Some view it as a learning resource, some as an entertainment venue, some as a social media platform. It’s a digital wonderland called YouTube, and you’d be hard pressed to find a netizen who hasn’t been touched by its pervasive presence. Even if you’re not a regular visitor to Google’s video titan, who among us hasn’t seen something in the news about a famous YouTuber?
The site’s not just for aspiring online celebrities, though, and for brands looking to leverage video content in their digital marketing, building a successful YouTube channel can be daunting. But don’t despair just yet. Using a suite of powerful (and proven) YouTube SEO tactics, you, too can build a following with your target audience, strengthen brand and site authority, and convert viewers to customers.
YouTube SEO: The Difference Between Flopping and Flourishing
As the second most-used social media platform, and with a staggering two billion logged-in users per month, YouTube’s marketing potential is apparent.
But this internet juggernaut presents marketers with both opportunity and frustration. More than 400 hours of fresh content is uploaded every minute. With thousands of hours of new video published each day, it’s hard to grab viewers’ attention—and even harder to keep it.
The answer for channels large and small is to stop gambling on organic growth and start implementing SEO for YouTube. And when we say gambling, we mean it. The majority of videos get fewer than 100 views, and 85 percent of all views go to the top three percent of channels.
With strategies like smart keyword research, detailed descriptions and widespread promotion, you canmaster YouTube optimization, grow an active audience and earn more conversions.
Understand YouTube’s Unique Ranking Factors
Since YouTube is owned by Google, you won’t be surprised to learn its algorithm is based around serving users’ needs. In YouTube’s words, the primary goals of its search and discovery system (i.e., algorithms) are to:
- help viewers find videos they’ll enjoy; and
- maximize users’ long-term engagement on the platform.
YouTube’s purpose is to give users what they want and keep them coming back. If it didn’t, Alphabet’s shareholders would likely have a few choice words on the matter.
Complexity enters the equation when we dive into the specific ranking factors YouTube uses to determine which videos will most effectively attract and retain viewers.
A study from the marketing agency Briggsby found the most important ranking factors to be:
- watch time;
- channel authority (i.e., cohesion and completeness);
- positive sentiment and engagement; and
- broad match keyword targeting in the title, description and tags.
What about subscriber count? A Backlinko study of 1.3 million videos found a channel’s total number of subscribers only moderately contributed to higher rankings, whereas videos driving a high number of new subscriptions also generated correspondingly high rankings.
So don’t spend too much time stressing over subscriber count. Instead, focus on driving engagement, encouraging new subscriptions, establishing channel authority and performing thorough keyword research.
Choose Your Keywords Carefully
YouTube SEO is, well, SEO, so keywords will play a major role in your optimization efforts.
Get started using one of the easiest keyword research tools available: YouTube’s own search predictions feature. Type in a keyword, phrase or beginning of a sentence and YouTube will display a variety of suggested queries based on frequently used search terms:
With a quick search, you gain immediate insight into the specific topics people are looking for within your vertical. If you’re willing to pay for a longer list of search predictions with additional information about search volume, cost per click and more, Keyword Tool Pro may be right up your alley.
Want to get a more in-depth look at the keywords driving results? Pull up a competitor’s channel and flex your HTML muscles. Go to any of the channel’s best-performing videos. Then, right-click on the page and select view page source (or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+U on PC, or Option+Command+U on Mac). Take a video about IKEA hacks from the Liz Fenwick DIY channel for example:
With one click, you’ll have a complete view of the page’s source code. If you don’t feel like combing through a long wall of HTML (who does?), search within the page for the word keywords (press Ctrl+F on PC or Command+F on Mac to open up the search bar):
The first instance of keywords will show you exactly which keywords the uploader has tagged their video with:
In this case, the uploader’s chosen keywords include the video-specific ones you’d expect (ikea diy, ikea hacks, ikea ideas) as well as more general ones that can be applied to any number of DIY- and home decor-related videos (affordable home decor, home decorating ideas on a budget, home decor diy). Pay special attention to the more general options. These keywords attract viewers who may not be looking for something specific.
Tagging a channel’s videos with some of those same keywords (only when relevant, of course), can help you capture new viewers you might otherwise miss.
Always incorporate relevant and accurate keywords in each video’s title and description, too. It’ll make the video easier for users to find, and if the channel is monetized, it may also help the video get targeted by advertisers.
If you want to see which keywords are already working for a channel, head to YouTube Studio and click analytics in the left-hand navigation bar. Next, click the reach tab at the top of the page:
Scroll down and you’ll see a box called traffic source: YouTube search:
There, you can see exactly which keywords people are using to find a channel’s videos within YouTube.
Optimize the Channel Page
Remember the concept of channel authority and how it relates to a channel’s completeness and cohesion? You can improve both those traits by applying a little TLC to a channel’s main page.
