How did you get here?
Not to wherever you physically are, but how did you end up seeing this post? Maybe you know me or my business and follow them on social media? Maybe it showed up as an ad? Maybe it came up as recommended, or in a search? There’s a ton of different ways that you could have potentially had this content shown to you.
But, at the end of the day, there is a single force at work. A single, powerful entity, that controls everything that you see… it’s called… the algorithm.
Don’t worry, it’s not a secret society or anything, unless you believe that social media companies are secret societies in and of themselves… or that The Zuck is a lizard person.
Regardless, no matter what social media platform you’re on, there is an algorithm in place, an automated system that is designed to sort all of the content in your social media feed for you. The definition itself is fairly simple, but algorithms are incredibly complex pieces of software that have taken social media companies millions of man-hours and billions of dollars to develop. That also means that there’s a lot of myths out there about how algorithms work, so it can be hard to actually understand what’s going on under the hood of the sites you use to network.
The objective of this post is to make sure that you, the everyday social media user, know how the website that you’re on decides on what content it shows you, and how you can actually use that to your advantage. I touched on this briefly in another post I made recently, going over how to stay mentally healthy while using social media, definitely check that out as well. Plus, it wouldn’t be a post by me (or a video, check out the video version of this post HERE) if I didn’t try to make it relevant to small business owners, so I’ll also touch on how the algorithm affects your business’ activity on social media as well.
Why Do They Exist?
First, let’s take a look back at the history of social media, and why algorithms exist. In the early 2000s, when social media platforms were just getting started, pretty much all of them sorted what you saw chronologically. So, whenever you opened up the site, you saw the latest thing that was posted by your friends, or the pages that you followed.
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Well, problems started to arise when people started to do what people always do when you give them a system: they abuse it.
People realized that all they had to do to get their posts to be the first thing that people saw when they opened up their feed was to just post as often as possible. So, that’s exactly what they did! All you had to do to get a bunch of views and clicks on your content was to post as often as humanly possible, or make a computer program to help you do it. So, for most people, who just wanted to post every once in a while and see what their friends were up to, all of those posts were buried under a gigantic pile of spammy junk content. Not fun.
Of course, the social media companies didn’t want their platforms to look like this. They tried user moderation for a while: people could report a page or person who posted too much, and the platform could take appropriate action. However, as you could probably guess, this didn’t work too well. There was no way that the company could keep up with all of the spam reports coming in manually, and figure out which ones were legitimate or not, without sometimes getting it wrong and upsetting regular users. They needed to figure out a way to make sure that people could actually see the content that they wanted to see, while not completely shutting down pages that just happened to post more frequently.
In 2010, Facebook was the first major platform to make an attempt at a solution that’s closest to the algorithms we know today
,. That system was called EdgeRank. Facebook’s engineers presented it to the public as a mathematical formula that looks like this:
Still kinda confusing, I know.
Basically, there were three factors, three things that gave your post an “edge”, that determined a post’s priority in the news feed. First was the affinity score, a number that represented how often you typically interact with the person posting. Second was what kind of interactions you typically used; commenting or sharing someone’s posts gives them a better edge than just likes or clicks. And third was a time decay factor, or how recently the post was created.
Facebook marked the introduction of this new system by changing the name of the main feed of posts from the usual “Timeline” to “News Feed”. Once people got used to it, they greatly preferred this change. They were actually seeing the things that their friends were posting first, instead of the spam pages! Huzzah!
Naturally, this new algorithmic system took off, and other platforms started to implement similar systems. Over time, however, these systems became more and more complex. They are, after all, still systems, so people were still finding ways to abuse them or work around them, which meant that developers had to further adjust them, and so the cycle goes. Just a couple of short years after announcing the EdgeRank system, Facebook’s engineering manager was quoted saying that there were approximately 100,000 individual factors that were taken into account for deciding how posts are prioritized in the News Feed, rather than the simplified three of EdgeRank.
The purpose of algorithms has also become more complicated as well. While their original purpose was to limit the effectiveness of spam and allow people to see more of what they want, they do a whole lot more than that now. They have to find a balance between ranking based on the number of interactions, such as likes and views, and the quality of interactions, such as shares or product purchases. More recently, platforms are under immense pressure from users and government officials to limit the spread of false information, while avoiding censorship.
