TikTok vs Instagram - Understanding the algorithms

Reading Time: 3 mins

What is an algorithm? 

In as basic terms as possible, it is a set of rules followed by a computer to complete a task. They exist to deliver the most relevant content to users. Recommended posts on Instagram, suggested videos on Youtube, even posts from your friends. The order in which you see the content is all decided by algorithms. 

In social media, an algorithm can be defined as a means of sorting posts based on relevancy based on the likelihood that the user will engage with the content. 

Let’s dive a little deeper. 

Content Graph vs Social Graph

TikTok is different from most other popular social media platforms when it comes to its algorithm. The fundamental difference here is that TikTok uses a content graph rather than a social graph. So what are they?

Social Graphs

(Used by most popular social media platforms)

Let's take Instagram as an example of how your feed is ranked. They take content shared by people you follow and read the “signals” (all the information they have about what was posted). Then roughly put them in order of importance. These are as follows:

  • Information about the post (How popular a post is, when it was posted, how long it is, where it was posted from, tagged location of the post)
  • Information about the person who posted (includes signals like how many times have people interacted with that person in the past few weeks)
  • Your activity (what you are interested in, what posts you have liked)
  • Your history of interacting with someone (gives an idea of how interested you are in seeing posts from a particular person)

From all of this information, Instagram then makes educated guesses of how likely it is that you will interact with a post in a number of ways. The more likely you are to make an action, the higher up you will see a post. If you want to read more about Instagram’s algorithms you can do so here.

Content Graph (TikTok)

Now let’s look at TikTok. 

TikTok’s algorithm is democratised, meaning that everybody has the same chance at going viral, no matter how many followers you have. This is actually why the platform has grown so fast organically. 

Here’s a quick explanation of how TikTok's algorithm works:

  • It takes around 7-10 days for the algorithm to really work you out and personalise your ‘For You’ page. 
  • Think of the algorithm as a talent show of sorts. You make a video that is then placed in front of an initial panel of people (imagine them as judges).
  • The ‘judges’ then cast their votes via engagement - watch time, likes, comments, and shares. 
  • Based on levels of engagement, TikTok would then decide to promote or bury the post.
  • High levels of engagement = post shown to more people.
  • Low levels of engagement = post fizzles out and drifts into obscurity.
  • If your post passes the initial panel of ‘judges’ it is then shown to exponentially more people where the cycle continues. 
  • Don’t delete old posts because content can go back into the cycle weeks/months after the initial cycle. 

Your content needs to be engaging as well as entertaining to ensure that people watch 100% of your video. Responding to comments can also impact the level of engagement and potentially lead to your video going viral. 

Creative ways of driving engagement

  1. Spell things wrong - People love to pick up on when someone makes a mistake and can’t resist the urge to correct spelling and grammar. They leave a comment correcting you. They boost the engagement of your posts.
  2. Bold claims - Be controversial. People love a debate and if that debate is in your comments it drives that engagement. 
  3. Misleading statement or answers - …within reason, you aren’t trying to spread misinformation. Remember it’s about trying to get people to comment when they know that they’re right, or they at least know that what you have said is wrong. 
  4. Ask questions - Encourage the audience to engage in the comments. Ask them what they think? How would they do something? “Has this ever happened to you?”

When you boil it down to the basics, with TikTok, everyone is level pegging no matter how big the following. Engagement is everything. The longer the views, the more comments, likes, and shares, the more people your video will be pushed out to.

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