How and When Should I Use YouTube Hashtags?
Can Hashtags On YouTube Take Your Channel To The Next Level, Or Are You Playing With Fire?
Hashtags have been an essential part of promoting and organizing content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for years, but what happens when YouTube Hashtags enter the independent creator toolbox?
In May of 2018, YouTube jumped on the hashtag bandwagon and officially began supporting the use of the categorization tool for users accessing the platform from a computer or from an Android device (sorry IOS fans, looks like Google is playing favorites this time). In the subsequent year or so since the announcement, confusion still seems to run rampant on how to use the system, just what effect it will have on the video's SEO, and if anyone actually uses the darn things correctly. Today, we're going to see if we can provide a little more clarity on YouTube Hashtags on and whether or not it makes sense for your channel!
How Does YouTube Use Hashtags?
Hashtags are, at their simplest, just a way to organize thoughts and content, and it's sort of interesting that YouTube has decided to add this tool as the platform is already chock full of categorization tools. Already, viewers can find content based on the titles of the videos, the descriptions of the videos, the location of the video, the tags of the videos, the playlists the videos have been added to, the channel the video appears on, etc. The new hashtag functionality is designed to allow viewers a more specific way to find content- by either clicking a hashtag on a video that they are already viewing, or by typing the hashtag into the search bar. This will bring up a list of videos that use that particular hashtag as well as related videos that YouTube thinks may fit that viewer's intent, especially in the case where the hashtag isn't particularly popular and there are limited results. The results are sorted by YouTube's estimation of which one fits your intent best based on what other viewers have watched before you. Fairly simple stuff, and it fits the YouTube M.O. to a "T".
On the creator end, YouTube hashtags have been promoted as a way to gain new viewers. Creators can add up to 3 hashtags to either the title of their video or into the description box. If you place it into the title, the clickable hashtag will of course appear as part of your title once a viewer comes to your video. If you choose to add the hashtags to your description box however, they will not only appear in the description of your video, but also directly under the video title as smaller font clickable links.
Now, there ARE rules to this off course. You can't just add anything as a clickable link. You can't have spaces included in your hashtag, you can't over-tag which of course get's spammy. You can't have words that promote hate speech or harassment, you can't have vulgar or sexual language, and you can't use misleading tags. Case in point, someone got the bright idea to use "#trending" on one of their videos to try to trick people into thinking that the video was trending in the hopes that viewers would buy in and share it. That's a no no. Don't do that.
The Operating Theories Behind Hashtags on YouTube
As mentioned, the whole idea behind hashtags is order. Theoretically, adding more order and structure to YouTube makes the user experience better, keeps people watching longer (because they can jump to content that they specifically recommend), and give the creator a chance to improve their searchability as they capture new viewers by riding hashtags, especially in the case where a hashtag is part of a trending topic that has a lot of viewers actively searching for more videos on that trending topic.
It's also an attempt by YouTube to help viewers avoid misleading and offensive content. As you have no doubt already heard, there have been issues with that over the past few years, with the rise of clickbait titles and more than the fair of extremist videos and other distasteful content getting mixed into the standard search results that YouTube has returned to viewers. Now, if viewers are searching for a specific hashtag, they supposedly are less likely to get content recommendations that fall into those traps. Yes, people CAN add hashtags that are misleading of course, but that violates the Terms of Service, and we all know that nobody would ever break the rules.
Likewise, the idea is that it will help content break through the clutter of the general search content, as hashtags are supposed to be much more specific than a general search would be. By limiting creators to no more than three hashtags, they are more likely to only use the tags that are very specific rather than a broad shotgun approach as many independent creators use when they add their standard video tags. More on that shortly.
Do YouTube Hashtags Actually Work?
Let's get into the meat of the situation though- do hashtags on YouTube actually work? Do they really do anything at all? If so, do they help you or can they actually hurt you? That's a bit more involved.
There are plenty of people who have weighed in on the hashtag subject since they went active on the platform in mid 2018, and is always the case, there have been a decent amount of YouTube myths passed off as truths, and more than a few changing opinions to go along with them. Now that the practice has had a full year to be tested and measured, we're seeing some winners and losers in the practice.
Winner #1 - Small Amounts of YouTube Viewers
YouTube is generally more concerned about the user experience of it's viewers than it is on how individual creators fare on the platform. That might sound harsh, but it's a necessity that has been adopted from it's parent company Google. Yes, they DO care about creators contrary to what many of those creators believe, and they DO care about their advertisers, but the health of the platform itself depends on users spending as much time as possible watching as many videos as possible. As much as YouTube has implied that this was a great tool for creators, the viewer experience is what drove this change. They wanted to give viewers an easy way to find the specific content they wanted so that they would stick around longer and watch as many videos as possible while they were there.
