Everything You Need to Know About Hashtags on Instagram - A Comprehensive Guide

Everything You Need to Know About Hashtags on Instagram – A Comprehensive Guide

In this post, I will tell you everything you need to know about using Instagram hashtags successfully to increase your followers’ count and be an IG babe. Or an IG surfer. The Gandalf of IG? You get me.

In addition, I will let you in on Instagram terminology, what a shadowban is (frustratingly, an increasingly common problem, which happened to me too) and how to create an optimal hashtag cloud to increase engagement. You will also get a bonus: a free Instagram Hashtag Strategy Workbook in a Google Docs format. Lessgo.

Why use hashtags?

A hashtag is a metadata tag starting with ‘#’ symbol used on microblogging sites, forums and social media. Since social media is such a broad mass of everything, it was crucial for sites like Instagram, Twitter or Google+ to find a way to categorise posts and connect people to what they are looking for. Hashtags…

  1. make your content discoverable
  2. increase your content visibility in search algorithm on Instagram
  3. connect you to your target audience, community, the local scene

A side note – Facebook do not depend on hashtags since you can find content through simple keyword research. However, I will always advise brands to use their unique campaign/brand hashtag in their social media communication – it won’t hurt your post reach (won’t help it either) but your consistency will help users connect the dots across several social media platforms that you manage. It’s also not a bad idea to encourage your customers/followers to use said hashtag to strengthen their community feeling.

Hashtags on Instagram

In 2011, one year after its launch, Instagram introduced hashtag function to help users navigate through the platform’s content.

In the early days of Instagram, generic hashtags like ‘love’ or ‘photography’ used to bring all the boys to the yard because people were just introducing these to the platform. Smaller share rate = bigger visibility. The success rate of using highly popular hashtags right now increases with the number of your current followers (check one of the top hashtags on IG like ‘love’ or ‘friends’- what posts are in the top section, how many likes/comments they scored and how many followers the accounts have?).

At the same time, the more followers you have, the more likely it is that your account suffered from a massive decrease in engagement when Instagram did some algorithm tinkering. Right now there are teenagers, who reap more comments than Kim Kardashian (teenagers are annoying pros at Instagram. Are you a teenager? I want to hire you). Also, read this amazing post about hacking the Instagram algorithm using – you guessed it – strategies popularised by teenagers.

Hashtag truths

If you are a small account (under 5,000 followers) you are likely to trend for using targeted hashtags rather than popular ones.

If you are a big account with an active audience, you can get away with posting five hashtags in your caption and still land in the ‘Top Posts’ section.

Hashtags attracting bots…

Some popular hashtags will attract Instagram bots. When this happens, click through the most likely culprits and see if the same type of comments appears on other posts, which used the hashtags. Avoid these in the future or report these accounts.

Instagram also has a list of banned hashtags, which means it censors hashtags linked to images, which violated its policies. Using this type of hashtags, even unintentionally, will result in having your content hidden in the search or block your account for frequent use of banned (also called ‘broken’) hashtags. You will get a notification when logging to your account if you get a red flag from Instagram, but recently there is a more subtle way of punishing accounts, which is not brought to the attention of the banned user. This is called shadowbanning and I am explaining it in the speed Q&A clickable section below.


Source: Plann That

To find the most recent banned hashtags on Instagram, copy this formula into Google search bar:

site:instagram.com Recent posts from are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines

Why is Instagram crucial to your brand’s success?

Instagram is demanding. Yes. Yes, it is. But it is also the best platform vs. Twitter or Facebook for brands looking for customer engagement. It’s not as convoluted as Facebook and its reach and not as limiting as Twitter and its 140 characters (despite removing the user tags from the caption, 140 characters is still a challenge).

Instagram drives the most engagement per post compared to any social network: 84 times more than Twitter, 54 times more than Pinterest, and ten times more than Facebook. The game is worth playing.

With Instagram boasting 600 mln users you have to put in a lot of work to be noticed and get yourself out there into the ‘Top Posts’ section. It also means you have the freedom to create and use specific hashtags and gather people, who will genuinely engage with you. In fact, using hashtags is the first step to finding them. Do not kid yourself thinking that creating amazing content will get you noticed – you have to put up beautiful, attractive visuals AND top it up with 11+ hashtags because, as Buffer reports, interactions are highest on Instagram posts with 11+ hashtags.


Quick Tips:

How many hashtags should I use?

Instagram has a limit of 30 hashtags. Make use of all of them!

How should I post my hashtags?

A lot of people post their 30 hashtags in their caption, sometimes followed by line breaks, so the hashtags disappear (Instagram cuts off your caption after three lines in the main feed view). I prefer adding hashtags in the first comment because then I can do that from my desktop computer.

Whichever way of posting you will use, it doesn’t affect hashtag performance. It’s mostly an aesthetic choice.

Is it okay to use popular hashtags, which have nothing to do with the subject of my photos?

It’s a common click-baiting strategy. You won’t get lasting engagement from fooling people into viewing your content.

Suddenly I am getting fewer people commenting and liking my post despite using a good mix of hashtags. Did I get banned?

I had the exact same issue. If you were banned, you would be unable to post to your account and you would be notified by Instagram. Many users reported a problem, which now is being called ‘shadowbanning’. A shadowban (also a stealth bans or ghost ban) is a ban Instagram will put on your account without letting you know. When your hashtags suddenly stop performing well (they stop bringing in the crowds) even though they worked before, you have most likely been shadowbanned. It happens both to business and personal accounts.

Who are ‘ghost followers’?

