In the search world, paid advertisers and search engine optimizers battle it out for the top spots on a search engine results page. Marketers will optimize their web pages by targeting keywords and increasing content relevancy to help them rank better, and YouTube optimization is no different.
YouTube Ranking Factors
Much like its Google counterpart, the YouTube search algorithm looks to signals and ranking factors to determine what results to show users and in what order to show them. While there are many different signals, the following are some important ones to be aware of.
- Audience Retention – Audience retention refers to the number of users that watch your video to the end; this is a top signal for YouTube videos.
- Views – A view on a YouTube video means a user has watched the video for at least 30 seconds. While a new view by the same user can be considered a new view and added to the view count, too many views from the same account in one day may be treated as spam and not contribute to the overall view count.
- Engagement – After users arrive on a video and start watching are they engaging any other way? Are they leaving likes or adding comments? Be sure to engage with viewers and reply to their comments as promptly as possible to encourage engagement.
- Subscribers – Your subscriber count can be a good indicator of relevance and popularity as each subscriber represents a real-live user that follows your YouTube channel. Similar to its treatment of views, YouTube does consider the quality of those subscribers and will not count spam or closed accounts toward your subscriber total.
- Relevance – Is your video relevant to the query it is attempting to rank for? While the search algorithm does not watch your video, it will look to the copy for key elements to try to answer this question for itself and understand your video.
In order to compete for the top ranking, you have to optimize a YouTube video in a few key ways, at minimum.
How to Optimize YouTube Videos
Just like with a webpage, there are a few key elements that the search algorithm will look to try and understand the topic and relevancy. Optimizing these elements with target keywords is a great way to get started with improving video relevancy and visibility.
1. Does the File Name Matter on YouTube?
The file name for a video — the actual name of the MP4 video file — can often be overlooked, but it is one of the signals the YouTube search algorithm uses to understand your video content. In fact, the search algorithm does not watch your video, but it will look at the file name and other textual elements to understand what the video is about. Be sure to choose a filename that is not only descriptive of the video, but also one that is concise to avoid looking stuffed with keywords or otherwise spammy. Another good rule of thumb is only to use lowercase lettering for video file names.
A video file name cannot be changed after it’s been uploaded so it’s best to be sure about your file name before adding it to YouTube.
“Bad” file name examples:
“Good” file name Examples
When in doubt, many users recommend setting the file name to be the same as the video title, claiming that it helps the search algorithm better understand your video. While I tend to agree, I would qualify that as long as you are descriptive, concise, and avoid spammy tactics, your title can be different from your file name.
2. How to Optimize YouTube Titles
The title of a video is one of the first things both users and crawlers will see when they come across your content, making it an important point of contact and engagement.
You should create a title that is both searchable and attractive. A title that is searchable tries to emulate how searchers are searching, and the phrasing that they use. If searchers are looking for a video about how to play guitar for beginners, it will make more sense to have a title like “How to Play Guitar” than “Start your six-string lesson with Michael D.”
Titles should also be attractive to engage searchers better. Video titles should be compelling and concise, and should incorporate the main targeted keyword in a way that sounds natural and not forced. Try only to target one keyword with the title to avoid making it look stuffed or spammy. Finally, try to keep your title to about 60 characters so that it does not get truncated or cut off on the results page.
3. How to Optimize Your YouTube Description
Similar to a webpage’s description, a YouTube video description provides important information and context to help searchers and the algorithm understand what a video will be about. This text is displayed under the video title on the results page.
Google indicated that the official character limit for YouTube video descriptions is 5000 characters. While you certainly do not have to achieve that limit, I would recommend you pay special attention to the first 120 characters, as anything after that will likely get truncated on the results page.The remaining 4,880 characters are still important to the algorithm, though, as well as informative to people when they land on the video detail page. This is also where all links, timestamps, and hashtags will be posted.
4. How to Timestamp with YouTube
Timestamps are a way for users to navigate to important parts of your video. In the past, you could only add linked timestamps to a video description. That functionality has since been added to the YouTube player itself.
It’s best to use timestamps, where appropriate, for videos where the information is structured or if there are steps to a process being described.
For example, consider a video that describes how to set up a guitar: A user may watch that video and decide to skip to the step that describes how to tune the guitar. Timestamps allow users to do things like that and provide more context for the algorithm around the topic of the video. The label for each timestamp should be descriptive as well. While timestamps are an opportunity to include keywords, take care not to overdo it.
Below is an example of what timestamps might look like for a video about how to set up a guitar.
0:00 Parts of a guitar
1:25 Cleaning the guitar
2:23 How to string the guitar
3:23 How to tune the guitar
4:07 Check the guitar’s action
5:42 Check the guitar’s intonation
7:02 Play your guitar!
Not all videos need to have timestamps so try to add them only to appropriate videos. When using them, you must use at least three, where each is at least 10 seconds long. To help you decide where and when you use them, you can look to the comments section for inspiration. If you find that users are asking about a specific aspect of the topic, you can include a timestamp to that section of the video to help address the question and make it easier for users to find that information.
5. Tags for YouTube
Tags or hashtags are a great way to increase the reach of a video by helping to categorize your video and by adding a new way that searchers can find you. YouTube hashtags can appear above the title or in the video description box and are usually clickable links that searchers can follow to find more videos in that hashtag category. This means your video may also appear if your video is tagged, especially if it ranks well for that tag.
Hashtags are not only for searchers. The YouTube search algorithm will also consider a video’s hashtags to help understand the video’s content. It’s important to note that while using hashtags can improve the potential to get more views, that improvement is not guaranteed.
6. YouTube Video Categories
You can also categorize your videos by choosing one from the list of available categories in YouTube’s advanced settings. Categorizing your videos helps group them with other videos that have similar content and helps your videos appear in playlists, giving them exposure and more opportunities to appear to searchers.
This next tip sounds simple, but it is important to choose the most appropriate category for your video. Avoid choosing a more broad but less applicable category for the sake of reaching more viewers or trying to go viral.
7. How to Add Subtitles and Closed Captions
In an effort to be inclusive and mindful, most YouTube videos will have some kind of closed-captioning available for viewers, though they are not enabled by default. When enabled, YouTube provides a few options for creating subtitles and captions.
While there is an auto-captioning feature where YouTube does its best to transcribe your video, it is not perfect and can often make mistakes. That’s why I would recommend transcribing the video yourself by uploading an SRT file. There, you can be sure your subtitles are correct. You can also add timestamps to help synchronize when and for how long the closed-captioned text appears.
At the end of the day, we all want our videos to get more views. While there is no magic bullet or ace in the hole that can provide automatic success, there are many things that are in our power. With these boxes checked, your video should be well-optimized and primed to compete in the YouTube search sphere.