A Rant About the Proper Use of #Hashtags
Been a while since I've had a good rant here, but a friend brought something to my attention on Facebook recently that really irritated me. I think what bothered me the most, was that it was a status update on a business page by a social media professional (read: #TheyShouldKnowBetter).
After seeing several similar updates, I finally let loose with a little rant on Facebook, and turns out I struck a chord. Quite a few people weighed in and told me that I was saying what they had been thinking. So I figured I'd bring my rant over here.
So here's the status update that set me off:
If #YOU had to #change in order to #succeed with #YOUR#social media efforts - could you?
If you answered YES to this question....congrats! If you answered NO - HOW CAN I #HELP YOU? Change, despite being necessary at times, is not easy!
Now, first off, even if you strip the hashtags out of there, the update itself doesn't really say anything. It's business gobbledygook, with inappropriate use of all caps, as well as sounding like something out of a Stuart Smalley sketch on Saturday Night Live or some kind of inspirational infomercial.
But the worst part of this was the use of hashtags. Or should I say, the misuse of hashtags.
A few months ago I wrote about the many different ways that people use hashtags, but didn't really get too much into the misuse of them. Some of the more common uses are related to events (either planned or unplanned), to organize materials by subject, as memes, or even as punchlines. These are all fine.
There are a lot of folks who bemoan the use of hashtags on both Twitter and Facebook, but I think their objection is less about hashtags themselves, and more about the misuse and abuse of them. In fact, I'd says the misuse and abuse of hashtags is very much akin to some of the shady keyword techniques used by some for SEO purposes.
I think there are a few rules you should follow when choosing and using hashtags, so as to make them both effective and unobtrusive.
1. Choose your hashtags carefully
Don't just hashtag words willy nilly (#YesIJustSaidWillyNilly). In the above example, the words that were hashtagged were among the most generic words you could choose. #You? Really? When choosing a hashtag, think about why you are hashtagging it. Most likely, it is not for your readers. It's more for helping other people discover your when they click on a relevant hashtag.
For instance, in the above example, about the only phrase that I think could be hashtagged would be #SocialMedia, and even that might be a stretch within the context of the update. A good example might be if you're writing something about baseball, you could use #MLB or perhaps #MajorLeagueBaseball.
2. Use hashtags sparingly
While hashtags can be great in terms of discovering and organizing information, don't overuse them. It's rare that I would ever consider using more than one or two in any given update. In fact, don't use them in EVERY update as some people do. And if you think a particular item is relevant with multiple hashtags, space them out. Sometimes when I tweet out a blog post, I'll append it with a relevant hashtag. Then the next time I tweet it out, I'll use a different but equally relevant hashtag.
When people see too many hashtags their eyes glaze over. It looks like spam. Often when I see folks using four or five hashtags, it appears as though they are just covering their bases, using every possible iteration of certain phrases the same way they use keywords on websites, just to make sure they don't leave anything out.
Also, don't just use hashtags because you can. If every post, update, tweet, etc has a hashtag, it just looks like you're trying to sell something.
Don't do that. Hashtags only work when they are relevant and take you some place meaningful when you click on them, which brings us to the third point.
3. Test your hashtags
Don't just throw a pound sign in front of a word or phrase and make it a hashtag. Test it out. Make sure it's something that is relevant and in use. Click on them and see what other types of content shows up. If you end up with a random pool of unfocused material, skip that hashtag. Use only the ones that will bring people to you to find what it is that you are offering. Click on hashtags like #You, #Your, and #Help and you'll know what I mean. They don't take you to anything meaningful, or dare I say, helpful.
Don't know how to test them? Simply go to Facebook and change your status update setting to "Only Me." Then put a few hashtag options in an update, publish it, and start clicking to see what you find. You're the only one who will see it, and you can delete it when you're done testing.
And if after your testing you discover that there are several good, relevant hashtags, you have to make some decisions. First, choose the one or two that are most relevant. If there are more than two, then consider multiple updates over a period of time, rotating the hashtags. Using the same hashtag in repeated tweets or Facebook posts doesn't give you any sort of advantage.
By misusing hashtags, you are only turning people off, and thereby reducing the effectiveness of them for those who are trying to use them properly.
Think before you hashtag. #OK?