What Are Hashtags and How Do They Work

What Are Hashtags and How Do They Work?

I think those of us who spend a significant amount of time on social media take for granted the little things we learn along the way.

For instance, clients sometimes ask me,

“What are hashtags and how do they work?”
– Johnny Client

For those who want to gain some clarity, and for the purpose of publishing an online resource for when I am asked again, let’s take a moment to review what are hashtags and – more importantly – how do they work?

A Brief History of Hashtags

To quote Shea Bennett on the History of Hashtags in Social Media,

Twitter didn’t invent the hashtag (#), but it certainly popularised it with the masses.

Once more commonly referred to as the pound sign, online use of the hashtag began on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) in the late 1990s, where it was used to categorise items into groups. In August 2007, designer Chris Messina asked his followers how they felt about using the pound sign to group conversations on the micro-blogging platform, and thus became the first person to use the hashtag on Twitter.

AllTwitter also published a beautiful infographic entitled The History and Power of Hashtags, which you can find at the end of this article.

What Are Hashtags?

A hashtag is a single word, abbreviation or phrase without spaces preceded by the hash or pound sign (#) used on social media. The purpose of a hashtag is to identify the topic of a post.


Many hashtags are used so ubiquitously that they have become a regular part of our posting lexicon, such as #yolo (You Only Live Once), #tbt (Throwback Thursday), and #fitfam (Fit or Fitness Family).

Some hashtags focus on a current event and remain popular only for a short period of time, often days or a few weeks at the most. A recent example would be #CES2015 (Consumer Electronics Show 2015).

In some instances, a hashtag is created for promotional purposes. A company or brand wishing to promote a new product, style, idea, or service, may encourage their customers to use a particular hashtag. An example of this would be #TargetStyle promoted by the retail giant, Target.

Some hashtags are used for a Twitter Chat or Twitter Party, a conversation on Twitter focused on a specific topic that generally lasts an hour. All tweets in the conversation are identified by the use of a single hashtag. An example would be #SEOTalk which happens every Monday at 8:30 pm EST.

How Do They Work?

Once you publish your post, any included hashtags will become hyperlinks. Other users who see your post will have,

  • an idea what you are talking about, and
  • the ability to click your hashtag to bring up related posts from other users.

#FitFam Search

Further, most social media platforms will allow you to perform a search for a particular hashtag, displaying popular or recent posts that include it.

When the usage of a particular hashtag increases exponentially over a short period of time, this is known as trending. Trending hashtags give you an idea of what topics are being discussed online right now.

Twitter Trends

Trending hashtags on a platform like Twitter are generally categorized by their geographic location. Settings can be adjusted to display the fastest trending local, national or global hashtags.

Hashtags can be included in posts on any of the following major social media platforms:

  • Twitter
  • Vine
  • Facebook
  • Tumblr
  • Instagram
  • Google+
  • Pinterest

Almost two years ago, LinkedIn disabled the use of hashtags.

Some social media platforms, such as Instagram, will limit the number of hashtags that you can include in a single post. Other platforms, such as Twitter and Vine, end up limiting your hashtag use as a direct result of the number of characters allowed in each post.

Researching Hashtags

It is a good idea to include well-researched hashtags in your social media posts. While you could technically include #abcdefgh, or any other gibberish, the objective is to use popular hashtags to increase the exposure your post gets. That way, users with an interest in the topic your hashtags represent will be more likely to find your content. In turn, this means your post is more likely to be shared, and you are more likely to gain followers who share your interests.

That said, some less scrupulous marketers will include irrelevant trending hashtags in all their posts to capitalize on popular discussions. This is considered poor etiquette, and it is an easy way to get blocked by some users and to lose followers. Be sure to only include hashtags that are relevant to the content of your post.

To find relevant and popular hashtags to use, you have a number of options:

Top Hashtags

For starters, you could do some research using tools like Hashtagify.me (above) or Hashtags.org to identify popular and trending hashtags.


Also, you could rely on various social media platforms to help you identify hashtags while writing your post. After typing # and a few letters, most platforms will begin suggesting popular hashtags to include. This is similar to the way Google attempts to autocomplete your searches.

Hashtag Search

And finally, social media platforms like Google+ and Twitter will easily help you identify useful hashtags as part of their native layout.


If you want to get more detail on the background, history, and power of hashtags, have a look at this awesome infographic created by Jomer B. Gregorio and his team at Digital Marketing Philippines.

Click the infographic if you want to see or download it in full resolution.

The History and Power of Hashtags in Social Media Marketing


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