You are connected to hundreds of people – maybe even thousands – on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. However, if you log into each of these social networks, you probably don’t want to be bombarded by every single update of every single connection. That would be pretty overwhelming, wouldn’t it?
This is how people feel from each of these social networks – and they have done a lot of user research to confirm that feeling. This is exactly why the newsfeeds exist – and the algorithms behind them.
All three of the most popular social networks today have focused on one algorithmic feed to create better experiences for their users. The problem is that each algorithm works differently. What’s worse, they’re constantly changing, making it hard for marketers like us to keep up.
To make everything clear, we’ve put together this simple guide on how the newsfeed works on the three most popular social networks: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Let’s dive in.
Note: Note that the algorithms are constantly changing. We will continue to write about major changes to the social algorithm as they occur.
What is a social media algorithm?
A social media algorithm is a set of rules and data that make decisions about what users want to see on the platform. The social media websites create unique algorithms for each person who uses the website. This means that no two people have the exact same social media news feed.
Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm
Since the founding of the largest social media platform to date, Facebook’s newsfeed has focused on personalizing the social media app’s user experience. According to eMarketer, we use the platform for about 34 minutes a day.
In order to offer users the best possible experience, Facebook’s engineering team is constantly researching user behavior and picking up signals that show what content each user is most interested in.
How it works
The Like button has always been the epicenter of the Facebook user experience – not just because we see it on all posts, but also because it allows us to personalize our experience (and influence that of everyone else). Since its inception in November 2007, Facebook engineers have figured out which posts excited users, bored them, offended them, and so on.
These days, the algorithm that controls Facebook’s news feed has become much more sophisticated. It’s no longer just about the “Like” button – and not just because reaction buttons are now in the mix. In fact, the Facebook algorithm is by far the most complicated of the three social networks covered in this post.
Here is a brief overview of the most important things that the Facebook algorithm takes into account.
When choosing posts for each person who signs up on Facebook, the newsfeed algorithm takes hundreds of variables into account – and can predict whether a particular user will like, click, comment, share, hide, or even flag a post as spam.
In particular, the algorithm predicts each of these results with a certain degree of certainty. That prediction is quantified into a single number called a “relevance score,” which is specific to both you and that post.
Once a relevance rating has been assigned to each post that may appear in your feed, Facebook’s sorting algorithm ranks them and ranks them in the order they appear in your feed. This means that every time you sign up, the post you see at the top of your newsfeed has been selected from among thousands of others as the one most likely to get you to respond and get involved.
Ads are also given relevance scores so that Facebook can show users the ads that are most important to them. Again, this is supposed to give users a better experience – but it’s also helpful for the companies that are paying for the ads. The calculation is based on the positive feedback (video views, conversions, etc.) and negative feedback that Facebook expects from a target group. (You can find more information about the relevance factor for Facebook ads here.)
Before 2015, Facebook used more indirect signals like likes, comments, and approvals from others to predict what users would want to see in the news feed. Finally, options have been added to allow users to filter out posts they don’t want to see. But what about increasing the number of posts users want to see?
Through studies and surveys, Facebook found that many users were concerned about missing important updates from friends that mattered most to them. In response to these concerns, the social media platform began changing the newsfeed algorithm to give more control to the users themselves.
It started in April 2015 when the company began prioritizing posts from friends over the pages they follow and promotional posts (in the form of higher relevance scores). Later that year, in July, Facebook introduced the “Show First” feature that lets you actually choose which accounts – whether friends or Followed Pages – you’d like to see first at the top of your news feed.
Now when you want to prioritize a person or page to “see first,” their posts will appear at the top of your news feed. To prioritize the people or pages you want to “see first”: Click downward arrow in the upper right corner of a Facebook page and select the settings.
In the window that appears, scroll until you find Newsfeed settings and select it.
Next, choose Prioritize who you want to see first.
Finally, choose up to 30 of your Facebook friends to add as favorites. You will now see posts from these people first.
Time spent on a post
Facebook started monitoring how much time users spend viewing certain posts. Of course, the time you spend on a post can vary depending on your internet speed, the length of the post, etc. – and the folks on Facebook are aware of that.
However, the platform’s strategists found that the dwell time, which is much more time spent on a particular post on their feed compared to most of the other posts they look at, is a good sign that the content is for it is relevant.
How does that play out in the feed? As you spend more time on a particular post, that post from Facebook is more likely to show up in your friends’ news feeds.
In the summer of 2015, Facebook surveyed users about how they interacted with videos in their news feeds and found that many people who were interested in a particular video didn’t necessarily like it, commented on it, or shared it with their friends. Since engagement is one of the main ways Facebook uses to measure people’s interest in posts, it had to find other ways to find out if people enjoyed the videos they saw.
To this end, the company began overseeing other forms of video engagement – such as turning on the audio, switching to full screen mode, or enabling high definition. So if you turn up the volume on a video or set it to full screen, the algorithm will interpret that while you enjoy the video and show you similar videos higher up in your feed.
The update doesn’t mean users will see more video in their news feed – just those who are already more into video-related content.
The Facebook algorithm is very, very complex, but we hope you get a good idea of what it thinks is important so that you can tailor your Facebook marketing strategy accordingly. Now let’s go to Twitter.
Twitter’s timeline algorithm
While Facebook makes most of the decisions about what to display in your Facebook news feed, in the past Twitter has taken a very different approach than the “timeline”.
