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What are Social Media Algorithms and How Do They Work?

What are social media algorithms, how do they work, and why should you care? 

In this article:

What's an Algorithm?

Why do social media platforms use algorithms?

How do they work?

Why is it important to understand social media algorithms?





What’s an Algorithm?

An algorithm is a set of instructions to follow, like a flow chart. In technology terms, these instructions are carried out by a computer program.
 Algorithms generally solve a problem or give some output, based on data points.


Complex algorithms are all around us, affecting our daily lives; in ways we often don’t even think about. They control the traffic lights on your drive to work, and the route your GPS chooses. When a streaming service like Netflix recommends a show that you might like to watch next, it doesn’t ‘know’ your tastes and interests, it’s just using a basic algorithm.


The algorithm uses data points (in this case it’s shows you’ve previously watched), grouping you with other users who watched those same shows. Then, it can look at other shows the people in your ‘group’ have watched and recommend any shows you haven’t watched yet. 


If you watched John Wick 3, a documentary about Whales, and a British sitcom, you’re going to be recommended more shows that other people who watched John Wick 3, the Whale documentary and the sitcom also watched. The algorithm is simply grouping data sets and making simple if/then calculations.

 But what if you’ve only watched one movie? How would Netflix ‘know’ what to recommend next? With little or no data about you and your history, the suggestions won’t be very accurate or relevant, but the more shows and movies you watch, the better the suggestions will become, as there are more and more data points for the algorithm to work with. These kinds of algorithms are forms of Artificial Intelligence because they appear to ‘learn’ and get smarter as more data is added.


 The Netflix algorithm is a simple one, but the same basic principles also underpin the more complicated algorithms which drive social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. For social media users, every time you open your favorite social app, a specialized algorithm decides the order that posts, content, and ads are displayed.

Why do social media platforms use algorithms?

Social media platforms are businesses. Like any business, they exist to make money. Revenue comes from advertisers who pay to get their ads seen by users - more people spending more time on their platforms, means more money. In short, they depend on getting our attention, keeping it for as long as possible. This is what their algorithms are designed to do.


How do they work?

The details of how these algorithms function are closely guarded secrets; the companies don’t want us to know too much, but the platforms release statements and updates to give users a rough idea of how different content is displayed to users (ranked, prioritized etc.) and there are thousands of experts who’ve built up practical knowledge over the years, to give us more detailed insights too.


To keep us entertained and happily scrolling, the platforms need to provide an individualized feed of interesting, entertaining, and engaging content (with targeted ads to bring in revenue). 

Source: Twitter

They do this by constantly gathering data on what you’ve watched, read, liked, shared, and who you follow and what you search, then tailoring your feed to include the content you’re most likely to view and engage with.

Source: TikTok

TikTok became wildly successful, especially with young users, largely because of its unique algorithm, which is very effective at keeping users engaged. This prompted Instagram to create its own version of a TikTok feed with Instagram Reels, which was also a big success.



Why is it important to know about social media algorithms?

Social media marketing continues to grow as more people turn to social media for communication, entertainment, and shopping. Marketers are storming social media to sell their products and services or to help other businesses achieve their marketing goals.

Source: Facebook

Unfortunately, not all content performs equally well on social media platforms. While some posts evoke engagement and attention, other posts barely make the grade with fewer impressions and engagement.

People who create social content that goes viral know how the different social media algorithms work. They understand the factors that affect ranking and engagement, such as content type, content format, the best time to post, hashtags to use, posting frequency, how to write captions, etc.

Source: YouTube

These experts have studied the algorithm for a long time and know what works and what doesn’t. If you want to create viral social media posts consistently, it’s essential to understand how the algorithm works.

Here’s why it’s important to understand social media algorithms:


Source: Instagram

1. Greater visibility

Businesses need to be visible to their target audience on social media platforms, as this will increase their reach and also boost the chances of making maximum sales of their products or services. 

Social media algorithms determine which posts are shown to users and in what order. Understanding how the algorithms work can help you optimize your content to increase its visibility and reach a wider audience.



2. Better engagement

All social media platforms use algorithms that prioritize content they consider relevant to their users, mainly because many users engage with content they connect with or find helpful. 

To improve engagement, the different social media algorithms have automatic, built-in rules that check every post when they are published. If the algorithm thinks a post will pique its users’ interest, it will show that content to more people. 

With the correct understanding of how social media algorithms work, you can consistently create engaging content that generates many likes, comments, and shares.

3. Smarter targeting

When you create a social media post, the algorithm pushes it to users interested in your type of content. However, there may be a mismatch if the algorithm can’t perfectly pinpoint who will find your content helpful.

To avoid showing irrelevant content to users, social media algorithms show your posts to a small sample group. If this group engages your content, the algorithm will promote it to more people with similar interests. This will help you target more people likely interested in your products or services. 

