The YouTube algorithm is critical to creators’ success, but this doesn’t make it any less difficult to understand. As we all know, YouTube and Google don’t divulge the secrets of their algorithms. They do, however, give you guidelines to follow which can tip the algorithms in your favor.
Even if YouTube won’t reveal its algorithm’s nuts and bolts, you can still discover them through old-fashioned research. Here, we’ve done all of the heavy lifting for you: Read on to learn everything you need to know about the YouTube algorithm for more views, subscribers and audience engagement.
Table of Contents
- Why Does the YouTube Algorithm Matter?
- The YouTube Algorithm’s Illustrious Past
- The Videos YouTube Loves
- Flash in the Pan or Long-Term Success?
- Tips for Lasting YouTube Relevance
- Five YouTube FAQs Answered
Why Does the YouTube Algorithm Matter?
As one of the premier social networks for videos, any SEO would be remiss not to include YouTube marketing in their digital marketing stack. Because you’re on iloveseo.com, we think you either have some interest in pursuing YouTube marketing, and you may be slightly familiar with how a typical search engine works:
- A user submits a query.
- The algorithm returns a selection of results it believes are relevant to that query.
- The user chooses a result to click on.
While modern search engines have added machine learning, human quality raters and user feedback into the mix, that basic formula remains.
But on YouTube, the algorithm works differently. While it may behave similarly to a standard search engine, it also adds content curation to the mix through its auto-generated recommendations.
It does so by displaying videos it thinks users will be interested in on both the homepage and in the platform’s sidebar:
The YouTube algorithm doesn’t just answer users’ needs—it proactively addresses them before they type so much as a single keyword. Of course, this assumes that you are subscribed to the platform and logged in.
That’s why YouTube SEO is unique: You’re aiming to get your videos in front of users who may not have made a query to begin with.
The YouTube Algorithm’s Illustrious Past
As of January 2021, YouTube is the second most used social media platform in the world, surpassed only by Facebook. The site also gets billions of views per day—by comparison, it was receiving 100 million daily views in July 2006.
But YouTube was no small fry, even upon its first release in 2005. Started by three PayPal employees, the site quickly saw its user base skyrocket and was purchased by Google just 18 months later.
Despite Google’s involvement, YouTube’s recommendation system remained rudimentary for years. The site didn’t begin recommending related videos until 2008, and even then it did so based on simple metrics such as click count and watch time.
The tide turned in 2016 with the implementation of machine learning. As explained in a white paper from Google, YouTube’s neural networks provide recommendations by analyzing each user’s history and context alongside other, video-specific metrics:
Although most of us may not understand exactly how it works, you only have to watch an hour or two of YouTube videos to see the results: An almost-endless, highly-personalized supply of videos presented to you at every turn.
The formula clearly works—at the time of this writing, more than 500 hours of content are uploaded every minute. The site boasts over two billion logged-in users a month, and YouTube is used in more than 100 countries.
Translation? YouTube presents one of the best opportunities to connect with your audience, and you’re seriously missing out if you don’t take advantage of it.
The Videos YouTube Loves
If you want to get on the YouTube algorithm’s good side, start by analyzing the types of videos it already favors.
YouTube’s own documentation states that its algorithm “follows the audience”. It does so by observing users’ viewing habits, including:
- what they watch and don’t watch;
- their watch time;
- likes and dislikes; and
- any “not interested” feedback previously given.
When users are actively watching a video, the algorithm will also recommend videos that are topically related, uploaded by the same channel or similar to other videos the user has already watched.
All that is to say, if users engage with a video—either by viewing it, subscribing to its parent channel, liking or even disliking it—then the algorithm is more likely to recommend it to other viewers.
Flash in the Pan or Long-Term Success?
As with the aforementioned 1,000 degree knife videos, having one video heavily recommended by YouTube’s algorithm doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy lasting success.
After all, if they’re going to keep giving you views and clicks, users have to be just as interested in the rest of your channel’s videos as they were in the one originally recommended to them.
Take for example Jennelle Eliana, a van-dwelling YouTuber who amassed over one million subscribers after uploading just two (yes, two) videos. One year later, those two videos are still the most popular on her account, with 18 million views on one and ten million on the other:
But most importantly to Eliana’s long-term success, each of her videos still gets hundreds of thousands of views—at the time of this writing, most new uploads garner one million views or more. Her subscriber count has grown as well, sitting at nearly 2.5 million as of April 2021.
The lesson here is: by consistently creating unique and engaging content, YouTube channels can turn 15 minutes of fame into a steady stream of interested viewers.
Remember, quality is always better than quantity when it comes to long-term success. While you probably shouldn’t release a video every few months, don’t feel pressured to release one every day either.
Tips for Lasting YouTube Relevance
If you are looking to take advantage of the many benefits of YouTube’s algorithm, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the following guidelines:
In the eyes of the algorithm, a video’s engagement is a better indicator of its quality than its raw view count. Engagement includes views, but it also takes into account likes, dislikes, comments, share, watch time and the like. Remember to encourage your viewers to like, subscribe and share your video non-intrusively.
First, navigate to the traffic sources section in YouTube Analytics. There, you’ll see a list of the words people are using to find your channel. Be sure to incorporate those words into your videos’ titles and descriptions. While you’re at it, brush up on your keyword research skills to proactively identify important keywords.
Write Intriguing Titles and Descriptions
In the competitive world of YouTube, an eye-catching video title is as good as gold. Plus, your videos’ descriptions are a perfect place to optimize for keywords, send viewers to certain links and add even more valuable content. YouTube recommends that your titles be 60 characters or less and your descriptions be one to two paragraphs.
Create Custom Thumbnails
Stand-out thumbnails are an indispensable way to draw in more viewers. To make yours as effective as possible, add custom thumbnails that clearly show users what your video is about.
Add a Strong Call to Action
When you use calls to action (CTAs) at the end of your videos, you’re increasing your chances of getting more views, engagements and conversions. Luckily, YouTube makes it easy to do with cards and end screens.
Cross-Promote Your Videos
Don’t just rely on YouTube’s internal system to drive views—instead, put your social media marketing savvy to good use and link to each new video from other platforms.
Five YouTube FAQs Answered
Who better than YouTube’s own team members to answer your most burning algorithm-related questions? In an October 2020 video from Creator Insider, two employees did just that:
Don’t feel like watching the whole thing? Here’s a transcript for your convenience:
If one of my videos under-performs, is that going to hurt my channel? Could a few poor videos pull down better videos in the future?
Is there a point at which the number of videos per day/week on each channel is so high that the algorithm is overwhelmed and videos slip through?
My channel has been around for quite a few years and I think I may have lots of inactive subscribers, should I create a NEW channel and then re-upload the videos in order to appear more acceptable to the algorithm?
How important is external traffic for driving recommendations?
I’m getting lots of traffic from external websites which is causing my click-through-rates and average view durations to drop, is this going to hurt my video’s performance?
The YouTube Algorithm Is Your Friend
When you’re struggling to get your videos to perform how you want them to, it’s easy to get frustrated with YouTube’s algorithm and its seemingly mysterious ways.
But, when you know how the algorithm works and why it recommends some videos over others, your path is made clear. More viewers, higher CTRs (click-through rates) and higher conversion rates are all within your grasp—all you need to do is put in the legwork to achieve them.
Screenshots by author / April 2021
Google / September 2016