All you wanted to know about #hashtag

Hashtag (# sign) is everywhere on the web these days. However, in absence of clarity on use of hashtag, it is being used indiscriminately. Sometimes this hurts the very purpose for which it was created, that is, greater visibility. That's why this post. [updated in Feb 2016]

The use of hashtag on social media started in 2007. It was used in Twitter to make words instantly searchable like any hyperlink, and for finding and grouping all tweets related to that expression. The basic purpose remains the same till date. So, if you put an expression '#CleanTheWorld' in your tweet, and if a visitor clicks on it, he will be shown all recent tweets on which this hastag has been used. Similarly, if he searches for this expression on Twitter, he is likely to see your tweet in the search page.

Hashtag is now being used on other social platforms, sometimes with some good sense and often wrongly by hashtag-crazy people. We have seen some Google Plus accounts with posts full of hashtags, which only harms the prospects of such accounts. Google itself puts relevant hashtags around posts.

We'd limit this discussion to use of hashtag on Twitter, as this is the platform optimized for this.

When and how should hashtag be used?

We should use hashtag when we want to propagate or promote something on Twitter. In general, this 'something' would include a thought, an issue, an event, but not a specific product. Most people use hashtags to spread a thought or support a cause or criticize something they dislike, thus trending it. Businesses often use it to promote a fad associated with their brands, or a campaign. Hashtags are now being used more and more for directed conversations on Twitter through Twitter chats and contests.

Hashtag best practices

1. Use relevant expressions / keywords with hashtag. Do not use hashtag expressions that have no relation with the topic of the tweet.

2. Use hashtags already in use. It helps if you use a hashtag that is already popular and is relevant to your subject. Inventing new hashtags for your needs is fine but these would take long time and you will have to work hard to make them popular.

3. Use hashtags that are short and memorable. When using long expressions, they must be such that people would recall them easily. Conversely, don't use abbreviations unless they make a sense.

4. Use Capital Letters and numbers to separate words. When using more than one word, capitalize each word for easy readability as well as recall. You can see the difference between these two: #ChampionsLeague vs #championsleague. You can also use 2 for to and 4 for for to separate words (e.g. #Volunteers4charity).

How not to use hastags on Twitter

1. Putting too many hashtags in one tweet. In one tweet, you should put only one or two hashtags, rarely three, but never more than that. Even three 
looks a bit too much.
Too many hashtags!

2. Using hashtag just because the expression looks great to you. If you are in love with some expressions, do promote them but not just by putting # sign before them. There are better ways to do so, such as writing more about them on your blog or discussing them over on social media. 

3. Spoiling sense and readability with hashtag in sentence. A hashtag can be used anywhere inside the tweet. But if you use it inside a sentence, take care that it does not spoil the readability and sense of the tweet. (A bad example of such tweet: Whenever #socialmediatalksabout something, it goes viral, not when #Obamacriesabout. At the time of writing this post, we found both these hashtags popular, one even trending, but the way these are used to compress phrases hurts readability, isn't it?)

4. Putting too broad or general hashtags. Well, this is not an abuse of hashtag but a waste of this facility unless you are an authority on that subject. For example, if you write tweets on news around you, putting a hashtag #news will not make the tweet viral because this hashtag is too broad and anybody searching for #news will get hundreds of results from big newspapers etc and your tweet will hardly be visible.

5. Repeating the same hashtag in a tweet. Repeating a hashtag does not help; rather it shows the person in poor light. It also irritates.

6. Using hashtags for wrong purposes or without sensitivity. Don't use a hashtag to malign people, spread hatred or aggravate a social situation. Restrain yourself from using hashtag to divert a discussion towards an undesirable direction. Avoid popularizing a hashtag that is likely to be exploited for wrong purposes.

In their urge to get traffic to their opinion, especially on a controversial topic, some people make hashtags with intemperate language. Some use expressions that might hurt a religious or racial minority. Social ethics requires that we do not indulge in promoting hatred or demeaning someone's faith.

Avoid these technical mistakes while putting hashtags

1. Hashtag with only numbers. Twitter does not accept hashtags like this: #1234

2. Text before hashtag sign. If you put letters or numbers before # sign, nothing after this sign is hashtagged.

3. Putting a space or punctuation mark or @ within the tagged expression. Such expressions are not accepted: #World News (The hashtag will be read only as #World) | #It'sFriday (The hashtag will be read as #It)

4. Hashtags on private account. Hashtags work only when the Twitter account is public.

Promoting your hashtag(s)

When you are passionate about some thought / cause and you have created or you follow a hashtag. Show that hashtag on your email signature line and social profiles (on FB, Google Plus, Twitter, website, blog, etc). Same goes for your own hashtag or a hashtag that tags you with a club, a local store, a football team.

Businesses can, additionally, create hashtags around their business: about their products or relating to their area of operation or a social cause that the business promotes. They can promote their hashtags not only on social networks but also by putting these on business cards, writing pads and other stationery, advertisements, presentations, company pamphlets etc.

Hashtag, for what purpose?

Commonsense says that a hashtag would make the connected expression popular, which in turn would help the tweet popular. If the tweet is connected to a blog post or a photo or a video, these should get popular too. 

With this premise, brands have been using hashtags to promote campaigns. But do all hashtags bring traffic? Do they lead to engagement? Is the engagement always helpful?

While majority of campaigns using hashtag get desired results - to varying extent - some backfire. In some cases, poorly constructed hashtags have hurt sentiments or have been seen inappropriate and have received backlash from followers.

In some cases (e.g. when an opinion is sought through a hashtag), there can be very critical responses. Sometimes, trolls have been seen to exploit hashtags and post irrelevant or abusive responses, thus derailing the campaign and embarrassing the brand.

The short point for use of hashtag by persons and businesses is that this should be taken as a tool for promoting thoughts or products on Twitter. Like a physical tool, it would work to its best if used expertly; it would hurt the user if used shabbily or for wrong purposes. 

A 2015 study found that using hashtags on Facebook posts in fact reduced engagement.