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Decoding the Social Media Algorithms. A Guide for Communicators

Riddles wrapped in a mystery. Find out how to work with the algorithms from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.

decoding social algorithms

We now live in a world where bite-sized chunks of mathematical data have become central to how we live our daily lives.

When you search online, scroll through your social feeds or receive song recommendations from Spotify, you are being guided by an algorithm that understands your consumption habits perhaps more than you do.

Algorithms are becoming central to everything you do. Often misunderstood and occasionally inaccurate but always on and always learning.

How you and most of society consume news and information can be attributed directly to algorithms.

Whether searching on Google or scrolling through Facebook, the information that is presented comes from a mathematical equation based on two factors:

  • Algorithmic quality – the quality standard of the content available
  • Your previous history – the actions and reactions you’ve taken to specific chunks of content in the past

This means whether by design or by personal choice, social media algorithms have allowed us to create filters to see content we want and remove everything else we don’t.

These filters work perfectly most of the time. They provide relevance in a sea of unlimited information and prevent our newsfeeds and timelines from clogging up with unwanted content.

Illustration via MIT Technology Review

It’s in situations that require an understanding of different opinions and facts that social media algorithms can cause problems. These filters become bubbles which prevent us from seeing content we may not want to see but perhaps need to.

At best they slow the process of understanding different perspectives and views, and at worst they cause greater conflict between opposing sides.

Look no further than the role social media algorithms played in creating filter bubbles and (in some cases) spreading false information during the 2016 US Presidential elections and the UK Brexit vote.

While this article won’t go into either event, they both shone a light on the power of social media algorithms and the importance of understanding how they work.

Not that we have the means to completely understand how each social media algorithm works. None of the social networking companies makes their algorithmic equations available to the public.

Social networks provide, on occasion, tidbits of the inner workings of their algorithms and we can make assumptions based on company announcements and testing, but no one has the complete recipe.

And that’s the caveat to this social media algorithm guide.

What’s presented here is based on a combination of publicly disclosed information by the social networks, third-party research, some basic assumptions and a little common sense.

Secondly, the diagrams presented are not visual representations of the algorithms. That would be impossible. They are more of a process and checklist you can follow to ensure your content and messaging has the best opportunity to receive maximum impact.

The diagrams below are more Decision Problems rather than algorithmic equations.

Consider this a starter for ten and a guide that can be expanded upon and added to.

Why do we need to understand social media algorithms?

A lack of understanding of how social media algorithms work is like driving in the dark with no lights on.

It’s possible and you may get to your destination but it’s an unnecessary risk.

In a nutshell, you need to understand them for the following reasons:

  • Impact: To ensure that your content creates the greatest impact possible
  • ROI: To ensure the time and effort spent publishing to these platforms has the greatest return
  • Reputation: To become a long-term trusted source of information for the algorithms
  • Wider societal impact: Communicators need to be able to ‘fight fire with fire’ to prevent false information spreading online

This social media algorithm guide includes the five major social networks:

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Instagram

Now that’s out of the way, let’s start with the social networking behemoth and the algorithm that everybody’s talking about.

Facebook Algorithm

Formerly known as EdgeRank, Facebook’s famous (or infamous, depending who you ask) newsfeed algorithm has had its fair share of negative press in the last few years.

    • Declining organic page reach: Check
    • Facilitation of fake news and clickbait headlines: Check
  • Suppression of right-wing news content: Check

The accumulation of negative press plus user feedback is why the company has made recent and swift moves to eradicate the types of content that make people either mad, bad or sad.

In fact, Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement outlining how he intends to help people have “meaningful social interactions” between one another coupled with a further reduction in organic reach has some in the comms business worried.

They wonder if Facebook is actually worth the effort these days. The short answer is ‘probably’ but it requires higher quality content and a change of approach. It’s about building a community not an audience.

What do we know about the Facebook algorithm?

facebook algorithm
Click for larger version

LinkedIn Algorithm

While the LinkedIn algorithm hasn’t been on the end of as much controversy as Facebook, it has certainly had a few hiccups along the way.

In September 2016, LinkedIn was accused of showing a preference to men over women when looking for candidates using its search feature.

A few months before that, LinkedIn users had fun and games with people who have names that are double entendres. Bart Simpson played no part in any of this.

LinkedIn has perhaps been one of the most open social networks about how its algorithm works.

In March last year, it’s data team published a blog post titled, Strategies for Keeping the LinkedIn Feed Relevant which included an algorithm diagram of how it combats spam.

What is telling from this post is that LinkedIn uses human intervention as well as its algorithm to determine content quality.

If a post begins to receive a lot of engagement “real people at LinkedIn” will analyse it and decide whether it’s good enough to be seen by a wider audience on the platform.