Start by fleshing out the about section of the channel’s page. Take a look at Thrive Market’s about section:
Notice the presence of a few key elements:
- cover image
- profile picture
- detailed description outlining the company’s services, products and values
- clear location information
- links to its main site and other social media profiles
Taken together, these components instantly paint a picture of the brand’s personality, beliefs and offerings while also providing evidence of its legitimacy—when’s the last time you saw a bogus brand with a polished site and linked social accounts?
For SEO practitioners, the about page also presents a prime opportunity to include a few more instances of the channel’s most valued keywords.
Don’t neglect a channel page’s other tabs, either. Use the channels tab to showcase other associated channels, the community tab to spark conversations with viewers and the playlists tab to highlight collections of related videos and encourage users to keep watching.
A warm welcome draws users in as soon as they click on the channel page. Choose a featured video to autoplay right on the home tab while you’re at it, highlight some of the channel’s best playlists too:
The best channel pages don’t cater exclusively to YouTube’s algorithm. They also enhance user experience and fulfill viewers’ desire to quickly find high-quality content.
Shoot for the Right Video Length
YouTube search is now so thoroughly refined that video ranking is directly affected by both content and format.
Backlinko’s study, for example, found a strong correlation between video length and ranking, with longer videos significantly outperforming their shorter counterparts. Just how long are we talking? Videos on the first page of YouTube average nearly 15 minutes.
Investing in longer videos quite literally pays. In July 2020, YouTube announced videos lasting eight minutes or longer are eligible to run mid-roll ads, giving uploaders an additional opportunity to earn ad revenue.
So, if a channel is monetized, you can maximize profits by ensuring each of its videos are at least eight minutes long.
Edit like a Pro
Even when striving to achieve the perfect video length, don’t let quantity overwhelm quality. Time and effort in the editing booth translate to more compelling content for your audience.
Seven editing techniques can make any video more polished and appealing:
- Record in HD. Shoot at a resolution of at least 720p to create a better user experience. Even a smartphone with a decent camera will do.
- Plan ahead. By writing a script (or basic notes) ahead of time and considering the video’s lighting, setting and movement, you can save yourself hours of editing time.
- Don’t be afraid of multiple takes. Doing another take is likely faster than tediously editing a flubbed line or fixing a bad camera angle.
- Cut the filler. It’s only natural to say filler words like um, OK,like or so, even when they add nothing to a video. Edit them out using jump cuts (just take care not to overdo it).
- Add music. Not loving a video’s awkward silences? Royalty-free music from the YouTube Audio Library can help fill in the blanks. Don’t forget to adjust the audio mix so your royalty-free tunes don’t drown out important dialogue!
- Add video effects. Even quick, simple effects like text and image overlays can make a video look substantially more professional.
- Use the right encoding settings. Once you’ve finished editing, export your video to as an MP4 file, and follow YouTube’s recommended encoding settings. Trust us, it’s a lot easier than it sounds.
Create Eye-Catching Thumbnails
You never get a second chance to make a first impression (thanks for the killer quote, Will Rogers). In the YouTube world, thumbnails are first impressions. Humans can identify images in as little as 13 milliseconds, and thumbnails take up much more page space than video titles.
If your goal is to get as many clicks as possible, stellar thumbnails are non-negotiable.
Almost every top-performing video on the platform has a custom thumbnail—90 percent of them, to be precise. But what does a click-worthy custom thumbnail look like? A closer look at some widely-viewed channels’ thumbnails reveals the answer.
Tom Scott, a YouTuber focused on educational videos, uses thumbnails that almost always include his own face, contrasting text, saturated colors or a mix of all three:
But is using these patterns good SEO for YouTube, or simply a quirk exclusive to educational or British channels? To find out, a visit to YouTube’s beauty category is in order. Jackie Aina, a YouTuber who primarily creates makeup-related content, typically includes her own face, colorful graphics, product photos or text overlays:
The same holds true in other categories as well. Linus Sebastian’s eponymous channel, Linus Tech Tips, built around (you guessed it) tech-related content, uses thumbnails with photos of Linus’ face, bright and contrasting colors, eye-catching text and clear product photos:
Given the clear presence of these trends across wildly different categories and subjects, we suggest your video thumbnails:
- include easy-to-read text that stands out from the background;
- incorporate a photo of a human, preferably a face;
- create a corresponding theme or color scheme to tie all a channel’s thumbnails together;
- use vivid, crisp colors; and
- give potential viewers a sneak peek of the content within.
Don’t Forget the Title and Description
Along with the thumbnail, the first thing a potential viewer is likely to see is a video’s title and description. Bots will use both in serving up search results too. A perfect opportunity to work in your most important keywords, right?
Well, yes. But keywords aren’t the only way to optimize a video’s title and description. By making the former catchy and the latter detailed, you can drive clicks, better the user experience and attract new viewers.