Your timeline is the stream of tweets from the users you follow that appears on your account homepage when you first sign in. Back in the day, your timeline consisted of every single tweet from each user you follow, in chronological order. But people on Twitter found that, much like Facebook, users felt they were missing the best tweets from the people who mattered to them most.
The changes made to the Twitter algorithm aren’t nearly as platform-changing as the ones made by Facebook, but they differ in some ways from the real-time element that Twitter defined from the start.
How it works
Twitter engineers have tried two different approaches to getting the “best” tweets on your timeline first: the “while you’ve been away” feature and the even more recent “show me the best tweets first” feature.
The “While You Were Away” feature
This feature was added to relieve users of any FOMO (fear of missing out) they may have felt due to the chronological nature of the original timeline.
Basically, it’s a round-up of some of the best tweets that you might not otherwise have seen. How do these tweets make the cut? It is determined by “user intervention”.
You can’t turn it off, but how often you see it depends on how often you use Twitter. The recaps are shown more often for users who check the app less often.
The “Show me the best tweets first” feature
The “Show me the best tweets first” function is a little more similar to the Facebook news feed. Why? Because it actually changes the content of your timeline based on a tweet’s relevance rather than listing tweets chronologically.
By default, the Twitter algorithm places the tweets that you think are most interesting at the top of your timeline. These posts are still current and in reverse chronological order. These Tweets are selected based on accounts you interact with the most, Tweets you engage with, and much more.
The “Best Tweets” function
The rest of the tweets appear directly below, also in reverse chronological order. In contrast to the “While you were away” feature, these “best tweets” are not highlighted or displayed in any way. So you can’t tell where the “best tweets” stop and the rest of the tweets begin.
There are two ways to remove those “best tweets” from the top of your timeline. One is a quick fix: you can always update your timeline to see any new tweets at the top as you might be used to in the past.
However, if you always want to see your timeline live, you can turn this feature off on Twitter if you’d like – unlike Facebook’s news feed.
To disable this feature: Tap the three-star icon in the top right corner of your screen. Then tap on Go to the latest tweets.
Is Twitter moving away from a real-time timeline?
There is no reason to believe this – at least not for now. One of the three sections of your Twitter timeline is made up of Tweets that appear in reverse chronological order. After scrolling through the “While You Were Away” and “Best Tweets” tweets, you will be left with your followers’ tweets, starting with the most recent.
What could be an emerging trend on Twitter is the ability to subscribe to people’s tweets. While this feature wouldn’t interfere with the timeline’s mostly reverse chronological order, it could just add one more section to your feed that you have to scroll through before seeing the latest updates from your followers.
Twitter isn’t the only social media platform that iterates its algorithm to show the most interesting content first. Instagram’s algorithm gives Facebook and Twitter a run for their money.
The algorithm of the Instagram feed
As of January 2021, Instagram has more than 1.2 million active users on the platform, making it a hotspot for marketers in almost every industry. However, it’s a newer platform compared to the other two on this list, so many of us marketers are still trying to figure it out. The best place to start is from the bottom up – with the algorithm.
Instagram’s algorithm has evolved since 2016 when it first began sorting users’ newsfeeds by relevance rather than timeliness. Now the algorithm works similarly to that of the parent company – Facebook. Using machine learning, to summarize six factors, Instagram can determine what content you value most and influence your news feed to prioritize that content.
These six factors shared by TechCrunch are:
Interest: This is a prediction Instagram makes about how interested you are in a particular post.
Frequency: How often you use the app will determine which posts you will see first when you reopen the app.
The following: The more people you follow, the less likely you will be able to see them all on your newsfeed.
Novelty: How recently was a post published? This has an effect when you see a post in your newsfeed.
Relationship: Who shared the post and your connection to them is a big factor in how often you see their content. This is influenced by tagged photos, engagement, and even the frequency of direct messages.
Use: The time you spend on Instagram also affects the content you see.
What about the Roll, Buy, and Explore pages?
With the advent of Reels, Shop, and the Explore page, Instagram users have several ways to naturally influence the factors listed above by interacting with content outside of their news feeds. For example, if you enjoy cooking videos, you may see more of these types of videos and roles in your news feed.
Does Instagram remove likes?
We wouldn’t be sure if we didn’t mention the latest update to the Instagram algorithm in the works – the removal of likes. Removing one of the app’s most popular features is currently being tested as a measure against bullying and increased pressure to post content that is gaining more and more social recognition for young Instagrammers.
The change has already taken effect in several countries, including Canada, Brazil and Australia. While it hasn’t gotten widespread in the US yet, you shouldn’t get too familiar with your newsfeed engagement that is visible to everyone. There could be a time soon when only you will see how many likes your posts are getting.
Everything revolves around the quality of content
The most important thing for brands and individuals is: Quality is king.
These algorithms are designed to filter out irrelevant, poor quality posts so that the highest quality content can get through. Control over what users see and what not is a collaboration between the social platform and the user. The user interacts with what they find interesting and the social media platform takes note of this and shows you more about it the next time they open the app.
The great lesson for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram marketers like us is to remember that it is our job to post content on social networks that is interesting, fun, helpful, and / or relevant to our audiences. This means picking relevant topics, making a nice copy, and posting compelling pictures and videos.
If you follow these best practices, your posts have a better chance of showing up to users. You can continue to inspire, excite and educate them.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2016 and has been updated for completeness.