Insider tip: keep your LinkedIn network relevant to the types of content you share on the platform. It will have a greater chance of spreading if most of your contacts are in the same industry as you and value the same kind of content.

What do we know about the LinkedIn algorithm? (With thanks to Green Umbrella)

  • Native content takes precedence over links to other sites
  • Likes, comments and shares are likely to have different weightings
  • A post is served to a small percentage of users to measure initial engagement
  • One sentence paragraphs of personal narratives (currently) do exceptionally well as a viral mechanism
  • Content with high engagement will be analysed by LinkedIn staff and potentially opened up to a wider audience (though human analysis can be subjective)
linkedin algorithm
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Twitter Algorithm

The Twitter algorithm, or the “Algorithmic Timeline” as Twitter calls it was introduced in 2016. Prior to this, when you logged in to Twitter your timeline was in reverse-chronicle order with the latest tweets from the people you follow at the top of the page.

The intention of the Twitter algorithm is to make the timeline more relevant so users can catch important tweets that they would otherwise miss from people they engage with the most.

What do we know about the Twitter algorithm?

  • Native content is likely to take precedence over links to other sites
  • Tweets from people you engage with the most will show first
  • A tweet is served to a small percentage of users to measure initial engagement
  • Likes, replies and retweets are likely to have a weighting score
  • Time spent reading someone’s tweets will impact the content you see even if you don’t engage with it
Twitter algorithm
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YouTube Algorithm

The YouTube algorithm is perhaps one of the hardest to crack these days given the popularity of the platform. With 1.5bn global users and statistically the second largest search engine in the world, YouTube is a platform to be reckoned with.

The YouTube algorithm has been developed to serve those that contribute the most to the site. This is reflected in some of its ranking factors which are based on posting consistency and the number of subscribers a user has.

Unless you’re famous, superbly talented in some way or have a completely different angle to creating videos than anyone else, building a substantial audience on YouTube from scratch will take work.

Why? Because the quality of content is exceptionally high and every topic imaginable has been covered already. On top of this, it requires posting of around 2/3 times a week to gain algorithmic traction.

This is why YouTube SEO is a growing industry and many ‘traditional’ SEO experts like Brian Dean are beginning to focus on and hone their skills on the YouTube platform.

What do we know about the YouTube algorithm? (With thanks to Derral Eves and Matt Gielen)

  • Total watch time and audience retention are important ranking factors
  • Upload frequency is an important factor
  • A recently uploaded video is served to a small percentage of users to measure initial engagement
  • The more subscribers you have the more priority the algorithm places on your videos
  • Videos that are 7-16 mins in length receive the best retention, most engagement and best viewer-to-subscription rate
  • The YouTube algorithm is AI. It learns, understands and expands
youtube algorithm
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Instagram Algorithm

Instagram announced its algorithm in mid-2016 as a way to provide users with the type of content they will engage with the most.

Regardless of whether the people you engage with the most post an image the day before, you’ll get to see them at the top of your timeline when you next log in.

Prior to the Instagram algorithm, a post had a half-life of 72 minutes. Now it can receive engagement days after it is been posted.

Engagement is key ranking factor for the Instagram algorithm. The more likes, comments, comment likes, post saves, DM replies and sent via DMs a post receives, the more weighting is placed on it by the algorithm

What do we know about the Instagram algorithm?

  • Posting regularly will help you feature higher in users’ timelines
  • An established and engaged community will improve each post’s credibility
  • Actively engaging with other people’s content (via likes and comments) helps
  • The longer users spend on the post the more algorithmic credibility it has
instagram algorithm
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Decoding the social media algorithms requires a collective effort

Social networks continually A/B test and change their algorithms to accommodate new features, revenue streams and provide more value to users.

Facebook’s recent algorithm change is to encourage more “meaningful interactions” between friends and family. According to Facebook, it’s making these changes because studies find people feel less happy after passively viewing their timeline.

While we’ll never completely understand the inner workings of each social media algorithm, we can take cues from the likes of Facebook and adjust our approach accordingly.

We can decode the social media algorithms piece-by-piece through our own experiences and by sharing learnings with one another.

Using crumbs of information, basic assumptions, some common sense, continuous testing and the sharing of data, these mystical bite-sized chunks of mathematical equations can be cracked.

Much like the SEO industry was born out of a collective desire to crack the search engine algorithms, we too can work together to make sense of their powerful social media counterparts that are shaping society and culture.

This means continually testing content to discover what works, what doesn’t and, in either case, why.

It requires speed and agility when it comes to social media communications. It requires a collective sharing of knowledge and experience.

And perhaps it requires a collective sharing of clout to pressure the social networking companies to provide more information on the inner workings of these mysterious algorithms that are having a greater influence on how we all live.

This is my starter for ten.

If you’ve anything extra to add, feel free to let me know.

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