Polish the Title
YouTube offers some helpful title advice of its own, such as:
- keep titles accurate;
- pique users’ curiosity;
- limit titles to 60 characters or fewer;
- put episode numbers and branding at the end;
- put episode subjects at the beginning; and
- consider the channel’s target audience.
For extra points, include super-clickable elements like numbers (“Top 10 Makeup Tips), emotionally charged words and phrases (The Most Awe-Inspiring Places on Earth) and one or two intriguing words in caps (The BEST Home Security System).
Resist the urge to create all-caps titles, though. Google’s Director of Product Management, Todd Beaupré, says they’re not algorithm-friendly.
Upgrade the Description
For descriptions, provide a detailed and customized blurb about the video’s topic and contents. This not only provides yet another space to target keywords, but also gives users a quick rundown of what they’re about to watch and a chance to click through to external links.
When users first view the description, they’ll only see its first few lines followed by a see more button. Photoshop Tutorials’ description boxes serve as first-rate examples:
Beneath the show more button, include helpful items such as social links, timestamps, hashtags, affiliate links, and links to the uploader’s website (you can even include a nice message to folks who bother to read the full description):
Include Closed Captions
For effective image optimization, accessibility and performance are critical. Using alt text both improves accessibility for users with vision or hearing impairments—and creates another chance to rank for valuable keywords.
When performing SEO for YouTube, closed captions provide the same enhancements. They provide a convenient way for viewers to fully experience the video without sound, and let you include keywords and crawlable text. Take the closed captions on a National Geographic video:
YouTube provides two ways to provide closed captions. One is to use the platform’s automatic captioning feature, and another is to create custom captions. You can even add subtitles in other languages.
YouTube’s automatic captioning is the fastest and easiest option—with a few caveats. It’s powered by machine learning algorithms, and in some cases is nearly 100 percent accurate, but still struggles with dialogue spoken by someone with a non–American English accent. It also has trouble parsing imperfect or unusual enunciation and uncommon words (think slang and jargon).
While custom captions take longer to create, the boost to accuracy is worth the trouble if you’re concerned automatic captions won’t cut the mustard. You can even use them to include hyper-specific sound effects. YouTube’s own videos make excellent use of this by using captions such as [DRUM MUSIC]:
Custom closed captions can significantly improve accessibility and a video’s search performance. Whether or not they’re worth the time they take to write is determined by the needs of your audience and your overall YouTube SEO strategy.
Write Corresponding Blog Posts
If you’re just learning how to optimize videos for YouTube, you might be surprised to learn one effective optimization method involves creating corresponding content outside of the platform.
This exterior content is beneficial in multiple ways. If a blog already has an established audience, its readers will naturally be more inclined to watch any featured YouTube video. In terms of SEO, external content can also help to bolster your link building efforts. The more trustworthy websites that link to a video, the more likely search engines are to give it a higher ranking.
Michelle Wong, the chemistry PhD and beauty expert behind the Lab Muffin blogand YouTube channel, provides a prime example.
In July 2020, she published a blog post featuring a YouTube video about the science of indoor sunscreen use:
While we can’t see much about the blog post’s performance other than its total comments, we can see that the featured YouTube video garnered more than 150,000 views (or nearly 100 percent of her total subscriber count) as of August 2020:
As an added bonus, any followers who can’t or don’t want to watch a video are able to access the same content in the corresponding blog post.
While it takes time to build such a successful system, any channel can benefit from publishing external content to complement its videos.
Promote Videos Across Platforms
Just as effective blog promotion is a crucial component of your overall marketing strategy, cross-platform promotion is an essential YouTube optimization tactic.
Similar to writing corresponding blog posts for a channel’s videos, promoting a video on multiple platforms provides an opportunity to draw in new viewers and build valuable external links.
If you follow any YouTubers on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, you’re likely already familiar with this tactic. A creator releases a new video, then posts about it on other social media accounts with a preview of the video’s contents.
Take for example Jennelle Eliana, a prominent vanlife YouTuber. If you like custom van builds and cute snakes, hers is the channel for you:
With more than 65,000 Instagram likes and upwards of 1,000,000 views on the original video, her strategy is clearly working:
With Smart YouTube SEO, Who Needs a Celebrity?
The famous folks of YouTube undoubtedly hold the eyeballs, if not the hearts and minds, of the viewing public (at the time of writing, Justin Bieber has nearly 56 million subscribers). But you’ll find truly compelling stories of YouTube success told by creators who built their channels from the ground up.
We can’t promise you’ll garner millions of views, but we do know consistent and creative YouTube SEO can bring in more views, help sites achieve greater authority and a higher conversion rate, and give creators the chance to engage with their audience in meaningful, compelling and profitable ways.
We Are Social / January 2020
Screenshots by author / August 2020