What Are Algorithms—and How Do They Work?
If you have social media of any kind, chances are you’ve heard people talk about “algorithms” pretty regularly. When someone posts content and it performs poorly, whether they be a business, an influencer, or your Average Joe, you might hear them blame it on the algorithm.
“Oh, the algorithm hates me… I can’t figure out the algorithm… The algorithm is always changing, I can’t keep up!” And so on and so forth.
At Digital Storyteller, we recognize that there is some truth in these statements. Algorithms are always changing. But first, what are algorithms—and how do they work?
What is an Algorithm?
While the word “algorithm” is thrown around a lot today, it can be hard to fully grasp what this term even means.
Kristien Matelski at Vizion puts it perfectly. An algorithm “is a pattern or set of rules that problem-solving operations (especially computers) use to make calculations.”
Let’s dive into what this definition means for Google and social media specifically.
The Google Algorithm
The Google algorithm is “a complex system that allows Google to find, rank and return the most relevant pages for a certain search query.”
Like we mentioned, algorithms are constantly changing. In fact, Marketing Whiz Neil Patel shares on his blog that Google makes minor changes to its algorithm daily!
Google “might even release multiple updates in 24 hours,” says Patel. “These changes are usually small, and you probably won’t notice a drop in search page rankings due to these updates alone.”
However, knowing that the algorithm can literally change overnight (and multiple times at that!), it can feel impossible to keep up. (We know our social team at Digital Storyteller works hard every day to stay fresh with new updates and trends you can’t ignore.)
Google holds over 70% of the search market share and therefore, is the most popular search engine, according to Hubspot. This considered, how can you use the algorithm to your advantage? What does the algorithm take into account when ranking content?
Well, you’re in luck! According to an explainer video posted by Google titled “How Google Search Works,” there are hundreds of factors that go into determining what pops up on a search engine. Here are a few.
- Keywords: Keywords play a significant role in the optimization of your content. You want to ensure you’re paying close attention to the keywords you choose to use. For example, if you own a smoothie bar in downtown San Diego, you probably want to rank for “good smoothies San Diego” or “downtown San Diego smoothies,” as opposed to keywords like “pizza” and “tacos!” For more on keywords, visit our article on how to optimize your content for search.
- Meta Descriptions: Keywords aren’t the only thing Google looks for when curating a search engine results page (SERP). Meta descriptions, sometimes called a meta description attribute or tag, “is an HTML element that describes and summarizes the contents of your page for the benefit of users and search engines,” according to WordStream. Write meta descriptions carefully, as you only get about 155 words to show off what your content is about!
- Images and Alt Text: Google LOVES images, and so do humans! Think, if you’re looking up a recipe on how to make the ‘World’s Best Lasagna,’ would you be more likely to click on the recipe with or without photos? Alt Text, or alternative text, is also important. It’s a short written description of the image that Google can read to help rank your page.
- Title: Your title needs to be well thought out and something people would actually search for. Your title should summarize your content and include your target keywords.
- Meta Tags: “Meta tags are invisible tags that provide data about your page to search engines and website visitors.”
- Backlinks: The Google algorithm also looks for backlinks. Backlinking is the action of linking back to another external site on your own and is an extremely valuable tactic to use in sharing your site content. Backlinking helps position you as a trustworthy, authoritative source. For more on backlinking, visit our blog titled “PR vs Backlinking Strategies: What’s the Difference?”
- Site Health: A site with a score of 80% or above is typically considered “good” site health. Site health is determined by the number of errors and warnings found when your site is crawled.
- Site Authority: Google also cares about your site authority score. Authority is built slowly over time but is determined by your site’s backlinks and organic keywords. For more on how to build your domain authority, visit our article to get the secret sauce behind improving organic search rankings.
For our friends who are interested in watching Google’s quick explainer video for more information on how Google search works, here it is.
Social Media Algorithms
So, what’s a social media algorithm? “A social media algorithm is the mathematical calculation that sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and [Snapchat] use to understand user habits and to customize the social experience,” says Matelski.
“Social media algorithms work seamlessly behind the scenes, optimizing the user experience without them knowing the system is at work.”
No two algorithms are identical but they all use similar structures to determine what content you see, to organize the way you see it, and when you see it. Here are a few elements to consider.
- Social Signals: Social shares, likes, tweets, and pins on search engine rankings have been shown to increase SEO through several case studies. Social sharing helps boost your SEO ranking significantly if you stay consistent with organic content and ask people to share your content. For two more content marketing SEO tips, read on here.
- Hashtags: Hashtags help categorize your content and will help users discover your business. Using hashtags in your social posts can also place your content higher in SERPs.
- Captions: While it may be trendy to keep your captions simple (*cough cough* influencers who write one-word captions or only use emojis!), this is not the best practice for SEO and algorithm purposes. Great captions are engaging, SEO friendly, and memorable. Great captions take time and effort. Don’t underestimate the power of a great caption!
- Video Content: We all know that video content is the number one media being pushed right now. So, get your business ready to push out some awesome video content if you haven’t already—Instagram reels, TikToks, explainer videos, testimonials, culture videos, the list goes on. Bonus tip? Use trending music in your videos to rank higher!
For those of you whose business is ready to take advantage of the benefits of video content, check out our article on Instagram Reels to learn how video content supports your social strategy.