Instagram hashtags are more important than ever

Instagram's latest update has made hashtags a necessity to effective marketing on the platform.

Instagram is slowly shaking things up. The platform has actually gone relatively unchanged in terms of functionality for several years, with the last big changes being video and direct messaging - both are seemingly underused and cannot compete with the rivals it was not-so-subtly imitating (Vine and Snapchat) for those purposes. With a recent design change under its belt, Instagram is clearly looking at how to make the platform more effective for engagement purposes at the moment with some major updates underway.

This post focuses purely on the changes to the hashtags that have taken place.

Hashtags on Instagram have always been important - they are a way of getting your photos from purely your personal feed to a wider feed that's categorised by the hashtag itself. Allowing up to 30 hashtags meant your photo could travel far and wide, even without having many followers of your own. However, up until now, your photo would be buried rapidly as the hashtag system was purely chronological, and some of the more popular hashtags see literally hundreds of photos uploaded to them per minute.

The hashtag, love it or hate it, is here to stay on Instagram

The hashtag, love it or hate it, is here to stay on Instagram

Instagram has now introduced a 'Top Posts' feature to pretty much any hashtag out there (#barthoseobscureonesthatareactuallyawholesentencelongandnooneelsehaseverused). Unsurprisingly, the algorithm behind this has not been revealed, but equally it doesn't seem to be too hard to guess. It goes along the lines of:

(Likes on your photo ÷ time) - (Likes on each other photo within that category ÷ time) = Likelihood of being in the top posts

There are 9 slots in the top posts area for most hashtags, thus you must beat all but 8 other photos in that equation. To illustrate:

  1. I upload a photo under the hashtag #food (because Instagrammers love food... as you shall see in my experiment shortly). After 2 hours it has gathered 100 likes.
  2. User 2 uploads a photo under #food. After 2 hours it has gathered 200 likes.
  3. User 3 uploads a photo under #food an hour later. After 1 hour it has gathered 150 likes.
  4. So, let's run the maths:
    1. Me: 100 ÷ 120 = 0.83
    2. User 2: 200 ÷ 120 = 1.66
    3. User 3: 150 ÷ 60 = 2.5
  5. Will mine come out as the top post? 0.83 - 1.66 = -0.83. Not against User 2.
    How about against User 3? 0.83 - 2.5 = -1.67
    As it is negative on both accounts, I won't be taking the top 2 slots, and will be relegated to slot 3.
  6. As soon as you start adding in millions of other uploads to #food it starts getting very complicated, and it's unlikely that I'll rank for a top post slot at all if just 7 other people within those millions beat my score.

So, likes are very important, and scoring big on Instagram means getting clever with hashtags, now more than ever.

Instagram hashtag strategy

Based on this, it might be time to rethink how to use hashtags on Instagram.

Traditionally, brands have been using multiple related hashtags for each photograph in an effort to boost likes and relevancy within those categories. Your typical restaurant might use #food, #dining, #delicious, #nomnom, #foodporn, and a few hashtags related to their location and brand. However, these photos get buried quickly, especially in popular categories. The top posts give you an opportunity to stay relevant within that category for some time. Here's the best approach to boost your views, engagement, and hopefully translate that into follows or even conversions.

1. Boost likes with plenty of mainstream hashtags

Seeing as the top posts are dictated by engagement, you need to garner as much engagement as possible.

Mainstream hashtags are commonly browsed and people spam likes on them. Take advantage of this. Even if it's being liked by bots, this could boost your like count up for each photo - a vital step in reaching the top post spots.

2. Use some small niche hashtags

Take the advantage of the restaurant above - can you find any related but uncommon hashtags? These are going to be far less competitive, and thus boost your post's chances of reaching 'top post' status in one of these lesser-used hashtags.

3. Dominate those niches

Ideally, you want to be leading the way in those niches. Some are so underused that you should be able to remain in them for days if you tactically place the hashtag within your post. Find categories in which you're confident you can compete and win, and include them in your post.

4. Don't be too niche though...

There really is no point in targeting hashtags that get zero views. Make sure your niches are popular, but where you can maintain competitiveness in terms of popularity.

