Landing a spot on the Explore page is the best free exposure you can get on Instagram.

Explore is a discovery engine that helps users find new content, and getting featured there is instrumental to growing an audience on Instagram.

Over 200 million users visit the Explore page every day.

It exclusively contains content from accounts users don’t already follow.

That guarantees your posts will be seen by people outside of your existing audience.

“Tell me more!”

Ok, here’s the deal. There’s no exact formula to getting on the Explore page.

But it helps if you know how the algorithm works.

Understanding how Explore works allows you to optimize content for the ranking signals its algorithm looks for.

This article will teach you how to do that. First, let’s break down the algorithm. Next, I’ll provide actionable tips to use on your next pieces of content.

Lastly, you’ll leave here knowing all about the Explore page and how to get on it.

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How Instagram Explore Works

While the Instagram home feed displays content from friends, family, and other people you follow – the Explore page surfaces content from accounts that users have no direct connection to.

When you want to change things up and dig into some photos and videos you haven’t seen before, Explore is where you can go to find it.

How does Instagram figure out what to show people on this page?

That’s what this section is going to cover.

Instagram Explore Ranking Factors

Instagram’s Explore algorithm uses the same signals as the main feed to rank content.

Those signals are:

  • Information about the post: Including captions, hashtags, location tags, likes, comments, etc.
  • A user’s activity on Instagram: The Explore page is personalized for each user based on what they engage with on Instagram.
  • A user’s history with the content creator: Content is more likely to appear in Explore if it’s published by an account a user has interacted with before.
  • Information about the content creator: Includes criteria such as the content they publish, how many followers they have, how much engagement their posts receive, etc.

Two-Stage Ranking System

Content goes through two stages before it ends up in the Explore recommendation system: the candidate generation stage (also known as sourcing stage) and the ranking stage.

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Candidate Generation Stage

When curating content for the Explore page the algorithm begins by looking for “seed” accounts, which are accounts people have interacted with before.

By analyzing the seed accounts, Instagram can find related accounts a person might be interested in.

After the Explore algorithm rounds up a selection of seed accounts, and similar-to-seed accounts, it analyzes the photos and videos the accounts have posted or engaged with.

The candidate generation stage is illustrated in the example below:

Example illustration of the candidate generation stage.Screenshot from Instagram-engineering.com, November 2019

“There are many different ways people can engage with accounts and media on Instagram (e.g., follow, like, comment, save, and share). There are also different media types (e.g., photo, video, Stories, and Live), which means there are a variety of sources we can construct using a similar scheme.”

At the end of the candidate generation stage, the algorithm will have compiled thousands of eligible pieces of content (candidates) to show a user.

Instagram then takes a sample of 500 of those candidates and sends them to the next stage.

Ranking Stage

The second stage of selecting content for Instagram Explore involves a three-pass filtering process.

In the first pass, the algorithm narrows down the candidates from 500 to 150

Then the candidates are reduced from 150 to 50, and finally from 50 down to 25.

Now the algorithm is ready to fill the Explore page with the highest-quality and most relevant posts.

All of this happens in the blink of an eye every time a user visits the Explore page or pulls down to refresh it.

The final 25 candidates are what is shown on the first screen of a person’s Explore grid.

How does Instagram select the 25 most relevant pieces of content from a pool of 500 candidates? The company explains:

“We predict individual actions that people take on each piece of media, whether they’re positive actions such as like and save, or negative actions such as “See Fewer Posts Like This” (SFPLT). We use a multi-task multi-label (MTML) neural network to predict these events. The shared multilayer perceptron (MLP) allows us to capture the common signals from different actions.”

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Instagram predicts what actions people will take on a post after seeing in Explore.

Likes, comments, and saves are all positive actions a user might take. Each action carries its own weight.

Instagram uses the weight of a predicted action to measure how relevant a piece of content is to a given user.

For example, if the action of saving a post is weighted higher than liking a post, then Instagram will select a post a user is likely to save.

Instagram does not provide any specific details about the weight of user actions.

It’s worth noting that the algorithm disregards multiple posts from the same seed account. So it’s unlikely that you’ll see consecutive posts from the same creator in Explore.

How To Optimize Content For Instagram Explore

You can increase your chances of getting on the Instagram Explore page by optimizing content for its known ranking signals.

To recap, those signals are:

  • Information about the post.
  • A user’s activity on Instagram.
  • A user’s history of interacting with the content creator.
  • Information about the content creator.

