Since marketers are at the mercy of algorithms on nearly every publishing channel, knowing how each of these unique algorithms work is crucial to attracting and maintaining an audience. Luckily, while some channels are rather reserved about the secrets of their algorithms, YouTube, the most popular video platform, has been remarkably transparent.
In 2016, YouTube published a research paper that provides a high-level overview of their recommendation system’s architecture, and they also launched a course for creators about getting discovered on their platform.
Naturally, we wanted to read the paper and take the course to help you understand exactly how to boost your rankings on YouTube. Read on to learn what we discovered and how you can bolster your presence on the video platform.
How does the YouTube algorithm work?
YouTube’s algorithm serves the most relevant, personalized videos to their users on five different sections of their platform: search, home, suggested videos, trending, and subscriptions. By helping users find the videos they’re most likely to watch and enjoy, YouTube can keep viewers on the platform for as long as possible and get them to visit their site regularly.
To figure out which videos and channels that users are most likely to enjoy watching, YouTube “follows” their audience, which means they track their users’ engagement with each video they watch. More specifically, they pay attention to which videos each user watches, what they don’t watch, how much time they spend watching each video, their likes and dislikes, and their “not interested in” feedback.
Since their algorithm rewards engagement instead of vanity metrics like views and clicks, YouTube incentivizes creators to produce videos that they’re audience actually enjoys watching, discouraging them from trying to game the system.
But YouTube’s algorithm also uses different signals and metrics to rank and recommend videos on each section of their platform. With this in mind, let's go over how the algorithm decides to serve content to users on their search, home, suggested videos, trending, and subscriptions section.
The two biggest factors that affect your videos’ search rankings are its keywords and relevance. When ranking videos in search, YouTube will consider how well your titles, descriptions, and content match each users’ queries. They’ll also consider how many videos users’ have watched from your channel and the last time they watched other videos surrounding the same topic as your video.
Home & Suggested Videos
No two users will have the same experience on YouTube — they want to serve the most relevant, personalized recommendations to each of their viewers. To do this, they first analyze users’ activity history and find hundreds of videos that could be relevant to them.
Then, they rank these videos by how well each video has engaged and satisfied similar users, how often each viewer watches videos from each channel or other videos surrounding the same topic, and how many times YouTube has already shown each video to users.
YouTube has also noticed users tend to watch more content when they receive recommendations from a variety of channels, so they like the diversify their suggested videos feed and users’ homepages.
The trending page is a feed of new and popular videos in a user’s specific country. YouTube wants to balance popularity with novelty when they rank videos in this section, so they heavily consider view count and rate of view growth for each video they rank.
YouTube has a subscriptions page where users can view all the recently uploaded videos from the channels they subscribe to. But this page isn’t the only benefit channels get when they acquire a ton of subscribers.
To determine rankings on their platform, YouTube uses a metric called view velocity, which measures the number of subscribers who watch your video right after it's published. And the higher your video’s view velocity, the higher your videos will rank. YouTube also accounts for the number of active subscribers you have when they rank your videos.
How to Optimize Your Videos for YouTube’s Algorithm
To rank on YouTube, the first thing to consider is optimizing your videos and channel for popular search queries. To do this, place relevant keywords in your videos’ titles, tags, descriptions, SRT files (which are transcriptions), video files, and thumbnail files.
You should also check out the most popular queries guiding viewers to your videos, which you can find in YouTube’s Search Report. If these queries are slightly different than your video’s topic, consider updating your video to fill these content gaps and add the keywords to your metadata. If there’s a stark difference, consider making new videos about these popular queries.
The next thing to consider when ranking on YouTube is optimizing your videos and channel for engagement. To generate engagement, though, you first need to attract users’ attention. And one of the best ways to instantly grab users’ attention is by creating vibrant thumbnails for each of your videos.
Thumbnails, the small, clickable snapshots that viewers see when they search for videos on YouTube, can be just as important as a video’s title. They preview your video and entice viewers to click through. The brain is also programmed to respond to striking visuals, and this can help you differentiate yourself on a platform clogged with standard thumbnails all screaming for attention.
To create a striking thumbnail, consider including a talking head. People are naturally drawn to human faces because it’s an ingrained survival mechanism to help us quickly gauge someone’s emotions and determine if they’re a threat or friend. Research Gate also discovered that Instagram photos with faces are 38% more likely to receive likes and 32% more likely to receive comments. Additionally, consider contrasting the colors of your thumbnail's foreground and background to really make it pop.
Once you’ve attracted users’ attention, you can engage them by creating a bingeable series or show. You can also create playlists about a certain topic that start off with the videos that have the highest audience retention rate. This will increase the odds that users will watch most of the videos in your playlists, boosting your channel and videos’ watch time.
Another way to refine your overall video strategy is measuring your videos’ performance against engagement metrics, like watch time, average watch percentage, average view duration, audience retention, and average session duration. If you can figure out which topics and videos generate the most engagement, and you solely focus on creating those types of content, you’ll be able to shoot up YouTube’s search results page and suggested videos feed.