With more than one billion users—or nearly one-third of all internet users—YouTube is a cultural (and marketing) force to be reckoned with.
Each day YouTubers watch a billion hours of video. And it’s not just cat videos getting all the attention. According to GlobalWebIndex, one in four YouTubers surveyed had watched a branded video in the previous month.
So if your brand is using YouTube as part of your social media strategy, how do you increase your chances of getting your videos seen?
Step one is understanding the YouTube algorithm.
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What is the YouTube Algorithm?
The YouTube algorithm is the computerized system that determines which videos people see when they’re on the site. Like the algorithms developed by Instagram, Facebook, and other social media sites, it’s all about showing users what they want (or at least what the algorithm thinks they want).
With over 400 hours of video uploaded every minute, YouTube needs a way to automate the selection of videos that surface to each user.
The YouTube algorithm—their “search and discovery system”—will not only decide which results visitors see when they search on the site, but it also determines which ones they’ll be shown in other sections of the site.
There are six key places where the algorithm impacts where your videos can appear: in search results, the suggested videos stream, on the home page, the trending stream, under the viewer’s subscriptions, and through any notifications they have set up.
YouTube is open about the purpose of their algorithm: “The goals of YouTube’s search and discovery system are twofold: help viewers find the videos they want to watch, and maximize long-term viewer engagement and satisfaction.”
But if that’s the stated point of the algorithm, how does it accomplish that goal?
What we know about how the YouTube algorithm works
Originally the only thing the YouTube algorithm paid attention to in determining which videos would get a higher ranking than others was the total number of times anyone clicked “play” on a video.
But views only showed the number of times a video player loaded, rewarding creators whose videos got a lot of clicks—regardless of how long the viewer watched. Creators started adding spammy descriptions of thumbnails, generating clicks and getting higher rankings, but not keeping viewers engaged.
So in 2012, YouTube changed their ranking algorithm to reward engagement instead of clicks by dropping views in favor of watch time—a more accurate measure of how engaging users find a video.
How does YouTube determine the algorithm?
Remarkably, YouTube has shared—through an academic paper from 2016—the basic architecture of the system it relies on to decide which videos to show a user when they land on the site.
If you’re a computer scientist, the research paper goes into great depth. Otherwise, the key thing to remember is that YouTube isn’t in the business of judging whether your video is “good” or not.
Instead, the YouTube ranking algorithm focuses on how the audience interacts with videos, using artificial intelligence that “learns from over 80 billion bits of feedback from the audience daily to understand how to serve the right videos to the right viewers at the right time.”
In broad terms, that audience feedback includes:
- What they do (and don’t) watch
- How much time they spend watching a video (watch time)
- How much time they spend watching videos during each visit (session time)
- Likes, dislikes, and ‘not interested’ feedback
When YouTube decided to mothball the view metric, it replaced it with “watch time,” or how long a viewer watches a video. Not only are individual videos ranked by watch time, but so are your channels, according to YouTube: “Channels and videos with higher watch times are likely to show up higher in search results and recommendations.”
But don’t be fooled into thinking that improving your watch time is as simple as creating longer videos. A 30-second video that people watch from beginning to end will rank better than a 10-minute video that only gets watched for a couple of minutes. In the end, the best way to boost watch time is to produce videos you audience wants to watch.
Remember how one of the goals of the YouTube algorithm is to maximize long-term viewer engagement? It also ranks videos based on how they contribute to that goal, says YouTube. “If a video on your brand’s channel drives [a viewer] to watch more videos, the channel earns some watch time credits for the cumulative minutes accrued. ”
That last bit is telling: YouTube isn’t focused on getting people to watch your videos. They just want them to watch more videos and spend more time on the site.
How to improve your organic reach on YouTube
Given what we know about how the YouTube algorithm works, what levers can you pull to improve your ranking and your organic reach on YouTube?
Tweak your YouTube SEO
Before you can improve your watch time and bump your videos’ ranking, you need to be found in the first place, especially when people search the site. That takes some basic YouTube search engine optimization. YouTube gives creators control over the key information its search engine relies on to understand what a specific video is about, including titles, descriptions, and tags.
Make sure the copy you use is compelling, to the point, and accurately conveys what the video is about—and what the viewer will gain or learn from watching it. There’s no sense getting spammy with keyword stuffing: If you fool people into clicking on your video and they bail after the first few minutes you’re only hurting your ranking.
Getting viewers to pick your videos
Once your video is presented to the users, the next step to improving your organic reach and ranking is to get them to click on the video. That’s where creative and eye-catching thumbnails come in. Use an arresting image and text—but make sure it truly represents what’s in the video.
Keep them watching
Once someone clicks on a video, you need to keep them watching. The longer you can keep them watching, the more the algorithm will surface your content. So do what you can to hook the viewer quickly by explaining the benefits of watching the video. Also, experiment with tactics to convince them to watch all the way to the finish, perhaps by letting them know from the start about any special information you’ll be sharing at the end.
Get more loyal subscribers
Tubefilter says one element that may boost your ranking is view velocity—how many subscribers watch your video in the first couple of days after it’s published. The more subscribers you have—and the more active they are—the better your chances at ranking higher than competing videos. This is where working hard to boost your YouTube subscriber count can really pay off.
Build on the power of playlists
Anyone who’s lost a whole night (or weekend) to binge watching their favorite Netflix series knows the power of being served up natural followup as soon as you finish watching the first video. Playlists drive higher content consumption, keeps subscribers hooked, and can boost your watch time. Instead of creating miscellaneous playlists, bundle videos targeted at the same audience.
Remember that you can get rewarded for session time even when a viewer moves on to someone else’s video. So if you have a limited number of videos on one subject, experiment with adding videos from a non-competing source to your playlist.
Learn from YouTube analytics
YouTube provides detailed analytics that let you measure the performance of your videos, playlists, and channels. Pay attention to which videos get the highest watch times and try to understand why they appeal to your audience. As you get more familiar with which types of videos perform well, look at your history and start setting goals for watch time, views, and subscriber for the next month.
A single poor performing video can drag down the ranking of your entire channel, so don’t hold on to losing content. Refresh, redo, or replace the stragglers with better videos, based on what you can glean from YouTube analytics.
For more tips on promoting your YouTube channel and getting your videos seen by more people, check out our tips for promoting your YouTube channel.
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