YouTube has seen some major changes over the past few years, along with a demand for high-quality, authentic content just like we’ve seen with Google and its EAT guidelines.
In this article, I’ll go over how to optimize your YouTube channel based on the latest round of updates.
What We’ll Cover:
- How the YouTube algorithm works
- The YouTube update timeline
- How to optimize your videos for the latest updates
Google and Instagram might dominate the conversation when it comes to the intersection between marketing and algorithms.
Publishers and influencers alike live and die by algorithmic updates that can tank traffic and decimate organic engagement numbers.
But let’s not forget, YouTube is also all about AI-driven engagement. In fact, 70% of what users watch comes from algorithmic recommendations, meaning, anyone who wants to compete on the platform should have a basic understanding of the ranking factors that impact their performance.
Let’s take a look at those factors, and how they’ve changed over the years.
How Does the YouTube Algorithm Work?
According to YouTube, the platform is designed to help users find the video content they want to watch and to maximize long-term viewer engagement.
What this actually means is YouTube’s algorithm serves the most relevant, personalized videos across five key areas: the homepage, search, trending, suggested videos, and subscriptions.
To keep users coming back for more, YouTube’s algorithm “follows” users’ audiences, tracking how those users interact with the videos they watch. The algorithm, in its current iteration, rewards engagement over vanity metrics such as views or clicks that don’t offer much insight into preferences or interest.
As such, the algorithm is programmed to pay attention to which videos a user watches and what they ignore. Watch time, as well as engagement measures like comments, likes, and feedback also come into play.
Here’s a list of the engagement metrics YouTube uses to guide the algorithm:
- Engagement metrics such as likes, dislikes, and shares.
- Impressions vs. plays–what people watch or don’t watch.
- How often people leave “not interested” feedback.
- Growth rate
- How often a channel uploads new videos
- How much time people spend watching your content
- How much time people spend on the platform
YouTube rankings also vary based on which page you’re looking at. Here’s a quick breakdown of how the algorithm ranks content on different parts of the site:
Home and Recommended
YouTube is all about creating customized feeds tailored to individual accounts. So, the home page aims to deliver hundreds of recommendations based on a user’s viewing history.
Rankings are determined by how videos perform with similar users, as well as the users’ interest in particular topics or channels.
According to YouTube, ranking on the site’s home page is all about long-term engagement. That could mean you turn your focus toward posting several short videos or a few long ones. In either case, the goal is to keep viewers interested in watching your content.
Earlier this year, YouTube released an update that offered more control over homepage content, as well as what shows up in the “Up Next” Section.
Additionally, users can now find out why they get the recommendations that they do, which provides something of a glimpse inside the algorithm that, up until now, hasn’t been available.
The trending page gives users a round-up of new and popular videos in their region. Trending videos are ranked organically, which means brands won’t have the opportunity to pay for placement.
When the Trending page debuted back in 2017, rankings were determined by view count, making it difficult for new brands and smaller creators to gain exposure on the platform.
YouTube has since released an update to the algorithm, which now uses additional factors like novelty, view count, view growth, and more. Additionally, YouTube now allows users to see what’s trending across five categories: news, music, gaming, movies, and live.
Search results are triggered based on keywords, much like the search queries you’d type into Google. So, the two main factors here are keywords and relevance.
YouTube’s algorithm will look at your titles, descriptions, and keyword use, along with how well your content matches users’ search intent.
The platform also uses view history to rank content. This means it looks at the number of videos people watched from your channel, as well as the videos they watched on a related topic.
YouTube’s subscription page allows users to view recently uploaded videos from channels that they’ve voluntarily subscribed to.
While becoming a prominent fixture on your fans’ pages is great for engaging with your audience, a metric known as view velocity takes things a step further. View velocity measures the number of subscribers that watch your videos immediately after publishing.
High view velocity gives your videos an all-around rankings boost that can help you out in other tabs in the platform. In addition to view velocity, YouTube also uses subscriber count as a ranking factor.
The YouTube Update Timeline
Before 2012, YouTube relied solely on view count to rank video content.
So, the more people that watched a video, the more often the platform would promote it to other users.
Unfortunately, this made it way too easy for creators to game the system.
All you needed was a clickbait title that enticed viewers enough that they’d watch a fraction of the video. Of course, people began complaining about the number of clickbait videos in their feed.
So YouTube updated the algorithm to deal with the issue, favoring watch time and session time instead of clicks, prompting creators to make longer videos. This lead to YouTubers turning their focus to long-form content, at the expense of quality, and often, their well-being.
YouTube added AI and machine learning to the platform, allowing them to serve up content based on what is most likely to keep them engaged.
According to a 2016 whitepaper, YouTube’s algorithm relies on a selection of satisfaction metrics to deliver a personalized stream that keeps eyeballs glued to the screen.
