms do make a difference. If you don’t take the time to learn about the algorithms, it’s possible that your posts will rarely get exposure.

The thing is, each algorithm works differently. So just because you learn how Facebook’s algorithm works doesn’t mean it can be translated to Instagram. And, even if you were amazing and learned the inner workings of each algorithm, they change constantly. What you pick up today may not apply tomorrow - or even later this afternoon.

While we can’t predict all of the changes that will be made, we are confident that - as history shows us - there are certain aspects to algorithms that remain unchanged. That is why we’ve put together this simple guide that you can refer to when you need extra help.

Let’s begin!

Facebook News Feed

According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, users are exposed to over 1,500 stories each day, but only about 100 stories are seen. How do you know that those 100 stories are the ones that you care about? With Facebook’s highly intuitive algorithm.

Zuckerberg shared that his goal is to build a personalized newspaper for his users. He and a team of engineers are constantly studying user behavior and picking up signals that demonstrate the type of content that each user is interested in. Signals include likes, comments, shares and the amount of time spent on a post.

Essentially, the more a user interacts and engages with posts, the more Facebook will learn about the things they care about and the posts that interest them. Also, the social network offers a few features of its own that allow people to personalize their experience, such as by prioritizing friends or choosing not to be shown certain ads. The more these features are used, the more personalized the News Feed becomes.  

Twitter Timeline

Twitter takes a different approach with its Timeline. Facebook makes most of the decisions for its users, whereas Twitter has relied on a stream of posts in real time. Historically, the posts were arranged in chronological order, but Twitter felt that users could have been missing posts from the people they cared most about.

Twitter has since updated its algorithm - and while not as sophisticated as Facebook’s - it is less real-time dependent than it was in the past. The two features that determine which posts will be shown to users include are “While You Were Away” and “Show Me the Best Tweets First.”

The “While You Were Away” feature was launched in 2015 to give users the opportunity to see what they missed rather than simply dishing out posts in chronological order. The feature can’t be turned off, but how frequently it’s shown to users is based on how often they use Twitter. If you only check the network on occasion, you’ll probably see it more often than someone who’s on all the time.

The second feature, “Show Me the Best Tweets First,” was added earlier this year and is more similar to Facebook’s News Feed because it changes the content based on relevancy and other factors, such as tweets engaged with and accounts interacted with. This feature users can opt out of.

Instagram Feed

The last network we’re going to discuss is Instagram, which is the newest to launch an algorithm-based feed. Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2014 that its owner started looking at how content could be catered to each specific user. At the time, the “Explore” tab was introduced, delivering relevant posts to users.

In Instagram’s official blog, it stated that it would soon be changing the feed so that users could see the moments they cared about first, much like Facebook’s algorithm. So it was no surprise when, in June, the new algorithm was rolled out to users. It wasn’t exactly a change that was well-embraced by users - but hey - what algorithm ever is?

To determine which posts users care about, Instagram is looking more at user behavior such as likes, comments and the type of relationship you have with the poster. Instagram also analyzes the types of posts you share with others. Are you interested in traveling overseas? Dressing your kids in the cutest clothes? Seeing the latest rock bands in concert?

What Does All This Mean for You?

It’s great to have a basic understanding of the inner workings of the algorithms on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but what do they mean for you?

In the end, the quality of your posts is what it means.

Not only are the algorithms designed to make the user experience more personalized, but also they’re made to filter through irrelevant or low quality posts. If users aren’t interested in having their feed or timeline taken up by these posts, then why should the social networks give them the real estate?

All of your posts should be relevant, engaging and valuable to your users. They should be high in quality and timely. With the help of the many targeting tools available, you can show your posts to the right audience, too. There’s no excuse for low quality social media content aimed at no one.

Also, don’t forget the importance of visual content. Posts that contain an image, video or meme have consistently higher clicks, engagement rates, likes, shares, comments and more. The whole point of being on social media is to educate, inspire and build relationships with customers, so make sure that everything you post is meeting this goal!

 

About the Author: Jennifer Barker

Jen is the Business Development Strategist for SEMGeeks and the only team member born and raised north of the Jersey great divide, i.e. the Driscoll Bridge. Her BFA in multimedia design and extensive experience in digital marketing make her both an analytical and creative thinker. Jen has lived and worked for digital agencies in two major cities over the last 17 years but 3 years ago this “gypsy living, free bird” happily put her roots down at the Jersey Shore. The struggle to defend North Jersey to the rest of the team is an ongoing battle. #TaylorHam

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