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What is an algorithm?

In the “old days”, social networks such as Facebook and Instagram arranged content in reverse chronological order -- the newest posts appeared at the top of the feed. This approach was abandoned several years ago as the volume of content began to grow on the channels.

Today, all social networks use algorithms to deliver content that is most relevant to the individual user. That means that person’s feed is filled with content chosen by software based on such things as interests, recommendations from friends, the accounts that one engages with most often, and the type of posts they click, like and comment on.

Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation

Why are algorithms controversial?

Because they are mysterious. No social network is completely open about their algorithms, so it is always a bit of guesswork to determine what type of content and message will be delivered.
What’s worse, networks change their algorithms regularly without warning, which can wreak havoc on plans. When Facebook famously switched its algorithm to favour video, for example, it devastated some publishers who couldn't adjust quickly enough.

What does it mean when people talk about being “punished” by the algorithm?

There can be a snowball effect to algorithms. If you are consistently creating content that meets the demands of the algorithm, it will be delivered to a wider audience and get more engagement. Good engagement begets more algorithm buzz which begets more engagement – more likes, more followers, more audience.

But the opposite is also true. If you consistently deliver content that the audience doesn’t connect with (or you post sporadically) the algorithm thinks your content isn’t worth delivering, which in turn means less engagement, which means it doesn’t get served to your community. In effect, you are being “punished” by the algorithm.

Why does this matter?

Organic social media is an increasingly difficult balancing act requiring content that meets a brand’s goals and is also looked upon favourably by the audience, thereby satisfying the algorithm. This isn’t about audience size -- Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge last year to favour Friends and Groups content over content from publishers means all brands are seeing overall decreased engagement.

The good news

All algorithms – Facebook, Instagram, Google Search, YouTube, Twitter, etc. have gotten much better at highlighting content that people like. Gone are the days when you could “game the algorithm” by packing in keywords, using clickbait headlines, or using bait-and-switch content. Success today means regularly delivering high-quality content that your audience responds to while being aware of the nuances of the algorithm.

What we know

The algorithm is always changing but from our experience, creating strong, visual content specific to the platforms to keep people interacting with the content in the channel works best. Try not to link to external sites like your website or other social channels very often. We also recommend that you build a strategy and a content calendar that will have you posting regularly and consistently. Test different types of content with your audience to see what they engage with most and then do more of that!

To summarize:

  • Visual content performs best
  • Keep people on the platform and avoid using links that take people to other sites
  • Plan to post regularly and consistently
  • Test content to find what your audience likes