Why Facebook hashtags were doomed to #fail

We’re nearly four months into Facebook’s reluctant acceptance of hashtags and, to this point; it’s really been much ado about nothing. In fact, if you look at Edgerank Checker’s data, it’s less than nothing – posts with hashtags actually have less viral reach than those without. That’s a negative impact on Facebook page performance for those keeping score at home.

I had very modest expectations for Facebook hashtags, but complete and utter irrelevance? The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how foolish I was to think they ever had a chance.

[contextly_sidebar id=”a30aa96da751337bc3cc0f6b44609f3b”]Hashtags Don’t Make Sense In A News Feed Algorithm

Firstly, the hashtag, as it evolved on Twitter, was a wonderfully simple solution to an exceptionally complex problem: how do you organize and surface topics in a purposely-unfiltered eco-system? Chris Messina, founder of the hashtag on Twitter, wrote about this desire in a blog post back in 2007: “I do think that there is certainly some merit to improving contextualizationcontent filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter. This is a rather messy proposal to that effect.”

Facebook went a different route to solve this problem, electing to decide what information users would see through an increasingly complex News Feed algorithm that now has over 100,000 individual weights, according to Lars Backstrom, Engineering Manager for News Feed Ranking at Facebook. As a result of this, users have been conditioned not to seek out information, but rather to scroll through their feed and passively receive information instead.

Hashtags Work Well for Discovery, Not Personal Connectivity 

Secondly, Twitter and other social platforms that have seen hashtag success, like Tumblr and Google+, are primarily asymmetric social networks. Their entire purpose is to discover people and content of interest regardless of a personal connection with either entity. And, given that it would be impossible to monitor the thousands of people influential on any given topic, it’s possible to monitor a hashtag and see what’s being discussed at any moment.

Facebook, on the other hand, evolved as a platform to connect friends, family and other social circles in a closed environment. The notion of seeing what the entirety of Facebook is thinking about the Breaking Bad series finale, for instance, feels jarring because users go to Facebook to see what the people they know are up to – not strangers and the Internet at large.

Hashtags Don’t Always Have a Positive Connotation

There are other, smaller reasons why Facebook hashtags have been a fail. The fact that hashtags were formerly useless, and a sign of borderline spam, has caused the moderate social media user to develop an aversion to the mere sight of the hashtag on Facebook. User education is another hurdle with a network as large and an audience as diverse as Facebook.

The ironic thing is that one beacon of hope for the hashtag on Facebook is Google. Just last week Google very sneakily rolled out hashtag support in search and, while it prominently features Google+ posts, there are links to conduct the same search on Twitter and Facebook.

Is it enough to save hashtags on Facebook? Probably not. But hey, they #NeedToTry.

David Carrillo is an online marketer at The Search Agency with a passion for all things digital. His background is in content and social but he has a passion for a variety of marketing disciplines ranging from technical SEO to display advertising.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.