As Facebook and other platforms doubled down on this way of sorting content, it shows us how we got to where we are today: algorithms have become increasingly good at showing users relevant content, but also increasingly complex and difficult to understand.
How Do They Work Now?
So, now you have a better idea of where algorithms came from, and why they’re so important to social media sites today. But, the looming question still remains, how does my platform of choice know what I do or don’t want to see?
The first thing to note is that every social media network has a different algorithm. Because algorithms are so vital to them, the companies behind the networks keep them as trade secrets, locked behind walls of patents to keep competitors from copying them. Because of this, the only way we can understand how they work is by reading what the companies themselves have voluntarily put out, examining the parts of the software that are publicly accessible, and learning what social media experts have discovered via good ‘ol trial and error experience.
So, the only proper way to address this is by giving a brief breakdown of each major network’s algorithm. I’ll take a couple minutes for each of the major platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube), give an overview of how their algorithms work, and some strategic tips that will let you use the algorithm to your advantage, so that you can give your posts a better chance at performing well.
As usual, we’ll start with the OG platform, Facebook. Gone are the days where the Facebook algorithm was just based off of 3 simple metrics. Now, their algorithm is primarily automated with complex machine learning systems, and their software developers are primarily tasked with adjusting how much weight different variables have, or introducing new variables into the program.
The number one rule with the Facebook algorithm is this: Engagement. Is. Everything. By engagement, I mean likes, comments, shares, links clicked, messages sent, basically any response from other
s users on your post. For each individual user s, different interactions are weighted more than others, but generally speaking, comments and shares are more valuable than likes or reactions.
Here’s what I think is the most important tip for using Facebook’s algorithm to get more people to see you or your business’ post: whenever you put up a post that does really well, getting more engagement than most of your other posts, the NEXT post that you put out is really important. The reason for that is, since a bunch of people just engaged with one of your posts, the algorithm is going to rate your next post higher for those people. If they don’t engage with your next post, your ranking goes back down. But, if they do engage with that next post, the algorithm rates your page even higher, and you can create a snowball effect that helps you to build an audience.
To maximize the potential engagement of that next post, investigate and try to determine what made your last post do so well. Was it a particular topic that resonated with a certain audience? Did you try a new format or style that paid off? Look at the analytics on that post; who was your audience, when were they looking at the post, on what devices? Use all of this information to create a next post that gives you the best chance of getting more engagement, and growing your audience.
Next up, Instagram. Their algorithm was implemented far more recently than most. For a long time, the main feed was sorted chronologically, but they changed this in 2016, and now use an algorithm-based system, for both the main feed and the explore page. Unsurprisingly, Instagram’s algorithm is similar to that of their parent company, Facebook, but there are some key differences worth noting.
Engagement is still a big factor in Instagram posts, but it’s not nearly as vital as it is on Facebook. The other main factors that determine a post’s priority are relevancy and recency. The relevancy factor is determined by interest in particular topics; so, if you follow a lot of football pages, the likelihood that you get recommendations for other pages or posts relating to football is very high. And the recency factor is pretty self-explanatory: people are more likely to see your post right after you post it.
To work with Instagram’s algorithm, post specific and post often. While it might be tempting to focus on posting really nice-looking selfies or nature pics, since that’s a lot of what you see on Instagram, it’s not the best way to grow an account (unless you’re a photographer). Instead, try to find your niche, and post good pictures and videos about that, as often as you can without sacrificing quality. Especially if you’re a business, focus on posting about things that are of interest to your target market; that will go a long way in helping your account to grow.
For Twitter, believe it or not, their algorithm is actually somewhat similar to Facebook’s. Basically, take Facebook’s emphasis on engagement, crank it to 11, and mix it with emphasis on recency and trends. Twitter’s algorithm responds very heavily to people liking, retweeting, and sharing. If you’ve used Twitter for a while, you’ve probably noticed that all it takes is you liking one tweet from someone, and you’ll likely see another one of their tweets pop up as suggested, or their account to be suggested as one to follow.
