Why I don’t use the most popular hashtags

Samuel Zeller
Jul 31, 2015 · 4 min read

#love 983,721,906 posts

They’re not meaningful

You’ve probably seen websites like “top-hashtags” claiming to provide a list of the most popular hashtags on Instagram, by copy-pasting them you’ll get tons of likes and new followers! How cool is that?

An example of the “most popular” hashtags according to one of those Top-hashtag website

Truth is, by copy-pasting those into your Instagram posts you’ll get more artificial love, more numbers and more spam. No real growth.

An example

Let’s say you started a page for your local dog shelter, you’re dedicated to posting high-quality photographs and writing a good narrative for them. You’re literally spending a lot of time crafting the ideal Instagram post.

You begin to tag every one of your pictures with words like #love #dogs #puppy #cute #adorable and also #instagood because your best friend told you it’s super used and hype.

Days passes and you’re getting a lot of likes and more followers, but no new clients seem to reach the dog shelter you’re working for.

People like your pictures but they don’t really go further…

The good tags are the ones that real users browse
They are not necessarily the most “used” ones

Become your audience

Think about dog owners on Instagram, learn how they act. Get a puppy, eat their food, catch tennis balls… wait… don’t go that far!

Do you really believe your audience spend their entire days browsing tags like #dogs and #puppy looking at those infinite streams of content where every single minute you have thousands (or even bazillions) of new posts?

Most of them don’t, and probably only a fraction engage with the content.

A solution

Here’s my little technique, my golden rule, it’s a simple command to follow in order to optimize your tags for your audience. It’s not perfect but I like it.

Use 1/3 of popular tags and 2/3 of specific tags

If you’re wondering why the hell I suggest you to still use some of those spam-filled popular hashtags please have a look at the sidenotes here.

To see if a tag is either popular or specific use the Instagram hashtag search function and look at the number of posts using that tag.

Specific tags usually have between 20'000 and 80'000 “medias”.

How does it work?

The likes you will receive by using the 1/3 popular tags will increase your chance to be in the “top post” by bringing you mostly artificial likes.

The other 2/3 will increase your chance of being seen by specific users.

Let’s see the difference between the two approaches:

Pictures by @charcara and @ __vanesa__

On the left you’re trying to get as much likes as possible while on the right you’re actually marketing correctly your dog shelter business.

Go further

Don’t use the maximum of 30 tags it will look horrible, 15 of them is fine.

Always check how much medias are posted in a tag, if it’s more than 200'000 it’s probably already filled with spam.

Take a moment to find the good ones, it’s as important as the picture and the description themselves. Good hashtags = good visibility.

Find hashtags relative to your city and to your country in different languages. I call those location based hashtags, people search for them.
Here’s a group of tags that I use often (since I’m based in Geneva).

#geneva #switzerland #swiss #genève(in french) #genf (in german)

Target specific items like dog breeds, dog food brands, accessories brands, names of other shelters or even competitors names. Be creative!

Check out comparable Instagram accounts and learn their hashtag strategy, find influencers in your niche and email them, remember that one good customer or follower (that engage every week) is worth dozens of ghost users.

Never look at your competitors number of followers, they mean absolutely nothing, it’s just digits not leads. The engagement is all that matters.


Thank you very much for reading. I’m a photographer based in Geneva, Switzerland, some of my work is visible on my website and on Instagram.

Samuel Zeller

Written by

Swiss photographer based in Geneva. Fujifilm ambassador. I write about photography, art and social media. Available for work.

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