I’ve always loved hashtags on Instagram as a way to increase your visibility to like-minded people, and as a way to discover new accounts that I’d like to follow and engage with. I even wrote one of my best performing posts on my favourite Instagram hashtags which I know have worked really well for me. But I’ve been looking at my analytics in the last couple of weeks and have seen a change in how hashtags are performing. These days my views on a post through hashtags are ranging between 3 and 13, but definitely trending towards the lower end, which is staggeringly poor. In fact, I’ve experimented with not using them at all, and have seen no difference in likes, which does make me wonder why I’m bothering.
With Instagram’s own instruction last year to users to focus more on your business goals and objectives rather than relying on hashtags, it seems as close as we’re going to get to an indication that hashtags are not the way they want to see users focusing their efforts. I’ve read so much advice lately on how to beat the 2018 Instagram algorithm, and so much of this has focused on your use of hashtags; don’t use too many, don’t use ‘spammy’ ones, make sure you include them in your caption, not your comments. Most of this is just speculation and rumour, but the general theme is clear; hashtags are problematic.
I think there are a number of factors that are at play here in the recent drop in engagement, rather than it being as simple as blaming ‘the algorithm’.
Changes to the Top 9
The recent personalisation of the Top 9 grids in hashtags has been an interesting one. Instead of seeing the best performing recent posts in that hashtag, now users see a version that is personalised to them, featuring people they follow and interact with. A nice idea if you want to make sure that you’re keeping on top of people’s feeds, but it hugely limits the ability of the Top 9 as a way to explore and introduce you to new accounts. Sure, you can browse through the hashtags, but the Top 9 was always a great way to quickly see the best that that hashtag had to offer. To say nothing of the fact that when I look through the new Top 9s, I’ve nearly always liked all of the photos already! For me, this change has been a massive blow to the way that I explore Instagram.
Of course, following hashtags would be a great way to explore and discover new accounts given my complaints about the Top 9. When Instagram rolled out the ability to follow hashtags, I dutifully followed my favourites. After all, the rumour was that if you were following, you were more likely to be featured by Instagram to others following. Except it’s become clear that that’s not working for me either. I follow a few of my favourite hashtags, and all I see is the same people in my feed. It seems that once you’ve liked one photo from an account, the algorithm prioritises that account above all others (even if you’ve already liked the photo through exploring directly in the hashtag or through the explore feed!). Having spoken to a few other people (thanks to Emma at Bubbablue and Me), it seems like they have the same frustrations with this as I do. My suspicion is that people will get fed up with this and unfollow the hashtag, or simply not browse within it if they are following, assuming that they’re seeing the highlights of it in their feed.
Change in Behaviour
I can’t help but wonder if we’re all moaning about changes to the algorithm and blaming it for our decrease in engagement, but missing the bigger picture. Are people just not browsing and interacting within hashtags in the same way as they used to? I know from my own Instagram use, that I don’t often have the time to be browsing more than just the Top 9 of my favourite hashtags anymore. I’ve noticed that even some of the people who run community based hashtags have stopped sharing their favourite photos from the hashtag, or even liking and commenting on the photos uploaded within their hashtag as often as they did before.
So if hashtags aren’t performing anymore, where does that leave us? The only logical solution I can see is to pay for advertising. Which perhaps is exactly the point…
Have you noticed a similar drop in hashtag engagement? I’d love to hear your theories on it all.