Twitter also makes use of an “in case you missed it” block, which highlights a few of the tweets that got sent out since you last logged on, that it believes you’re most likely to be interested in or engage with. You’re also much more likely to see tweets in your timeline because someone you follow liked or replied to them, even if you don’t have any other connection with them. So, ANY interaction that you get on Twitter is very valuable.
So, if you’re wanting to grow your Twitter account, I would recommend looking for opportunities to snowball engagement, just like on Facebook. However, Twitter weighs recency much more than Facebook does, so putting out more tweets, especially at peak times when your target market is likely to see them, will help a lot. Tweeting about trending topics is also a great way to potentially get some more exposure for your tweets, giving you a nice little boost
., as long as they’re relevant to your audience.
LinkedIn’s algorithm is a bit… strange. Similar to the networks we’ve already talked about, relevancy and engagement are quite important. However, while newer posts do tend to be at the top, it’s also not uncommon to see posts that are weeks old show up in your feed. Part of this could be due to the fact that most LinkedIn users don’t get on or post nearly as often as most other social media networks. Their algorithm also stresses hashtags a LOT, encouraging most users to put around 3 in each of their posts, and showing you high-performing posts with tags that it believes are relevant to you.
So, the main way to take advantage of this is to make sure that every piece of content that you put out on LinkedIn is high quality, and relevant to your target audience. More isn’t necessarily better in this case, and longer posts can actually perform quite well. Well-written thinkpiece posts, video essays, or thoughtful questions are all posts that tend to do well on LinkedIn. Combine those with a couple of relevant, popular hashtags, and you’re more likely to get more out of your posts.
Finally, the ever-elusive YouTube algorithm. YouTube’s is an algorithm that has been around for quite some time, and has gone through a lot of changes, some positive, and others not so much. There’s a whole lot of interesting history and controversy there, but in this video, I’ll just focus on the main things you need to know for 2021.
YouTube’s algorithm is very complex, and has a lot of different variables that it takes into account, including relevance, recency, likes/dislikes, and watch time. They’ve also started stressing “viewer satisfaction” recently, which is a bit ambiguous, but as far as we know, is primarily determined by a combination of total watch time, clicking like or dislike, and occasional survey pop-ups
, that ask ing more specific questions about how you enjoyed the video.
One of the best ways to get more traffic on YouTube is by optimizing your titles and content for searches. YouTube’s search is actually one of the most used search tools in the world, behind Google itself. You can actually use Google Trends, and filter specifically for YouTube searches, to see what search terms are the most popular. You can then use that information to include more frequently searched keywords in your video titles. It also helps to have playlists on your channel for videos with a specific theme or series, so that it’s easier for people to watch more of your videos if they find one of them interesting.
Are Algorithms Here to Stay?
Hopefully, you now at least have some idea of how social media algorithms decide on what posts to show you. But, are algorithms here to stay? More than ever, algorithms are being criticized for not working properly, promoting irrelevant posts, misinformation or extremist content, censorship, and just being too dang complicated. Will we continue to deal with these problems until social media companies find solutions, or will a different way of sorting content take the place of the algorithm?
Personally, I doubt that algorithms will ever truly go away. With social media usage increasing steadily, algorithms are simply the most reliable, efficient tool we have right now to control how content is sorted and shown in people’s feeds. Manual systems would be impossible to operate at the scale needed, and user-based rating and moderation systems would probably only worsen a lot of the problems that currently exist for algorithms.
However, because of how central they are in determining a user’s experience, companies will continue to invest in making their algorithms smarter and more reliable. Now that software development has come such a long way, and become so much more accessible to people, we’re seeing more competition in the social media space than ever before. That’s good for you and me, because that means that no one can be lazy and let too many problems plague their platform for too long. The industry as a whole will continue to move forward; we’ll just have to do our best to keep up with it.
Understanding social media can be a challenge, and I hope I’ve helped to make it just a bit easier for you today! Especially if you’re a business owner or entrepreneur, and you have more questions about how to get more traffic on social media, I’d love to talk with you! Feel free to leave me a comment, send me a message on your platform of choice, or shoot me an email. I also have plenty of other posts about social media and business that you can take a look at here, and you can subscribe to see more when I post them in the future.