5. Build Instagram following to get 'base' likes

It's not rocket science, but the more active followers you have, the more likes you'll receive by default. Note the word 'active' though - there's far more value in having 200 followers who like everything you do, to 100k followers who don't touch your posts. Yes, I'm talking to anyone who thinks it's a good idea to buy followers here...

The base level of likes might be enough on their own to boost you into the top posts area of some hashtags.

6. Become a top post and enjoy more likes

If you gain a top post spot in a reasonably popular hashtag, then more people are going to see (and therefore like) the post. More likes = more chance of moving up the rankings for your more competitive hashtags. Getting top post status in a few hashtags that command several thousand views per day could get you enough extra likes to boost you into the top posts on a hashtag that commands 100,000 views per day.

Again - strategically mixing mainstream and niche hashtags is the key.

7. Content is still key

If your post isn't relevant or isn't good it won't get likes. Simple. It is simply going to have a harder time gathering likes if it isn't good or the hashtags used aren't relevant.

If your brand is a fitness related one but you think you'd easily gather enough likes to be competitive in #dogchews, then you might be right. But it'll just leave everyone confused, and anyone who actually is browsing #dogchews (seriously, is there anyone?) isn't going to like your picture of creatine-swollen muscles.

When it comes to Instagram engagement, beggars can't be chewsers... ugh, sorry.

When it comes to Instagram engagement, beggars can't be chewsers... ugh, sorry.

8. Steal a competitor's hashtag

A sneaky one for you here. Competitors may have set hashtags that they use for every post, or they may even use their own brand name. Whack their hashtag into your post before you publish the photo and you may well be appearing right in front of your competitor's customers.

9. Don't forget user experience though

Whilst 30 hashtags is the maximum on an Instagram post, that doesn't mean use 30 hashtags. It can look spammy, and it can be annoying. You still need to be attractive to followers and potential followers first and foremost. Don't sacrifice your brand for the sake of a few extra likes.

An Instagram hashtag experiment

So, I put this little theory to the test on my own Instagram account. I mentioned earlier that Instagrammers have a penchant for uploading food pics, and as I wasn't feeling particularly creative that's exactly what I did.

After eating breakfast at a fabulous little vegetarian cafe called The Almond Tree in Brighton, I promptly uploaded a picture of the food to my Instagram account. Here's the snap:

almond tree breakfast instagram photo

Alongside the photo I put 18 hashtags, which varied between popular and very competitive, to some which are more or less unused. The hashtags were as follows:

High competition - #vegan, #brighton, #food, #healthy, #whatveganseat, #plantbased, #breakfast, #nomnom, #delicious, #vegansofig, #vegetarian

Medium competition - #veganbreakfast, #tofu, #beans

Low competition - #vegains, #sussex, #hove, #vegetarianfood

(NB. I ranked these based on both the number of photos uploaded to them over their lifespan, and the popularity of the top posts featured in them at the time of posting)

I should note as a caveat that I have around 7300 followers on Instagram at present, so am at something of an advantage. But immediately after posting I started receiving likes from bot accounts, or accounts that are using auto-liking scripts. 

As the likes I gathered were relatively quick, it was only about an hour before I appeared in some of the low competition hashtags.

sussex instagram
hove instagram

I continued to gather likes through the day, and got a little extra boost as followers in North and South America began waking up (I had posted at 10am GMT). Checking back throughout the day I finally reached some top spots in the medium competition hashtags, albeit only two of them.

veganbreakfast hashtag instagram
beans instagram hashtag

So, unless I missed it, #tofu was a little too tough for me to compete in. However, based on the theory above, if you get lucky and there's a particular lack of competition you can still reach the top post area, so don't ignore any hashtags you think you could compete in. Obviously, I didn't manage to get featured in any of the hashtags I ranked as highly competitive either. But #beans, which I did feature in, sees a fair amount of competition and at the time of posting featured 1,119,157 posts. Not bad!


For you TL;DR types out there, the simplest way of featuring in the top posts area for a hashtag is to try and gather lots of likes very quickly. To some degree this is based on your current following (as mentioned above, mine isn't too bad), but you can also game the system a little. Targeting low competition hashtags where you can be competitive, whilst boosting your interaction from highly active hashtags can lead to you scoring top post positions in those less competitive ones.

Like it or not, the hashtag is here to stay. In fact, they're vital to building your brand on Instagram.