To hashtag or not to hashtag

These days, hashtags are everywhere. I've seen 140-character tweets with 10 hashtags and it's even worse on Instagram. Vine has them. Pinterest has them. Tumblr has them. Recently, there's been talk of Facebook possibly implementing some system of hashtagging.

#Whoa #HoldOn #Please. #ThankYou.

Hashtags were always meant to be a way to group messages to make them easy to find. The first high-profile use in the U.S. was when Nate Ritter of San Diego tweeted about wildfires with the hashtag #sandiegofire. But then people started hashtagging everything to the point where the # started to lose its emphasis.

Just because you can use a hashtag doesn't mean you should. The reasons behind the first ones were sound, and while the basic concept still exists, hashtags are one of the most abused things on social media.

So how do you know when you should a hashtag and when you shouldn't? Here are some things to keep in mind and some tips to make them better:

Hashtags add extra characters: I rarely use hashtags for big stories. If I type #Cubs, people will still find my content if they just search Cubs. I recommend them if you are trying to keep a series of tweets organized, but don't go out of your way to add one.

Hashtags can invite spam: How many times have you seen a spammer promote irrelevant content using a trending hashtag?

But hashtags can be useful: Being a part of a trending topic makes your content easier to discover. A tweet appended with a well-known hashtag such as #TravelTuesday will be beneficial. If you know people are using the hashtag and you can figure out a way to get in on the action, try it.

Strong keywords usually beat appended hashtags: Which do you think is better? "Cubs, Sox World Series looks likely" or World Series to feature both #Cubs and #Sox"? Word placement means everything to the people who follow you and it's good for SEO.

Long hashtags = bad hashtags: They look entertaining, but don't expect people to type all those letters. #ThingsILikeToDoOnANiceDay looks like a big bunch of jumbled letters with no purpose.

What questions do you have about social media? Tweet them to @scottkleinberg or @amyguth. We might select yours for use in a future column.

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