A lot of social listening tools out there have clever ways of monitoring hashtags: Synthesio, for instance, has a special search field for any hashtags you’d like to monitor; Brandwatch has a dedicated Boolean operator for hashtags (“hashtags:”). Even Twitter lets you search for hashtags separately from keywords when you’re using its Advanced Search.

Unfortunately, not a lot of platforms out there are clear on the implications and differences between searching for a keyword vs. a hashtag. Besides, they don’t always explain why searching for the hashtag “#apple”, the keyword “apple” and “#apple” as a keyword may bring you different results.

Why A Separate Hashtag Search?

The main reason why these tools have a dedicated hashtag search is so that you can monitor any hashtag on the platforms they support (usually Twitter and Instagram). Pulling hashtags from other social platforms, like Google Plus, Pinterest, VK.com etc. may be limited due to API restrictions.

There’s another reason why these tools have a search field for hashtags. If you’re searching for a hashtag that can only be related to a specific campaign or brand, then you’re safe with pretty much any social listening tool out there. However, things can get tricky if you’re searching a hashtag that can be easily mistaken for something else.

For instance, doing a search for the word “bt” on any social listening tool will give you results from people using “bt” as a shorthand for “bt” and “bluetooth”, among other things. However, when doing a search specifically for the hashtag #BT, most of the results will be about the brand “British Telecommunications”. The same applies to a lot of brands whose names can have various meanings, like Apple, Orange, Virgin, Blackberry, TIM…

Additionally, a few tools out there also let you search for hashtags as keywords: while searching for a hashtag restricts your search to Twitter (and Instagram) only, tools that let you use hashtags as keywords expand your search to pretty much anywhere online – news sites, forums, blogs, other public social networks etc.

Searching for a keyword vs. searching for a hashtag

Here’s the difference between searching for a keyword vs. searching for a hashtag:

  • searching for the keyword “apple” will return mentions of “apple” and the hashtag “#apple”;
  • searching for the hashtag “#apple” will only return any mentions of the hashtag #apple on supported platforms (e.g. Twitter, Instagram), but not mentions of “apple” without a hashtag;
  • searching for “#word” as a keyword will return any mentions of “#word” (including the # symbol) anywhere online (so not only restricted to Twitter and Instagram).

So, to put it in practical terms:

  • If a news site has an article that contains the hashtag “#apple”:
    • a query searching for the hashtag “#apple” will not return that article: when you’re searching for a hashtag, you’re explicitely telling your social listening tool to search in its hashtag-supported platforms (e.g. Twitter and/or Instagram) and nowhere else;
    • a query searching for the keyword “apple” will return that article: most social listening tools see the “#” character as a space outside of Twitter and Instagram, so on that page “#apple” looks just like “ apple” to your listening tool, thus matching your search query;
    • a query searching for the hashtag “#apple” as a keyword will return that article.
  • If a news site has an article that contains the keyword “apple”:
    • a query searching for the hashtag “#apple” will not return that article: when you’re searching for a hashtag, you’re explicitely telling your social listening tool to search in its hashtag-supported platforms (e.g. Twitter and/or Instagram) and nowhere else, so that news site will never appear in the results;
    • a query searching for the keyword “apple” will return that article;
    • a query searching for the hashtag “#apple” as a keyword will not return that article, as that article doesn’t contain “#apple” anywhere in the page, so it wouldn’t match your query.
  • If a Tweet or Instagram picture contains the keyword “#apple”:
    • a query searching for the hashtag “#apple” will return the Tweet;
    • a query searching for the keyword “apple” will return the Tweet;
    • a query searching for the hashtag “#apple” as a keyword will return the Tweet.

So, Which One’s Better?

It all depends on what you’re searching for. As a general rule of thumb:

  • if you’re looking for mentions of a word, regardless of whether it’s used as a word on its own or as a hashtag, just search for it as a keyword;
  • if you’re only interested in mentions of a hashtag, just stick to hashtag searching.