The problem though is that most viewers haven't embraced YouTube hashtags... most viewers don't even seen to notice them at all.
That being said, for the small percentage of viewers that have adopted the practice of clicking onto hashtags (or searching for them specifically), the program has been a success, and the people who have used hashtags to find content seem to enjoy the results by far and large.
Winner # 2: Small Amounts of YouTube Creators Who Can Capitalize on Trending Hashtags
Much like the viewing public, most creators haven't really taken to the hashtag practice either. Many don't understand the program (if they are even aware of it to begin with), many of them don't want to bother with them, and several have heard that it might not be all it's cracked up to be.
Enter that creators chasing trends.
These are the creators who put out timely videos based around search trends. That could mean news stories, that can mean trending hashtags, that can be "movements" like the "#MeToo" movement. These are videos that are created around a larger wave of public interest that is hot in the moment. Creators riding those waves have actually seen some success by using popular trending youtube hashtags to ride the momentum of their hashtag
Winner # 3: Large Channels Who Already Dominate Search Results
The other creator group that has done well is the pocket of larger creators who are already at the top of search results. If a viewer searches for a particular hashtag and a larger creator (or a creator with a very well performing video in that space) is included in the search results, chances of that creator coming up at the top of the recommended results for that hashtag are high.
Loser # 1 : All the Other Creators
There is no gentle way to say this- the practice hasn't exactly paid off for most creators the way that YouTube implied it would. Experts like Brian G Johnson and Morningfame have been particularly clear that they see no reason for the majority of creators to pick up the practice of using hashtags on YouTube. As Morningfame discussed, they don't really have enough people using them to benefit you, and Brian took it a step further and discussed his research that showed that they actively HURT many creators as they encourage viewers to click away from your video, where they are whisked to a page of recommended related videos populated by larger creators who are actively trying to outrank your channel for that hashtag. Even worse, you destroy your watch time statistics and your engagement rates as you actively encourage your viewers to leave your video before it is over. YouTube's algorithm punishes a video for losing viewers, and using hashtags self sabotages you!
If You Are Going To Use YouTube Hashtags, How Should You Use Them?
Most experts were pretty optimistic about the program when it first rolled out, and while some of them are still singing the praises of the practice, there are more than a few who have soured on them. For the people who DO decide they are going to risk using hashtags despite the fact that they can cause your channel quite a bit of harm if they don't perform they way you want them to, there are a few recommendations that tend to come up quite a bit, and they are based on a combination of relative safety and growth strategy.
Use Your Personal Brand As One Of Your Tags
This is simple. If you have a brand (And by now, you should already know that you need a brand), use that. That can be a catch phrase, a well known nickname, or even your channel name (though - that's a bit of a waste since your channel name is already searchable.
The practice is more about trying to make sure that the clicked hashtags will return search results that you will dominate, and make it less likely that you are delivering them to your competition.
Use a Popular Topic as One Of Your Tags
This goes back to capitalizing on a hot trend. This would be adding "#coachella2020" during the days where the festival is playing out so that all the people looking for Coachella videos can easily find you. Of course, this only works if you have a video that fits the hashtag.
It's not such a good idea to use something too broad though. Fortnight might be popular, but you have almost no chance of being found in a sea of "#fortnight" results, so steer clear.
Use Your Location As One Of Your Tags
This is simple. If you are making a video from Michigan Adventures amusement park, you can use #michiganadventures as a hashtag. Be careful though, this works best when it's more of a niche location that is under served by creators on YouTube. The more competing videos there are for that location hashtag, the more likely you are to run into trouble.
Place Your Hashtags In Your Description, Not Your Title
When you add a hashtag to your title, you risk cluttering your title and chances are less likely anyone will even notice it. It's better to use the YouTube hashtag functionality in your description instead so that they will populate under your title where they are more noticeable. Again though, be careful- sometimes that's a bad thing if the hashtag pulls them off of your video.
My Take on Using YouTube HashTags
There are some pro's to using hashtags on YouTube. They do help you organize content, and as a branding tool, there could be a value, and YES, as dangerous as they can be, some people DO pick up more views by using them. If you are a creator who creates "news-jacking" content where you specifically create content that is designed to ride trends, this could be a great way to get on new radars.
The con's though scare me personally. It's hard enough to get YouTube viewers to find our videos without chasing them off to a competitor once you have finally gotten them onto your video. If you "own" a phrase that nobody else is going to rank for, it might be safe to use them for that phrase, but you really need to niche down and find terms that people might care enough to actual search for, AND you need to make sure that your content is popular enough to still rank at the top of whatever results youTube delivers.
Personally, it's too rich for my blood.