In a recent Meltwater webinar, we discussed the Instagram algorithm and how the platform ranks content, including hashtags and the corresponding search results. Following the webinar, the most commonly asked questions centered around Instagram hashtags and the nuances of using them. This blog post will explain how Instagram hashtags work and why they are valuable to businesses using Instagram.

Why should you care about hashtags on Instagram? 

Hashtags are the best search results you can control on the entire platform. While there is the Explore page, that is heavily curated by the algorithm based on personal behaviors of each user and there’s no way to ensure you’ll appear in those searches. And location searches are great if you have a physical business location that people are actually looking for – like a restaurant, nail salon, etc. But if you don’t fit into that mold, and even if you do, you want to be found by people searching around on Instagram, and the best way to do that is with hashtags.

If someone is searching for something on Instagram, be it inspiration for a birthday party, training for work, or anything else, they are going to search via hashtags simply because that’s how the search works on Instagram. They’ll type in the thing or topic they want to search, using the # in front of that and scroll through the results that appear. 

For most hashtags, there are two tabs of results: a Top tab and a Recent tab.

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The Top tab is an algorithmically sorted list of content based on top performing posts that are curated for that individual user based on their preferences and Instagram activity. Therefore, you could look at the same hashtag as a person sitting next to you and see different results in the Top tab of results. 

The recent tab, however, is sorted chronologically with the most recently uploaded image in the top left corner of the results screen. This tab will show almost every post uploaded with that hashtag. There is still some algorithmic sorting in this tab so there isn’t a guarantee that all posts will appear here. And again, some people may see different results than others depending on their personal interactions on Instagram. 

When Should You Add Your Hashtags?

The best time to post your hashtags on your post is immediately when you upload the content to Instagram. Hashtag results are sorted chronologically based on the timestamp of the post itself, not when the hashtags were added. In that Recent tab result of searches, your post is placed in order based on when it was uploaded, regardless of when you added the hashtags. You want those hashtags on there immediately so that they can start populating in searches. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t go back and add hashtags to an old post if you want to. But you do want to think about which hashtags you’re adding and how old that post is. If it’s your branded hashtag you want to go add to old content, go for it! That way your old posts will show up in searches for your current branded hashtag when someone is researching your company. You can even go back and add hyper specific hashtags that have a small search result if they’re highly targeted to your audience and industry. But it wouldn’t be recommended to go back and add or edit common or popular hashtags on old posts as those hashtag searches are so saturated with content that yours would never really appear in search scrolls anyways.

Where Should You Place Your Hashtags?

The most commonly asked question during the webinar was where to place hashtags: in the caption or a comment?

In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. 

There is no algorithmic favoritism and there’s no advantage to one over the other. The only caveat to that is timing. If you place your hashtags in the original caption, they post immediately with your content and begin producing search results. If you add your hashtags to a comment, there is a delay in when those hashtags post. If you’ve already got them typed and copied, ready to paste, that lag may be 10-15 seconds. But if you have to type them up in a comment, that could take you at least a minute. These may seem like nominal time spans, and for less popular hashtags, they are relatively insignificant. But if you’re using popular hashtags with millions of post results, a minute delay could mean the difference of your content being seen in that hashtag or not. 

For this reason, I recommend including your hashtags in the caption. 

Some people think they’re hiding the hashtags by putting them in a comment and they don’t look “spammy” or salesy in there. But the reality is that everyone uses hashtags and they’re there wherever you put them, so just go ahead and use them!

How Many Hashtags Should You Use?

Instagram limits you to 30 hashtags per post and that’s all you can use. If more are added after the fact, your content will not show up in those search results. Whether you or someone else adds a hashtag beyond the original 30, they won’t count. However, if you haven’t used all 30 hashtags and someone leaves a comment with a hashtag, your content will now technically be in that hashtag search as well.

There is a lot of debate about how many to use and whether less or more is a better strategy. But hashtags are a “use it or lose it” feature. If you use them, you can show up in search results. If you don’t use them, you are not going to show up in search results. If you’re trying to grow your audience and reach more people, you want to use as many hashtags as possible!

I recommend a minimum of 15-20 hashtags per post and getting as close to 30 relevant hashtags as possible. 

Instagram hashtags really are the secret sauce to success and will help you grow your audience, get found in search, and even drive conversions for you – when they’re done right.

Now that you understand how Instagram hashtags work and why they’re so important, be on the lookout for our blog post on “How to Use Instagram Hashtags Strategically” to help you decide which hashtags are best for your business and how to improve your ranking in hashtag searches!