They are users, who are inactive. They are also referred to as ghosts and ghost accounts or lurkers. Sometimes these are simply people, who do not like commenting but increasingly ghost followers are just spam bots or scammers. I ban them if they suddenly start following my account in large numbers (especially after using a hashtag, which is targeted by bots). How do you recognise the scammers? Their profiles look put together in a hurry – just reposts or weird photos, no captions or very general ones, only popular hashtags in captions, no personal descriptions in bio etc.

How to find the best hashtags for your account?

We covered the basics, now let’s go ahead and talk about finding the right hashtags for your account. The steps below are part of the strategy I use when I start with a new account for a client – it’s a combination of top tip marketing skills, common sense and a little bit of creativity.

Step 1 – Download your free Instagram workbook + planner

I prepared a free Instagram Planner in a Google Docs format for you to fill in as you go through the next steps. It also has additional pages for planning your content! >>>> GRAB IT HERE <<<<

Step 2 – Find ten competitors.

‘Competitor’ is a term used here loosely. They could just be similar accounts you find inspiring or ones that make you want to scream ‘I WANT TO BE YOU’.

Go on Instagram and find ten accounts of people, who do what you want to do on Instagram and already gathered a significant audience. Check their:

  • Type of content – what works, what do their followers love?
  • Their captions – what’s their style? What call to actions do they use?
  • Their hashtags – check which ones keep repeating and which ones are popular or less popular. Most likely they have a different set for each type of post.

Fill in the first sheet of your workbook. In this research phase, Keyhole will be quite handy here (scroll to the bottom to read more about this tool).

Step 3 – Create your content plan

Based on your competitor’s research and your interests decide on five main content categories you will be featuring. The key to making the best use of Instagram hashtags is to avoid hashtag hodgepodge (throwing in top hashtags suggestions without coherence or relevance) and replacing it with a cloud of hashtags matching your content and your content message. In regular human words: stop churning random hashtags together hoping they will make butter. It ain’t working!

So decide what the five Instagram post categories you will use are. Five is not too few, so you still have plenty of room to be creative and not too many, so you don’t get overwhelmed.

What content do you want to share? Personal? Quotes? Food shots? Tourist attractions and tips? Social media marketing insight? What’s the purpose of your content? Fill in the first two columns before you go to Step 4.

Step 4 – Select your hashtags

Now you know what makes your competitor’s audience dance with joy and what content you want to throw at your own audience. Start searching hashtags that match it.

  • Pick the best hashtags from your competitors – look for hashtags with 5,000-50,000 shares so you still can get through to your dream target audience.
  • Click on the most relevant hashtags and see what content do they bring up – is the hashtag used for the purpose you want it to be used or is used freely by just anybody? Steer clear from the latter.
  • Search for related hashtags – Search for a generic keyword for example ‘quote’ and see what other hashtags the most popular posts use.
  • You can now follow hashtags on Instagram. Those that are especially relevant to you should be monitored! When you search for them on IG there will be an option to follow the hashtag at the top of the screen. Remember to only choose a few and more targeted ones (#igbreakfast rather than #igfood) as you will be seeing them in your IG feed and the distribution will depend on the popularity of the hashtag.

-> Hashtag breakdown

This simple yet effective formula for building strong hashtag cloud will help you navigate through the basics of hashtag strategy until you get better at it and start testing different options. Your 30 hashtags should be made up of:

5 hashtags with 1,000 to 5,000 shares to get you noticed as there is less competition. Don’t use hashtags with less than 1,000 unless they are 1) location specific, 2) new community/brand related or 3) you created them.
15 hashtags with 5,000-50,000 shares so you still can get through to your dream target audience.
5 hashtags with over 50,000 shares – I recommend sifting through these and seeing, which ones will match your content best. Avoid generic hashtags with 1m shares – these seem to be one of the main reasons other users got shadowbanned.
5 hashtags you will always use. This could be your brand hashtag; your city, your motto, your campaign hashtag.

-> Hashtags you can add to your strategy

  • Branded hashtags – using hashtags specific to the brands you show in the photo. With responsive brands (those, which repost good photos of their product) it’s better to tag the brands in the photo than waste a hashtag.
  • Day of the week hashtags – add to your plan hashtags such as #MondayMotivation or #tbt
  • Community hashtags – search for communities like #bloggersat or #goaldiggermovement to tune in the conversation within your circle of interest

I added a page to my free Instagram Hashtag Strategy Workbook for these specific hashtags.

That’s it! You have created your first hashtag strategy document. Start experimenting and improve the workbook as you go.

Useful tools:

  • Hootsuite – you can schedule your posts on your computer and create hashtags streams (streams showing all posts featuring your selected hashtag).
  • Later – automatic scheduling app for Instagram. I love it because when you type in hashtags in the caption box, it recommends hashtags the same way the Instagram app does! It also lets you search Instagram hashtags.
  • Websta.me – the best tool for finding related hashtags.  Unfortunately, the service closed 🙁
  • Tagsdock – shows you lists of hashtags based on categories. I would always double-check hashtags for relevancy, though!
  • Keyhole – hashtag tracking in real time with related hashtags cloud, segment influencers and geo-location. Pretty impressive!

There is a big chance that, just like Facebook, Instagram will implement algorithms to cut your posts’ reach. There is 0 we can do about it, but, following Instagram’s statement, good quality content valuable to your audience will always be worth its weight in gold. Research your content and relevant hashtags keep working on good visuals and the results will be there. Nothing will stop people from appreciating your good work.

Everything You Need to Know About Hashtags on Instagram - A Comprehensive Guide


Aneta Pawlik

Online Marketing Consultant for Small Businesses 👩‍💼 On-Page SEO Elf 🧝‍♀️ In 💙 with Marketing Strategy & Business Administration.