The Do's And Don'ts Of Using Hashtags On Instagram

Hashtags have been around for 10 years now, ever since 2007 when they were a brand new concept in Chris Messina's mind. 

In that time, they've moved across from being used mainly on Twitter to being integral to grouping conversations on other social media channels too. In this post, we'll explore exactly how you should be using hashtags on Instagram to grow your channel, increase engagement (meaning likes and comments) and attract new customers for your business. 

What is a hashtag?

First of all, let's clarify what a hashtag is. A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash mark (#), that is used on social media to group content together by topics. When a user clicks on a hashtag on Instagram, they'll be taken to a page of aggregated content - like the image below - which shows them all of the posts that have used the hashtag they clicked on. These hashtag pages are updated in real time, so as soon as you post on Instagram using a hashtag you will see it appear on the hashtag search (unless the hashtag is offensive or you've been shadowbanned - more on that later!)

#smallbiz hashtag on Instagram

On each hashtag search page you'll see nine "Top Posts", followed by all of the "Most Recent" content that has been posted using that hashtag. Whether your post appears in the "Top Posts" section of the hashtag search depends on the amount of engagement it gets when posted. It's the equivalent of having a trending or viral post on Twitter. 

What are the basic rules of using hashtags on Instagram?

Hashtags are a way for users to discover content they are interested in seeing; so, if you use hashtags correctly, you open your account up to being found by new potential fans who will love what you post. Because of this, you should ensure that all of the hashtags you're using are relevant to the photo you're posting. If you're incorrectly using hashtags, such as hashtagging #vegetarian on a photo of a steak, people looking through that hashtag will find the photo irrelevant and badly categorised. This will turn them off your brand and can risk looking unprofessional and spammy. The more relevant the hashtags, the more engagement you'll see on the post. 

A golden rule to remember is that each Instagram post can only have a maximum of 30 hashtags. According to a study by Simply Measured, posts with even just one hashtag average 12.6% more engagement than posts without. Generally on Instagram, the more hashtags you use per post, the more engagement you will get. However, some studies show that engagement drops after you start using 10 hashtags or more. 

 Source: Sprout Social

Source: Sprout Social

Other studies show that using 15 - 20 hashtags is the ideal number. We recommend experimenting with your hashtag count to see what works for your brand's page. Remember that Instagram users aren't as fatigued by hashtags as Facebook and Twitter users, but that using too many hashtags could seem desperate and attract bot engagement and followers. 

It's also important to keep in mind that numbers and emojis are allowed in hashtags, but spaces and special characters (such as & and apostrophes) won’t work. 

Lastly, don't #hashtag #individual #words #in #your #post #like #this. It's very bad practice and won't actually help anyone to find your content in a relevant way, because hashtags work on an individual basis. You need to combine words to make your hashtag into a phrase, such as #socialmedia not #social #media. 

How can you find the right hashtags to use?

Much like knowing how many hashtags to use per post, the best way to find the right hashtags for your brand to use is to experiment. What works for other accounts may not work for yours. It totally depends on the sector and industry your business is in.

With that being said, there are ways to research the best hashtags to use for your account. 

1. Browse Instagram's related hashtags section.

When you search for a hashtag on Instagram, you'll see a row of suggested hashtags appear. Browse through these to find other hashtags that will work for the type of content you're posting.

2. Use hashtags that influencers in your industry are using.

Find accounts that you would like to emulate the success of and see what kind of hashtags they're using for their content. Make sure that they are in a relevant industry to you or the hashtags won't work in the same way with your content. 

3. Look at the hashtags your competitors are using.

When you're checking out your competitors' social media channels to stay ahead of the curve, take a look at the hashtags they've been using. You'll either pick up some new, successful hashtags your brand could use or you'll see what not to do if their posts have been tanking. 

4. Research using hashtag analysis tools. 

There are a range of tools available that can help you in your search for the perfect hashtag, such as Hashtagify.me or Sprout Social. You can sign up for a free trial for both if you want to save some time in your hashtag research process. 

Think of hashtags like you would think of long-tail keywords in SEO (search engine optimisation). A long-tail keyword is when a user types a very specific search term into Google, such as "little black sparkly dress". That user is much further along in the buying process than someone who types "dress" into Google and doesn't know precisely what they are looking for. It's much easier for brands to rank for long-tail keywords and to convert those users into buying their products. 

The same is true of using specific hashtags rather than generic ones: you will reach a much more engaged and active audience. For example, if you use #london on your post (which has been used over 85 million times on Instagram) it's likely that your photo will be drowned out in a sea of other content. It's very difficult for people to scroll through such a popular hashtag and engage with your content, as your photo will be pushed down the page by the millions of others using that hashtag. Popular hashtags (like #love, #sunshine, #family) can also often be misused by people who tag them thinking they'll get lots of engagement from the millions of other people using them. Find out more about picking the right-sized hashtags for your account in Connor McCreesh's post on hashtag ladders

Instead of going for the popular, generic hashtags, try using a mixture specific hashtags too. For instance, by using #gramminginlondon rather than #london you'll find a more engaged group of Instagrammers and content that is more relevant to the hashtag. It's easier for your photo to stay at the top of the hashtag search page on a specific hashtag. 

