Social Media Algorithms: What They Are and How to Improve Your Reach

This article was updated on July 27, 2018. 

Every social media manager has found themselves frustrated at being thwarted by social media algorithms. They’re a huge pain in the butt.

We create great content, we write engaging posts about it and fill them with gorgeous visuals, and then nobody sees them. Why? Because the network’s algorithmic timeline decided that our precious content wasn’t good enough to show to 94% of our own followers (read more about that statistic in this Hubspot blog).

What is an algorithmic timeline in social media?

Let’s first look at algorithms themselves. An algorithm is a clearly defined and calculated repeatable process, most often used by computers to solve problems.

Social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest use algorithms to attempt to predict what their users enjoy and want to see more often, based on how they engage with similar content within their platform. Each time a friend, family member, or page you follow publishes a piece of content, algorithms get to work analyzing it.

These algorithms analyze all kinds of data, from which posts you like or share to how long you spend reading a post or an article that you clicked on, and use the results to assign rankings to future posts by sources you follow to decide which content deserves to appear in your personal news feed or timeline.

This algorithmic timeline is the result of a buzzing hive of algorithms, working together to show you what the social media networks hope is content you’ll love every time you log into your social media account.

The reasoning behind it is that you’ll likely enjoy your social media experience more if you are only shown things you want to see, and you’ll be more inclined to return for more.

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Most social media networks offer up little information about their algorithms (like this vague article released by Facebook), so it can be difficult to wrap your head around what it all means for your business’ content.

To help you understand how it works, here’s a classic Forge and Smith-style analogy.

The algorithmic timeline in real life

Let’s pretend that the algorithmic timeline is a TV channel guide.

Pam is watching TV on a Saturday afternoon. She looks through the channel listings and sees a Western sitcom that sounds good. She puts on that show, and it’s so funny that she watches three episodes in a row.

After that, she returns to the channel listings. She picks a show called Whisker Wars that sounds like it’s about cats, but when she switches to that channel it’s actually a docu-series about men with big beards. Not in the mood for follicle follies, she returns to the channel listings.

From there, she watches the local news to see if there’s any coverage of the wiener dog races that she missed, but five minutes later she switches to a movie about a ballet dancer trying to make it in New York, and watches it all the way through.

Throughout her interactions with the channel listings, Pam is shown all kinds of options that she doesn’t watch: reality shows, sports, home and garden shows, cooking shows, major news broadcasts, BBC dramas, and more.

Before bed, Pam sets her DVR to record that funny Western sitcom.

On Sunday Pam again checks the listings. This time, the options are awfully specific. They contain 15 different Western shows plus the first entire season of the one she watched yesterday, some Western movies, shows about horses, a handful of regional news broadcasts, musical-themed TV shows, talent competition shows, and dance movies ranging from cheerleading and hip hop to ballet and salsa.

It also offers her a movie about Britney Spears, because Brit’s marketing team paid for that movie to be shown to people with an interest in dancing and singing.

On this day, Pam watches five Western shows. Four of them are dark and gritty, and one is funny. She watches three musical shows, all of them dramedies, and two movies about dancers who have to learn to blend classical and urban dances.

When Pam gets home from work on Monday, the channel listings now offer her gritty Western TV shows, a few Western comedies, the first season of that funny Western show, musical dramedies, and various dance movies featuring a strong and sassy female lead who has to learn a different style of dance to find herself/overcome a traumatic incident/find true love/get into that dance school.

The channel listings have also stopped showing her BBC dramas, sports, major news broadcasts, and documentaries. In their place are odd-sounding shows such as “How to Choose the Perfect Pair of Cowboy Boots”, “10 Tips for Tractor Maintenance”, and “Where to Buy Dance Pants in Vancouver”.

The problem with social media algorithms

Algorithmic timelines only show users the content that the algorithms have decided that they want to see, and for the rest they have to visit each friend, family member or page individually to opt into seeing their content.

If you can see problems with the way this data is analyzed, you’re not alone. There are countless factors that can contribute to a like, share, or comment (or not doing any of the above), as well as user behaviour when accessing content on social media.

For example, we often like our family members’ photos or posts to make that person feel good (and to make sure we still get invited to Christmas dinner). That doesn’t mean that we want to see every photo our grandpa posts of his six cats.

We might read a few articles on a topic that we don’t like or that doesn’t interest us because someone shared them with us and asked us to read them, or to find the answer to a question that came up over drinks at the pub.

Similarly, we might bounce (leave the page without taking any actions) from an article that we really wanted to read for any number of reasons: slow page load, unappealing images, or maybe something really important came up in the real world and we had to put down our phone.

We could really like that particular kind of content and want to see more, but environmental factors that the algorithms couldn’t possibly know about got in the way.

Another downside to the algorithmic timeline is that it doesn’t take into consideration the importance of browsing. In the same way that we walk into a book store or library, browse the titles, and read the book jackets to find something new to read, exposure to a wide variety of content on different topics and from different sources facilitates a broad social experience.

If you want to learn more about Facebook’s algorithms, the article from Slate linked in this post gives some truly eye-opening insights.

How to improve your reach on social media

Regardless of accuracy, and despite their flaws, ever-changing algorithmic timelines are a reality that social media managers need to deal with on a daily basis. You want to get your business’ content seen, otherwise you wouldn’t be on social media. But how do you accomplish that when you haven’t yet built up a following of people who engage with your posts, and the algorithms always seem to be working against you?

There is no simple answer. Successful social media is a combination of quality content and human interest. That said, there are things you can do to both appease the algorithms and to extend your reach.

Six social media best practices

  1. Only share content that is helpful, relevant, and interesting. Don’t post on social media just for the sake of posting. Unfollows can come pretty quickly when accounts feel like they’re spamming their audiences.
  2. Make sure that all of your website’s pages only use optimized images to ensure a speedy page load when someone accesses them from social media. Page load times are among Google’s ranking factors, and slow loads can’t harm your SEO. Need help? Check out our blog on optimizing images!
  3. Encourage likes, comments, and shares within your posts! Incentivize your visitors to engage with your brand, and don’t be afraid to ask outright. Suggest that they tag a friend who would appreciate the post, or that they share the content to their own network. Social media is about building a community, so take time to respond to comments, ask questions, and have fun with your audience.
  4. Share your social media profiles on other profiles, via email, and include visible social sharing buttons and social callouts on your website’s pages. Someone who followed you on Facebook five years ago might not know you now have Instagram or YouTube. Take every available opportunity to put your social media profiles out where people can discover them.
  5. Have a hashtag strategy. Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram use hashtags to categorize your content. With Instagram, the algorithm doesn’t know what your image is about — it’s a photo! Hashtags tell it how to quickly sort your content, so that it can be suggested to interested Instagram users. Instagram now allows people to follow hashtags, so do your homework and learn to be a hashtag scientist.
  6. Remember that it’s all about the user, not about you! Today’s social media networks are flooded with promotional spam. If you want to stand out and be heard, make sure that each post brings value to the user – your potential customer. Maintain a healthy content balance on all of your networks, and ask yourself each time you post if what you’re sharing benefits the customer, or just your business.


Do you have another fun analogy for the algorithmic timeline? We’d love to hear it! Reach out to us on Facebook or on Twitter.

For the record, Whisker Wars is actually a cool show.