The algorithm is made up of two separate neural networks. One filters videos based on view history and the viewing patterns of similar users, and uses this information to deliver “up next” recommendations.
A second neural network is used to rank videos, assigning them a score based on factors like newness, upload frequency, and additional factors that aren’t public knowledge. It’s important to note that the algorithm isn’t trying to identify good videos. Its main goal is to match users with the videos they’re most likely to want to watch.
YouTube’s timeline dates all the way back to 2005, so we won’t dig into the past too much, but here, I’ve outlined some of the biggest changes that have hit the platform in recent years.
November 2016: November 2016 brought 4k live-streaming and 360-video to the platform, along with more parental controls, including features that allow parents to block channels and log in to give their consent before allowing kids to watch videos.
June 2017: In June 2017, YouTube finally updated its algorithm to address extremist content and videos expressing offensive viewpoints. The site updated its Community Guidelines and announced that Google would automatically flag and remove content promoting terrorism or violence. They also announced that the algorithm would be updated so that offensive content that doesn’t violate the site’s terms would be buried, making it harder to gain traction on the platform.
December 2017: In December 2017, YouTube added machine-learning capabilities to their content-flagging efforts and announced they’d soon be implementing additional crackdowns on offensive content.
January 2018: In January 2018, YouTube rolled out itsIntelligence Desk initiative, an effort designed to weed out inappropriate content before it goes viral. While the effort was designed to address content violating community guidelines, it also caused some problems for legitimate creators who felt that the platform was demonetizing them for arbitrary reasons, as the algorithm sometimes flagged innocent content.
December 2018: YouTube updated its policy to prohibit young children from live-streaming on the platform.
January 2019: At the beginning of 2019, YouTube announced that the algorithm would no longer recommend what they refer to as “borderline content,” a term that refers to content that could misinform or harm viewers—but don’t necessarily cross the line when it comes to violating the site’s Community Guidelines. Examples include flat Earth conspiracy theories, bogus medical claims, or making false claims about historic events like the Holocaust or 9/11.
February 2019: YouTube removed hundreds of channels and comments linked to child predators using the platform as a channel for illegal activity.
July 2019: According to Bloomberg, YouTube tweaked its algorithm this past July to appease the FTC following the revelation that YouTube algorithms were recommending videos of minors to child predators. Unfortunately, YouTube hasn’t been 100% clear on what “quality content” should look like, frustrating creators who aren’t entirely sure how to accommodate the update.
As of 2018, children can no longer live stream without an adult present and the platform has disabled comments on videos featuring a minor.
Additionally, YouTube announced new monetization tools including channel memberships, Super Stickers, and the ability to sell merch on the platform; and YouTube launched Google Preferred, a new advertising platform that allows brands to target viewers on popular channels. This offering looks more like traditional TV advertising than Google and YouTube PPC.
How to Optimize Your Videos for the Latest YouTube Update
Many YouTube channels struggle to gain traction because they use their YouTube channel as a cloud storage platform and upload videos and don’t promote them to their audience.
Remember, YouTube is a search engine, and as such, you’ll need to optimize your videos for search, just like any other piece of content you might add to your website.
The three most important YouTube ranking factors are as follows:
- Video CTR: How many people click on your video after performing a search? How does your video compare to what your competition is pushing out? How do your title, description, and thumbnail perform when it comes to target keyword rankings?
- Audience Retention: How much of your video does the average viewer watch? Do they consistently stay engaged or click away after the intro? What kind of feedback are they leaving? Likes, dislikes, “not interested?” As a point of reference, a successful video tends to have a retention rate of about 50%.
- Session Time: How long does your audience spend on YouTube when they’re done watching your videos?
While these metrics aren’t 100% within your control, there are several things you can do to improve your organic ranking on YouTube. Many of them should be pretty familiar, particularly if you have experience optimizing for Google search.
To improve video CTR, you’ll want to look at how well you’re targeting keywords and whether your thumbnail, title, and description are enticing viewers or scaring them away.
According to Backlinko, you can optimize for watch time, at least based on their experience working with Buffer. The social media brand increased watch time by 61% by publishing longer video content.
Use the Right Keywords to Stay On Top of a YouTube Update
That Backlinko article also mentioned that Buffer finds keyword opportunities on YouTube by selecting a handful of “seed keywords”:
You’ll type in your “seeds” and from there, you’ll get a list of words that people actually type into YouTube to find content.
You can also look for search terms using the Google Keyword Planner, Keywords Everywhere, or paid YouTube tools like Moz, Ahrefs, or SEMRush.
Once you’ve identified some target search terms, you’ll want to make sure you incorporate them into the title, tags, and video description, just like you would with a blog post.
Optimize the Title
Headlines, subject lines, and yes, YouTube video titles, are all essential when it comes to generating those coveted clicks.
