Nearly 2 billion people visit YouTube every month to watch the 500 hours of video that are uploaded every minute. While these staggering numbers mean there are a lot of eyes just waiting to watch your content, it also means there’s an equal amount of competition for those eyes. So how do you ensure your videos are finding the right audience and are positioned to grow in viewership and popularity? The answer is simultaneously simple and complex: the YouTube algorithm.
The YouTube algorithm delivers relevant and personalized content to viewers based on factors like user engagement and search queries. Read on to discover how it works and how to ensure your videos are making it to the right audience.
The YouTube algorithm works by monitoring user engagement and paying attention to how viewers interact with a particular video, including time spent watching, whether they like or dislike it, and other feedback. The algorithm then takes this intel and uses it to select additional videos a person might like based on what they’ve already watched, with the goal of helping viewers easily find relevant content. (This also leads to retention, encouraging viewers to stay on YouTube for longer amounts of time.) In the past, the YouTube algorithm weighted click-through rates: the number of people who clicked on a video after seeing its thumbnail.
But this led to a lot of clickbait content that didn’t satisfy viewers, so YouTube changed its approach and started to look at watch times, both for individual videos and channels. From there, the platform continued to refine its algorithm, taking cues from user surveys, looking at a video’s ratio of likes to dislikes, and checking when users are selecting the “not interested” option.
What are the YouTube ranking factors that you need to be aware of?
“One of the most important factors in getting your videos seen on YouTube is optimizing your title, tags, and descriptions. Using relevant and targeted keywords in these areas can help ensure that your videos show up in the right search results and are more likely to be discovered by your target audience,” says Dennis Shirshikov, head of content at Awning, a real estate investing company that leverages YouTube to promote its services. “It’s also a good idea to include a clear and compelling call to action in your video descriptions to encourage viewers to watch more of your content.”
In addition to optimizing your content, Shirshikov says it’s important that you build “a strong and engaged community around your channel” through comments or YouTube’s other interactive features. This includes promoting similar content via the platform’s Related Videos feature and using YouTube’s video analytics feature to identify crucial factors like which types of content your target audience interacts with the most. A strong, engaged community “can help drive more traffic and visibility to your channel,” he says.
You should also be promoting your videos on other social media and marketing channels. Aside from expanding your reach, getting views from sources outside of YouTube allows you to “feed” the platform’s recommendation engine, giving it the data it needs to make relevant recommendations to your audience.
YouTube’s video ranking depends on several factors, including:
Watch time: A video’s watch time is one of the most important factors. This factor indicates how long each viewing session is and plays an important role in how the platform’s algorithm determines a video’s ranking.
Here’s an example: Video X and Video Y are the same length and cover the same topic. Video X’s viewers watch for 10 minutes, while Video Y’s viewers only watch for five minutes before leaving the video. It’s likely that the YouTube algorithm will recommend or promote Video X over Video Y based on their respective watch time minutes.
Upload frequency: The more frequently you upload, the more likely it is that your channel or videos will be recommended by the YouTube algorithm. It’s not enough to just upload a large quantity of content—you must also be consistent. If you stop uploading for a significant length of time, it’s likely your videos will drop in YouTube’s rankings. (Here are a few tips on what times of day are best for posting on YouTube.)
View count: YouTube used to rank videos based on number of views, so even if a video was “bad” or had a high bounce rate, it would likely still be highly ranked. As a result, it was common for YouTube creators to leverage clickbait headlines and buy views to ensure a high-ranking video. Today, view count is only part of the equation that makes up YouTube’s ranking.
To improve your ranking based on these factors, your videos should have:
A compelling script: Your script will play a major role in whether viewers stay and watch to the end.
According to a HubSpot report, three of the most important factors that make videos effective are being able to capture the viewers’ attention in the first few seconds, promotion, and staying concise. With an engaging and well-written script, you’re more likely to capture your audience’s attention and keep them engaged. When writing your script, make sure that you deliver what you promised in your title, and don’t forget to mention your focus keywords throughout the video.
An effective thumbnail: When someone looks at your thumbnail, they should be able to tell what your video is about. This image can also play a role in whether your audience decides to watch your video. Here’s a YouTube fun fact: 90% of the platform’s best-performing videos utilize custom thumbnails.
To create a thumbnail that stands out, identify your target audience. By being able to identify your target audience, you’re essentially putting yourself in their shoes. What do they want to see? What is attractive to them? What visual elements can you add that will resonate with your audience?
Make use of interesting visuals without going overboard. (Remember, a thumbnail isn’t that big, so more does not necessarily equal better on this small scale.) It helps if your thumbnail is optimized across devices.
“It takes multiple strategies and some patience to get videos seen on YouTube,” says Baruch Labunski, a marketing expert and founder of Rank Secure. “Use good hashtags and promote them on social media. Promote special videos—like [those] with a guest—ahead of publishing so people will want to tune in. Send invites [to your mailing list] when a new video is out. Keep your name and logo [as a watermark throughout] the video…and on the end screen so people remember you. Ask [viewers] to subscribe [to your channel] in every video.”
What makes a video go viral? Why do some videos have a lot of shares and rack up high engagement rates while others are doomed to oblivion?
A Harvard Business Review report outlines some factors. The timing of your upload could play a role in making a video go viral. Additionally, the videos that people share most often are those that elicit an emotional response. Some other reasons why people are motivated to share videos online include the video’s novelty, how fun, exciting, or helpful the video is, and how inspiring or nostalgia-inducing it is.
The way a video is edited can also impact its virality. For example, you can make your videos more engaging by being creative with your video editing. And when you throw an attention-grabbing thumbnail in the mix, you’re more likely to get your audience to watch (and share) your content.
"When you want your video to be seen on YouTube, you need to understand how important the non-video components of your video are,” shares Joe Karasin, chief marketing officer of DigitalWill.com. “The video's title should contain the major keywords associated with your content. Your video description should be rich and not shy away from using search terms. Essentially, you should learn SEO basics and then apply those to your YouTube videos.”
YouTube also recently prioritized “shorts” and pushed this short-form content to the top of many home pages. YouTube Shorts, which are short videos that run a maximum of 60 seconds, can be used to promote your channel, share video teasers, grow your audience, increase engagement, leverage user-generated content, and engage in trends. By leveraging YouTube Shorts and the YouTube Shorts algorithm, in addition to making videos on your regular channel, you’ll tap into more opportunities for channel growth. That’s because demand for short-form content is growing from today’s audience.