At a friend’s wedding reception recently someone asked me, “What is the deal with hashtags?

birds on a line tweet with hashtagsWhat’s the point?” Many people assume they are strictly used to add sarcasm, personality, humor, or emphasis to a comment or Twitter post.

I could see where this conversation was headed: “So people just use them to look cool, right?”


Hashtags are metadata – a way to tag key pieces of data allowing search

Hashtags were originally used in Internet Relay Chat protocol for organizing and communicating via Internet text messaging. They rose to popularity with Twitter, allowing tweets to be grouped together by subject, idea or slogan.

Chris Messina, a developer advocate at Google, introduced the hashtag to Twitter when he used it to organize groups, such as people attending the South by Southwest event. Now hashtags commonly group content related to events, such as conference speaker quotes, photographs or opinions.

Hashtags also are used interpersonally among groups of friends. A colleague showed me how photographs are now being tagged to weddings with hashtags. For example, you can search Twitter or Google (or Facebook or Instagram) for all of the photographs from the Nelson wedding by using #NelsonWedding.

Not just for Twitter

Data is useless without meaning, organization or relevance. The use of hashtags allows for user effect-of-hashtags-on-instagram-likes-cheetah-analyticsgenerated content to populate search engines or social media sites. Hashtags allow us to connect over shared thoughts, ideas or themes. A study by Cheetah Analytics found increased “likes” on Instagram posts using hashtags. Hashtags increase response rates and connections. Entire political movements gain a following with a simple hashtag. Trending right now on Twitter is the hashtag #MoreSuccessfulThanObamacare.

Security settings on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are set up to strategically encourage you to share more, not less. Eventually, a Google search using a hashtag should be able to pull an entire encyclopedia of information tied to that record. Grouped by relevance and Google’s own search quality rating, public data including history, quotes, news, and media files related to a word or concept will be pulled into search results.

For example, an online campaign called #WhyMN was started by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. By using a hashtag, they successfully grouped information to call positive attention to the state’s economy.

If you do a search for #WhyMN, you will find:

  • Personal opinions from people about the state of Minnesota
  • Instagram photos
  • Content generated by the state of Minnesota

With new media sources and technologies popping up all the time, hashtags will not be limited to one source like Twitter, and search results will not be limited to Web sites and official documents. Search results will pull in all media types, generated by different types of users, and rated by relevance to you, the searcher. Using hashtags on Google should result in blog posts, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures and Tweets, alongside Web sites, official groups, and news sources.

Because hashtags are more often used with a theme, experience, or string of phrases, such as #winning or #notinmybackyard, the content retrieved by a search will include more user-generated, or social, content than a simple word search. For example #math brings up results related to online learning materials, photographs, quotes, pictures, events, opinions, and discussions.

The highest results should be user-generated materials, such as a post from yesterday about the subject, because it is more relevant chronologically than a math book review from three months ago. Because they are more likely to end up in search results, hashtags are a natural addition to any online marketing campaign.

Hashtags can help in hiring

When advertising a job, human resources professionals can use hashtags to increase visibility of the hiring effort. They can function as keywords to increase SEO and if used widely enough on different platforms, hashtags can spark a social conversation and spread to new audiences. One of our clients, Microsoft, used the phrase #RightNow to identify recruiting efforts related to gaming and cloud computing. A best practice is to use hashtags to reference the company, skill set, or slogan, within the post. Or group a series of jobs under the same theme or slogan to help bring increased attention to those jobs.

Finding the most relevant results

Although you cannot change or customize the way a search engine ranks results, you can develop content that increases the likelihood it will be deemed relevant by the search engine. Hashtag-related content is more likely to result if it is popular or socially relevant to the searcher – with many followers, conversations and related pages. Relevancy is determined by the search engine, but will take into consideration the popularity of the page or content, your physical location, and your demographics as determined by your search behavior. Because the returning content is customized to you, it should be even more relevant than a search you would design.

While the use of hashtags is not perfect, it does allow for an improved search function and more social connectedness over shared experiences and themes. In the end it will bring more relevancy, timeliness, and usability to search results, regardless of subject.

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