Hashtags are possibly the most misunderstood tool on the social web. Some people confuse social mentions with hashtags; others use completely obscure hashtags because they see their friends using the pound sign and don't even know why; and worst of all, some use hashtags to spam their followers and friends. When private users make those mistakes, it is annoying, but when a business does it, it can be very damaging.

It is time to make some sense of all the hashtag noise. What are hashtags and when should you use them to increase your business's social media footprint?

Sometimes, it's just funny.

Let's just get this type of hashtag out of the way. If you are eating a delicious slice of pizza, and you add the hashtag #Yum at the end of your tweet or Instagram photo, that has one goal and one goal only: to add a little humor to your content. The best business social media accounts are the ones that add some personality to their posts.

You will notice people using hashtags all over the internet to add a touch of sarcasm or wittiness to their content. There is no strategy here, no hopes of going viral, or any other reason to use a hashtag like this other than subtle humor.

Think about what you're actually trying to accomplish.

Now let's talk about the hashtags we see on people's tweets, Instagram photos, LinkedIn posts, and Facebook statuses. Why are people using 18 hashtags in their tweets, and should you? The short answer is no. Fight the temptation so your business is not labeled as spam by your audience.

The reason to use hashtags in tweets, for example, is so that your tweets come up when people search for that topic. So if you are attending Mobile World Congress and tweeting about the event, you might add the hashtag #MWC to your tweets about the event. It is a powerful way to let people know that you and your team are on the ground with a finger on the pulse of the event.

People who want to know what's going at the event might come across your updates and follow you. Hashtags, put simply, are an effective way to categorize your updates about a certain event or topic.

Having said that, it is important to ensure that you are not overusing hashtags to get more followers, thereby spamming your existing followers with things that add no value for them. If you, for example, add 10 hashtags to a tweet, many of which are actually not relevant to the topic in the tweet, what you are saying is that you are prioritizing new followers over existing ones.

That is a bad strategy. Use hashtags wisely.

How you use the hashtag should depend on the platform.

Now, I gave the example of hashtags on Twitter, but Instagram is very different. While using 10 hashtags in your tweets is aggressive and spammy because your followers can't read the tweet without seeing the hashtags, Instagram actually encourages you to use the maximum number of hashtags in your posts, which is 30. 

The thing is, on Instagram, you can post the hashtags in the comments and not in the post itself. The hashtags shouldn't affect your followers--they don't even have to see them. I often post pictures and then add 30 hashtags in the comments. In fact, the hashtags I use are based on research I conducted of the top hashtags for that particular topic. So if I am posting a picture of a car, I include 30 car-related hashtags in the comments.

Hashtags are no different than anything else you are doing on social media.

At the end of the day, the rule of thumb with hashtags is similar to the rule for anything else you do on the web. Ask yourself the following question when you are about to hit the publish button on a post with hashtags in it: Is this post valuable to the people who will be reading it? Will those hashtags help the recipient of this tweet in any way, or are they just helping me?

If the answer is that by using the hashtags, you are bringing additional value, go ahead and hit send. If not, think twice before publishing, because the last thing you want to do is spam the people that have already clicked that Follow button and given you their ear. Don't abuse the platform.