The Definitive GUIDE to Instagram #HASHTAGS!

The Definitive GUIDE to Instagram #HASHTAGS!

Hashtags and the Explore Page

On Instagram, you can search content, but doing so through the mobile application will also show you the explore feed. A collection of content Instagram thinks you might like, based on the items you liked or commented on with your account (or accounts you follow).

You can also search for content through the explore page, more specifically, the search bar on top. People use this search functionality (much like you would use Google Images) to find pictures or videos by using keywords.

For example, I would want to see images of shirts, I could search for specific hashtags (#shirts, #ToplevelSportswear, #apparel, #UnderArmour), however, Instagram will show me more hashtags that I can use to find more related content.

Instagram wants us to find content we enjoy and aids our search by suggesting relevant hashtags. This is why, when using hashtags, your engagement increases. People are curious and constantly on the look for content, and your posts will be available for them once they begin searching.

On top of showing you suggested hashtags, Instagram will also show you how popular they are and how many posts use them.

You can be assured that the more popular a hashtag is, the more content will be posted with that specific hashtag. Instagram is a never-ending content-machine! Remember, there are more than 400 million people active daily, uploading more than 95 million posts a day. There will always be content and an audience!


However, Instagram hashtags are limited to 30 per post. That includes all hashtags posted by you, regardless of their location (caption, first comment or 50 comments down).

When you try to post more than 30 hashtags for one post you will possibly receive any of these errors:

1.) Your post will be uploaded without a caption if you post 31 or more hashtags in the caption.

2.) When you try to post additional hashtags (so making the total higher than 30) in the caption of your post after it was uploaded will give you the message: There was an error saving your changes. Please try again.

3.) When you try to post more hashtags in the comments after a total of 30 has been reached, Instagram will show you a red exclamation mark in the comment section. The error will read: Comment can’t be placed. Tap to try it again.

External limitations

Hashtags can also be added to your posts through the comments. You can do this yourself, but other people can also use hashtags. However, they do NOT provide extra exposure for you. They don’t appear in the hashtag feed either.

Hashtag Abuse

Instagram will occasionally limit the Most Recent list of a hashtag when they suspect that the hashtag in question is being targeted by spam or explicit content. They do this to fix the “glitch.”

Hashtag Locks (or Banning)

In the past, there have a been a few incidents where certain hashtags were overrun with explicit content (for instance with pornography). When this gets out of hands, Instagram is cored to completely lock down the hashtag, and thus banning it, until the incident gets resolved.

The downside of using any (potentially) banned hashtag in the caption of your post is that all the hashtags used for that post will be disabled!

Hashtag Blacklists

Much like any other platform, Instagram also deploys a form of censorship, blacklisting certain hashtags. Instagram is very careful (as they are in the public eye) and will blacklist hashtags with keywords related to nudity, violence, illegal substances, racial issues, etc.

How many hashtags should you use?

As I have mentioned before, the use of hashtags is limited to 30 per post (either in the caption or comments). A question that appears regularly is: “How many hashtags should I be using?”

Although this is a controversial subject, please keep in mind that hashtags are very useful to increase (organic) exposure and will add additional streams of traffic to your post. Meaning: every hashtag you add, opens a lane for people to come to your content.

I would approach it like this:

Each hashtag used on your content is an opportunity to be found on Instagram. For every hashtag you utilize, you increase your chances of being found and in engagement, potentially making it to the explore page and getting your content exposed to a massive audience.

  • Larger exposure = more followers
  • More followers = more business
  • More business = more success (and or money)

So, you see: when you use those 30 hashtags correctly, it is a smart thing to do.

Hashtag Categorization:

There is a wide variety of hashtags categorization we can define, but I will limit it to just a few.