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Here’s what you can do to get your content picked up by the Explore algorithm.

Information About The Post

Write detailed captions that make it easy for Instagram to identify what’s in each post you publish.

Adding relevant hashtags is important as they tip off the Explore algorithm while adding another layer of discoverability to your content.

When applicable, include a location tag so Instagram can show it to users who enjoy local content.

A User’s Activity On Instagram

This is a tricky signal to optimize for because what other users do on Instagram is out of your hands.

For this one, start by thinking about who your ideal audience is and what types of accounts they’re likely to engage with.

Then think about what you can do to be similar to those accounts.

If you want to attract the types of users who engage with brand accounts, then you need to position yours in a way that Instagram can identify it belongs to a brand.

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A User’s History With The Content Creator

Again with this ranking factor, you can’t force users to engage with your content.

So you have to go out there and get in front of the audience you want to attract.

Comment on posts, reply to comment threads, and maybe even share others’ content in your stories.

If they engage with you back it counts as an interaction.

Now you’ve just increased your chances of appearing in their Explore feed.

Information About The Content Creator (You)

This is a ranking factor you have full control over via the information you publish to your profile.

In addition to completely filling out your profile page, it helps to build a content strategy around a defined niche.

Your goal is to make it clear what type of content creator you are.

If your niche is 3D printers, then sharing pictures of your fishing weekend is only going to confuse Instagram’s algorithm.

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“Is this a 3D printing page or a fishing page?”

There should be no doubt what your page is about.

Other information about your account, like whether you have a history of being reported by other users, is considered as well.

Instagram avoids surfacing borderline content in the Explore feed. So it’s a good idea to publish content that’s suitable for most audiences.

Other Recommendations

Post At The Right Time

Have you ever checked your Instagram insights to see when your followers are most active?

You should, because posting at the right time is key to getting as many likes and comments as possible.

Instagram’s main feed prioritizes freshness, and it’s the engagement you get there that will determine whether your content makes it to Explore.

To access this feature you need to have an Instagram business account.

While logged into your business account, tap the three-line menu button in the upper right corner.

Select Insights and scroll until you see the Audience section.

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This section has a breakdown of your followers including when they’re active and what their demographics are.

Posting when your followers are most likely to be online could be an effective way to generate more engagement from them.

But don’t feel as though you’re constrained to those times.

It’s a good idea to experiment with different posting times to see what works best.

Customize Your Video Thumbnails

After uploading a video Instagram lets you customize the thumbnail before publishing it.

This is a feature you shouldn’t ignore, because the Explore feed is 100% visual.

A thumbnail is the only way for a someone to get an idea of what a video is about before watching it.

You can’t upload custom thumbnails like you can on YouTube, but you can pinpoint an individual frame to use as a thumbnail.

Take a video of a cooking tutorial, for example. A thumbnail of the finished dish is more informative than a shot of the raw ingredients.

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A mediocre thumbnail can detract views from a video people may otherwise enjoyed and shared with their friends.

Unfortunately they didn’t tap on it it in their Explore feed because they didn’t know what it was about.

Stay On Top Of Updates

When it comes to optimizing content for social media algorithms, it never hurts to keep up with what’s new.

I don’t mean the latest memes, or what’s trending in popular culture. I mean what’s new with Instagram itself.

Instagram is always upgrading its app with innovative new features, or content formats inspired by competitive social media sites.

When Instagram introduces something new, the app raises awareness by boosting visibility of whatever was recently added.

For example, when Instagram launched Reels, the format was immediately given a prominent placement in peoples’ Explore feeds.

Early adopters of Reels would have benefitted from greater exposure during the launch window, as there was a smaller pool of content to pull from.

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Whether the new format ends up being the next big thing, or fizzles out in a few months, is irrelevant if you jump on it early.

Time invested in creating the content isn’t wasted if it helps amplify your reach.

How do you learn about Instagram’s latest features as soon as they’re launched?

Stay glued to our news updates at Search Engine Journal.

We filter through the noise to keep you informed about the features that matter to marketers and businesses.

Conclusion

Getting on the Instagram Explore page isn’t as simple as completing a checklist or following a formula.

In addition to building a brand and cultivating an engaged audience, you have to stay on top of platform updates and keep the machine fed with new content.

But it’s not impossible to get there. Accounts blow up on Explore every day. Follow the advice in this article and yours could be one of them.

More Resources:

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Featured Image: MandriaPix/Shutterstock





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By Rose Milev

I always want to learn something new. SEO is my passion.

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