A few tips:
- Optimizing for the click doesn’t mean clickbait. Make sure that the video reflects what was promised inside the ad.
- Keep it short—we’re talking 60 characters or less.
- Include your target keyword in the title to increase the likelihood of ranking higher in the search results.
Spend Time on Your Description
Think beyond the title and really spend some time optimizing your description, too. While your title functions as a way to capture viewers’ attention, your description allows you to provide more detail.
A few pro tips:
- Front-load your most important info: YouTube displays 125 characters, but it’s a good idea to write at least 250 characters if possible.
- Make sure you include the most important keywords as early in the description as possible.
Create Thumbnails that Drive Clicks
As mentioned in a previous article about YouTube SEO, thumbnails support the video by providing additional context to potential viewers. Your thumbnail image is a great place to reinforce your branding and
Transcribe Your Videos
It might seem counterintuitive, but many people watch videos without the sound and rely on subtitles to watch videos on mute.
Ask People to Subscribe
There’s a reason that YouTubers are known to sign off with the old, “like and subscribe.”
The more subscribers you have, the more organic reach your videos will receive. Plus those subscribers who have notifications enabled will also receive alerts anytime new content is posted to your account.
You’ll also want to make sure you include a strong call-to-action in the description, inviting people to like, subscribe, follow, call, visit, or buy. Here’s an example that shows how you might approach sending users to a specific landing page:
You might also consider using the platform’s built-in CTA features, which include the following:
- Cards: Transparent overlays that expand when clicked. Cards help direct viewers to specific landing pages or other videos on your site.
- Watermarks: Custom subscribe buttons that appear exclusively to non-subscribers.
- Bumpers: Six-second ads that appear at the beginning or end of a video.
Content Creation Tips
Unfortunately, Google’s YouTube Creator Playbook hasn’t been updated since 2015.
Still, much of the information you’ll find there is about building a quality content plan, which admittedly hasn’t changed much in the past four years.
Today, creating content for YouTube, as well as every other platform depends on relevance and value. After a decade plagued by clickbait, fake news, and creators that game the system, viewers have higher expectations when it comes to content.
With that in mind, I’ll go over a few key things that brands should know about creating a high-quality YouTube channel that drives results.
Quick side note: if you’re just getting started, I’ve put together a guide to setting up a YouTube channel here.
Before you start pumping out content in an effort to rank on YouTube, you should probably sit down and discuss a few things with your team.
You’ll want to define your channel’s tone and style and come up with some ideas for how to bring your brand’s personality to the YouTube format.
Some questions that can help you define your brand’s voice and inform your content calendar:
- Who is your audience?
- What are their interests?
- What are your target demographics?
- What types of content do you want to make? Consider putting together a strategy that includes multiple formats including ads, tutorials, Q&As, behind-the-scenes, etc.
- How does that content fit in with your product/service?
- What tone best represents your brand? Friendly expert? Comedian? Something a bit more serious? Your tone should match the voice used on your website, social media channels, and other marketing materials.
- What CTAs do you want to focus on?
- Who will appear on camera? Will you hire actors? Stick to a few core leaders?
- Do you plan on hosting guests? If so, consider that added element of coordinating schedules.
- Is there an opportunity to collaborate with existing influencers or YouTubers?
Consistency also comes down to posting videos on a reliable basis–something that the algorithm does, in fact, take into account in ranking results. You might want to consider embracing recurring themes, like a weekly segment, episodic content, or series centered around a specific theme.
YouTube Playlists have been around forever, yet remain an underused tool for increasing discoverability.
You Don’t Have to Go Viral
Here’s the thing: going viral can be a game-changer for brands.
But even though it provides free exposure in front of a massive audience, it shouldn’t be your main focus. Viral videos capture something special that’s hard to replicate on purpose, or at least without relying on clickbait tactics to get peoples’ attention.
Instead, focus on creating video content that shows off what makes your company special and how you deliver value to your customers. Emphasize relevance, quality, and authenticity, and while it might take a while, over time, you’ll build a following of loyal brand advocates.
Promote Your Channel Away from the Platform
This final tip is just a reflection of our increasingly fragmented digital landscape, you need to be everywhere if you want to see success on any one platform. So, as you might imagine, cross-promotion is huge when it comes to driving traffic to your YouTube channel.
Be sure to promote your videos on other social media platforms, in your email marketing campaigns, and by putting together a well-planned YouTube Ads strategy.
Wrapping Up Latest YouTube Update
Video marketing continues to rise, with no signs of slowing anytime soon. While many marketers, YouTubers, and other creators have long lamented the lack of transparency surrounding the algorithm, it’s worth noting that success on YouTube isn’t all that different than what works on other platforms, as well.
By incorporating the best practices outlined above, you can build out a video strategy that works for your brand, no matter when the next YouTube update strikes.