  1. Viral hashtags. These are very popular hashtags, ranging between 100 million and 1 billion posts. Ideally, I would advise you to stay away from these, as they are overused and highly saturated. Reminder: Usually only large accounts will benefit from these hashtags. Some examples: #love #instagood #cute #follow #followme #happy #fashion
  2. Trending hashtags. Trending hashtags will be live when certain events happen. Like a major sports event (e.g., the Super Bowl), a world event, a disaster, etc. They will be extremely popular, but only temporarily. Examples are: #worldcup, #prayforparis #olympics #neverforget
  3. Niche and sub-niche hashtags. These are the hashtags that target your general (and sub) niche to reach a wider audience. These hashtags will help Instagram classify your account and will get your posts promoted to the proper audience. Examples of niche hashtags are: #luxury, #travel, #food, #fitness, #motivation, #photography, #art
    You can drill down to sub-niche hashtags to define your target audience: #luxuryhomes, #motivationalquotes, #painting, #weightlossjourney THESE CAN BE EXTREMELY POWERFUL!!!
  4. Location hashtags. Location hashtags can be used to tag your posts with a certain location. This can be a country (#Spain), a city (#LosAngeles) or even more specific (#Broadway). They are very useful, especially if you want to find people to connect with your country or region.
  5. Branded hashtags. You can also use branded hashtags (like #nike, #canon, #apple) to describe a brand you are featuring in your posts. Keep in mind, that sometimes brands will feature people on their page if you use their hashtag!
  6. Emotion hashtags. Emotion hashtags describe an emotion that the user experiences. Humans are visual creatures, and every image will invoke emotions (good or bad). We can use hashtags to describe these emotions. Examples are: #lovefood, #sad, #amazed, #shocked

Hashtag Research

Doing your proper research and selection of hashtags is an important part of your growth strategy. Before we can go down to selecting the hashtags, we will first need to generate a list. Here are a TON of resources out there, you can use some like;

  2. Hashtagged (iPhone App)
  3. Focalmark (iPhone App)

Hashtag Selection

Now that we have cultivated a list of hashtags, we need to select them. It’s time to throw out the trash and select the ones that will make our posts appear before the user’s eyes!

Let’s focus on throwing out the trash first. Let’s ignore (or delete) the following hashtags:

  1. Inconsistent/nonmatching hashtags with your account. If you are running a sports boutique, you will want to remove hashtags like #follow4follow, #firstpost, #like, #nice. They provide little to no value to your account and don’t reflect the purpose of it.
  2. Explicit hashtags. Using explicit hashtags (no example needed) will put your account in danger of being limited, banned or closed down. So just stay away from them.
  3. Overrated/viral hashtags. These are hashtags that have an incredible amount of posts (for example #amazing) and will generate hundreds of new posts per minute. Unless you have an account that can push through it and reach the Top Posts section, I would advise against using them.

Now that we have cleaned out or list, focus on selecting the hashtags that are relevant to:

  1. Your (sub)niche (e.g., #weightloss, #bracelets, etc).
  2. The time and location you are posting (e.g., #breakfast, #nightlife, #sunrise, #london, #brooklyn, etc.).
  3. The hashtag popularity and your account size (as mentioned above) should be considered. Compare your account size to the number of posts under that hashtag. Your account size (in followers) should be 10-20% of the total number of posts.

Ideally, we’ll want to develop a hashtag strategy to land your image in the Top Posts under that hashtag. What you will want to do is chose hashtags that are matching your account size, and it’s engagement rate.

Making Hashtag Sets

Now that we have done all this research (which can be very time to consume) we will want to use them in posts in an efficient way. If you post regularly and are manually entering the hashtags, you will become bored pretty quickly.

Therefore, I advise you to organize your researched and selected hashtags into sets. This will help you streamline the process, and it will help you to save time when posting!

Since we can only use 30 hashtags per post, my suggestion is to build sets of 20-25 hashtags. In doing this, we can include hashtags that fit in the general theme of our account and save room to use specific hashtags.

For instance, if we have a travel account we will want to use 20-25 (sub)niche hashtags that define our niche (#travel, #backpacker, #roundtheworld, #solotravel). By only using 20-25 hashtags in a set, we still have the option to add location-specific hashtags, and we can tag the city (#london) or country (#mexico) we are visiting.

Here are a few best practices when creating hashtag sets:

  1. Choose hashtags according to your page size
  2. Use those hashtags that reflect your goals and niche
  3. Use hashtags to invoke emotion, inspire or motivate people
  4. Stay away from very large hashtags if you have a small page (like #love)
  5. Ignore irrelevant hashtags
  6. Avoid explicit, limited or banned hashtags at all cost!

