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Do Hashtags Help a Twitter Topic Search?

Lori Halley 23 July 2009 4 comments

In a recent comment on An Introduction to Twitter Hashtags, Wild Apricot reader 88keyman came through with a really great question:

Suppose I’m writing on a topic concerning Iran. If I include the hashtag #Iran, how does that differ from merely using the word Iran in my Tweet? Wouldn’t both come up equally in a search of the topic?

twitter search termsActually, each of these search terms will produce slightly different results. A Twitter Search on #iran will include all mentions of iran, but not vice versa.

Tracking the hashtag #iran, rather than simply the name of the country, means you are somewhat more likely to find people who are actively engaged in discussing those current events. A search on Iran or iran (it’s not case sensitive), on the other hand, will include all mentions of the word, for whatever reason it occurs.

By way of illustration, check the search results for updates that include Iran but exclude #iran to get a sense of how the hashtag might refine your search. By searching for the word instead of the hashtag, you’d include a wide range of tweets in your results — like these examples, from earlier today:

  • antiatom Iran: Atomkraftwerk Buschehr soll bis Jahresende Betrieb aufnehmen: Das mit russischer Hilfe gebaute iranische A.. http://bit.ly/XFWhU
  • The_MasterMind_ can any one answer this? Which river flowed into the Persian gulf after forming part of the border between Iraq and Iran
  • sueela @xoSophie is iran election ever not trending?!

You can exclude off-topic tweets to a large extent by searching for a specific hashtag rather than a generic term, clearly. Hashtags do seem to perform most effectively when they are created around a specific event (real or virtual) — #iranelection, #ASAE09, #blogchat, and so on. But whether it's better to use a hashtag that is also a word, or to use the word itself in your search, will depend in part on how you want to refine the search results.

Because Iran is a very broad topic with a high volume of tweets, you may want to further refine your search with the usual Boolean search operators (AND, OR, a minus sign to exclude certain terms, and so on), or try the detailed search form on the Advanced Twitter Search page.

Of course, searching only for a hashtag, or further refining your search, means that you’ll also run the risk of missing some interesting and insightful tweets from those who simply don’t use hashtags or fit the search criteria.  I recommend setting up a variety of test searches with both the word and the hashtag, and comparing the results to see which will better suit your specific needs.

 88keyman, I hope this helps to clear up the hashtags search issue for you  — and thanks for bringing up a question that I’m sure many others have shared!

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 23 July 2009 at 12:57 AM


  • John Haydon said:

    Thursday, 23 July 2009 at 6:41 AM

    Rebecca - great post!

    As you mentioned, the key characteristic of Hashtags is that you can find folks that are "actively engaged in discussing those current events". At this time, there is no check box in the Twitter advanced search to parse out "actively engaged" conversations.

    Hashtags are used in three ways:

    1. To contribute valuable content to these conversations

    2. To search these conversations.

    3. To create visibility for yourself by diving into the stream of the conversations


  • Carla Pendergraft said:

    Thursday, 23 July 2009 at 3:21 PM

    Absolutely fascinating post! And great answer. Thanks for your insights.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Thursday, 23 July 2009 at 4:00 PM

    At this time, there is no check box in the Twitter advanced search to parse out "actively engaged" conversations.

    John, how right you are! The best we can do is tweak the search terms to increase the odds of finding those "right" conversations, and then - as you point out - grab a hashtag and dive in. Because hashtags are a two way street, of course: they not only help us to improve a topic search, but also help our own contributions to turn up in other people's searches and TweetChats and, sometimes, even under Twitter's "trending topics" links.

    Carla, thank you :) but credit properly goes to the reader who asked such an interesting question!

  • Cindy King said:

    Thursday, 23 July 2009 at 8:49 PM


    Good comparison of using a hashtag or not!  

    ...And a some good tips for Twitter marketing :)

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