#London hashtag
#gramminginlondon hashtag

You'll see the best engagement when you use both generic and specific hashtags with your post. If your business is location specific then you should be using geo-located hashtags, such as #londonflorist or #southamptonblogger. Think of the hashtags your ideal customer could be using to find you and make sure that you're regularly posting using those. 

Here are some hashtags you should explore using for different topics:

Hashtags for Travel

#lifewelltravelled #travelbug #instatravel #wanderlust #darlingescapes #worldofwanderlust #traveldeeper #travelphotography #travelgram #postcardplaces #thebestdestinations 

Hashtags for Business

#officeinspo #officeinspiration #workhardanywhere #lovemyjob #businessminded #smallbiz #risingtidesociety #startup #entrepreneur #mytribe #communityovercompetition 

Hashtags for Lifestyle

#thatsdarling #darlingmovement #holdthemoments #alittlebeautyeveryday #verilymoment #thehappynow #lovelysquares #seekinspirecreate #gameoftones 

Hashtags for Blogging

#blogger #fashionblogger #travelblogger #beautyblogger #bblogger #lifestyleblogger #lblogger #documentyourdays #postthepeople #thehumaneffect #littlestoriesofmylife

Hashtags for Books

#reading #lovereading #currentlyreading #bookstagram #booklover #instabook #bookphotography #bookcommunity #booksaremybag #bibliophile #bookworm

Want some ideas for hashtags in your business sector? Contact us to talk about your Instagram hashtag strategy. 

Where should you post hashtags on Instagram?

If you scroll through the Instagram newsfeed, you'll see hashtags being used in a variety of different ways. Some content creators will post their hashtags in the caption, some will post them in the comments. It's rumoured that posting your hashtags in the comments section of your post will affect your engagement, but this has never been proven. 

If you want to have a clear and clean caption, it's best to post your hashtags as the first comment on your post. This means that users can read your caption without being distracted by all of the hashtags you're using. If you're planning to post your hashtags in the comments then you need to post your hashtags within the same minute as posting your photo. If you leave it much longer, your photo will not rank on the hashtag search pages and you'll miss out on the engagement you should have got. Some people even choose to have five dots on separate lines before the hashtags they post in their comments. This essentially truncates the comment and means that the hashtags are hidden in the comments section. As soon as others start to comment on your photo, your audience won't be able to see that you used hashtags in the first place, unless they scroll up to the beginning of the comments section. To use this hashtag method, you'll need to write them out in the 'notes' app on your phone, then copy and paste them across to your newly-posted photo. 

When you're using a hashtag that you want users to see, it's best to include it in your caption. This could be when you're at an event, you're participating in an Instagram challenge, or you're using your own brand hashtag. Whatever the occasion, if you want for people to know about and click on that hashtag, include it in prime position in your caption. 

What is shadowbanning on Instagram?

Shadowbanning is Instagram’s attempt to prevent content which is against their terms of service. It's become a popular topic of conversation in the Instagram community over the past year as users have seen their accounts shut down for not 'playing by the rules'. 

One of the ways that you will be shadowbanned on Instagram is by using the same hashtags too often. Instagram might pick up on this as spam or bot activity, so will hide your content from the hashtags you're using. For this reason, it's important to switch up the hashtags you're using for each post. Keep around five different hashtag sets in the 'notes' app on your phone and rotate them for your Instagram posts. If you used a hashtag on one post, it's best not to use it again until two or more posts later. 

You can also be shadowbanned for using inappropriate hashtags that contain rude or graphic content. Instagram puts a blanket ban on hashtags like these, so by using them you won't appear in the search pages. However, you might be using a hashtag totally innocently and not realise that others have been posting unacceptable content to it and it's been banned (like #dogsofinstagram below). Browse through hashtags before you plan on using them to double check this won't happen. If a hashtag you've used is banned, it's best to delete the hashtag from your post and disassociate your account from the negative content. Shadowbans can last for days or weeks and your account won't see any positive engagement from using a banned hashtag in that time. 

#dogsofinstagram shadowban

Is using hashtags on Instagram 'right' for your account?

If you're looking to grow your Instagram account or bring new customers to your business, you should absolutely be using hashtags on Instagram. Some business owners shy away from using them as they're not sure how to or they think it involves a lot of research. Whilst it is more effort to post hashtags on Instagram than it is to avoid them, it's worth it for the increase in followers and engagement. If you're not using hashtags, your posts will only be seen by the same small group of people who are following your account. 

If you're a celebrity or influencer with a massive following, using hashtags is much less relevant. Accounts with huge followings are more likely to appear in the "Explore" tab of Instagram, because they'll receive huge engagement from their followings and the Instagram algorithm will recognise that it's popular content. Being in the "Explore" tab helps your content to be discovered by people outside of your initial audience. If you don't have a huge following on your account, hashtags are the best way to get into that "Explore" tab instead.  

Happy hashtagging! If you'd like more help with using the right hashtags for your business to grow on Instagram, send us a message and let's get started.