Once you have created your set, (or multiple sets) be sure to organize them in excel or copy each set into the notes application on your phone. This will allow you to just copy-paste the set and use them in your post. You will thank me later!

If you want to create multiple sets, here are a few suggestions on how to organize them:

  1. Break them down into different sizes (for example a set of hashtags from 100-200k, 200-500k,500k-1M, etc.).
  2. Use (sub) niche sets (backpacking, luxury travel, solo travel, Europe, American, Asia, etc.).
  3. When applicable you can organize them in calendar themed sets (a set of Mondays posts, Throwback Thursdays, Happy hour Fridays, etc.).
  4. By identifying the content (video, photo, drawing, art, etc.).

Making the Feed More Engaging

As a frequent user of Instagram, you are used to seeing posts in your feed by people you engage with the most. Back in the day, your Instagram feed was chronologically displayed, but now the people who we engage with most appearances in our feeds first.

Following hashtags is a way to see curated content aside from your normal Instagram feed. This appears to be an attempt (in addition to the explore tab) to expose users to more content that they might be interested in.

The posts from the hashtags you decide to follow will appear very naturally in your feed. There is only a slight difference to the part where you would normally see the profile name. You are now seeing the hashtag + the posters name.

The guy behind the change, by the way, is Matthew Ogle, who created the “discover weekly” section for Spotify. Following hashtags on Instagram is basically what Discover Weekly is on Spotify. An effort for Instagram to show you new, fresh content, therefore keeping you inside the application longer. More time on Instagram = more money for Instagram.

Training the Algorithm

In a recent interview, Mike Krieger (Instagram CTO) called the feed a user-curated view into the world of Instagram. So following hashtags fits nicely within this line of thought.

Instagram has a built-in mechanism to determine which posts under a certain hashtag will make it into your feed. They are looking at both the posting side and the consumption side of images and videos. This means that they have the data about your posts like the tap-through rate, follow-through rate, and scroll-through rate (and undoubtedly, many, many more data points). Based on this data, they can start evaluating your post when they make it into someone’s feed and determine if your post was a “bad insertion”. They might even down-rank it completely (meaning that it won’t show up in their feed anymore, and in extent will probably not make it into other people’s feed anymore). It’s not a far stretch to imagine that if they classify your posts as a “bad insertion” frequently, that your engagement will get hammered completely.

However, the posts you are shown are not completely determined by Instagram’s Algorithm alone. You can also contribute to which content you would like to see under which hashtag. This is an option that is also present on the explore tab. In the explore tab (which is completely based on your interactions with posts and accounts, while hashtags are more interest based) you can select the option “See Fewer Posts Like This”. However, with hashtags, your only option is “Don’t Show for This Hashtag”.

2018 Updates to Top Posts

Any active browser of hashtags will have noticed changes to the Top Posts under hashtags. Where we used to see posts with (tens) of thousands of likes and comments under a certain hashtag (for example #fashion) we are now seeing a lot of older posts that have more modest amounts of engagement (think 500 likes).

This is a byproduct of the following hashtags feature. Since we are curating (training) hashtags to show content you would like in your feed, Instagram is doing the same for the Top Posts under that hashtag. They are personalizing them, so it fits your interest more.

This interest, of course, is based on:

  1. What you train the algorithm to show you in the feed
  2. What kind of posts you engage with on your account

What this also means is that every account will (probably) see a different Top Posts section. While this is a negative hit for people who have used Top Posts as a growth tactic, it also makes adding correct an image appropriate hashtags more important than ever. And of course, your account will have to be correctly niched and indexed by the algorithm.

How do I post mine?

For the most part, my caption about a Rose in which I would want to engage the audience would be;

  1. Select a picture of a beautiful rose
  2. Post this caption:
    This is a beautiful Rose. Have you ever seen a more beautiful flower?

  3. use the 2 most relevant hashtags:#rose #flower
  4. Tag anything relevant IG account: @beautifulflowers
  5. Select a relevant location: Hollisgarden, FL
  6. Sync your Facebook page and Twitter account
  7. Post
  8. After post, place a comment with the other relevant 28 hashtags you selected.

This will ensure that your Twitter and Facebook hashtags are not bombarded by the other hashtags.

Please Let me know how this technique worked for you.

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