Since social media algorithms are designed to show users content that is relevant to their interests and behaviors, understanding how the algorithms determine relevance can help you better tailor your content to the right audience.

4. Effective advertising

Advertising on social media can be effective, but unfortunately, you may also waste a lot of money without getting any results. You must understand the algorithms of a particular platform before running ads on it.

Understanding how the algorithms work will help you maximize your advertising campaigns, optimize costs, target the right audience, and get better value for money.

5. Competitive edge

Social media is highly competitive, but you can use the competition to your advantage if you understand how the algorithm works. Businesses and marketers who understand social media algorithms can sell more of their products, giving them an edge over their competitors.

Instagram Algorithms?

Instagram, owned by Zuckerberg’s Meta, is a fast-growing social media platform. The platform which started in October 2010 has grown to over 2.2 billion MAUs (Monthly Active Users).

Posts on Instagram are in the form of reels, feeds/stories, and explore. These formats have unique ranking signals that determine how your content performs.

1. Reels

Instagram created reels to entertain its users. Even when you make reels to talk about your business, they must be fun and interesting. Some signals that affect how your reels perform include:

  • Are your reels engaging, and do your followers consistently interact with your reels?
  • Are the posted videos and audio of high quality?
  • Who posted it?

2. Feed/stories

More often than not, Instagram users want to see content from family, friends, and other people (or things) they are interested in. When you post content on the platform, the algorithm measures the following:

  • How engaging is the content?
  • Who posted it and are they interesting to their audience?
  • Do users interact with most of the content from your page?

3. Explore

Instagram’s Explore tracks your previous preferences and engagements to determine the content you’ll like. Also, this IG feature shows content from other people you share a common interest with.

Facebook Algorithms?


Facebook is one of the largest social networks with an average of 2.96 billion unique monthly visitors. The platform is also popular for advertisements because of its large and organized analytics.

Like Instagram, Facebook also features reels, stories, and feed. However, its algorithm works differently than Instagram. Facebook algorithm features are as follows:

1. Inventory

Facebook keeps an inventory of posts it can show on your feed, especially those from family or friends you consistently interact with.

2. Signals

The platform monitors how you interact with content to understand your preferred content type. It also checks your most active time, who posted, and a thousand other signals.

3. Prediction

Based on the ranking signals, Facebook predicts the posts you'll be interested in from the inventory of posts it could show on your feed.

4. Relevance score

Facebook's relevance score puts together the three factors discussed earlier to determine the most relevant posts to show users. The higher the score, the more likely the post will show on a user's feed.

TikTok algorithms?

TikTok started in 2016 but became quite popular, with 693 million and 850 million downloads in 2019 and 2020 respectively. The platform's algorithm is different from Facebook and Instagram.

Here are some things to know about TikTok's algorithm:

1. Device settings

Unlike most other social media platforms, TikTok optimizes content for members using the device preferences, such as language, country, device type, interest categories, etc. 

These settings automatically affect the content displayed to members. For instance, users will likely see content from other Tiktokers in their country.

2. Video information

TikTok users tend to search videos relative to their interests. As a result, the platform considers your video information to determine who to show your content to. The information includes the following:

  • Sound
  • Effect
  • Caption
  • Hashtags
  • Trends

3. User interactions

A user’s interaction with content on the platform is the most significant ranking factor. TikTok’s algorithm monitors how people engage with content on the platform to determine what is interesting to them.

It considers some factors, such as the accounts you follow, creators hidden from your “For You” page, videos you’ve flagged and reported, videos you watched till the end, content you created, etc.

Related posts for LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter algorithms:

Mandala Cosmos is a powerful tool for getting results in your social media campaigns

Understanding how the different social media algorithms work can help you get results with your social media campaigns on various platforms. Still, it is better to use a powerful tool that helps you combine your knowledge with data-driven information for your campaigns.

Cosmos is one of Mandala’s helpful products touted as a daily social monitoring tool. Integrated with Mandala Analytics, Cosmos unleashes your creativity and helps you stay organized. 

With Cosmos, you can create customized feeds and playlists to share, collaborate, track and monitor social media profiles and keywords. You can also discover new trends and popular posts, hashtags and keywords from the Analytics.


Frequently Asked Questions

1. Do social media algorithms change and why?

As people turn to the social media for entertaining, educative, insightful, and business-related content, some bad actors also try to take advantage of unsuspecting users with spammy content. To ward off spammy and irrelevant content and to ensure users enjoy maximum satisfaction, most social media platforms update their algorithms daily, weekly, or monthly.

2. How can marketers leverage social media algorithms for advertising?

Marketers should learn the services and algorithms for the different social media platforms. Also, they should determine which platform works best for the kind of products or services their clients offer. Having this information will help them create effective advertising campaigns with results to show.