Please note, there is now an updated version of this post: 5 YouTube optimization tips to improve your video rankings
With more than a billion users, and billions of daily video views, gaining user attention on YouTube may seem a daunting prospect.
However, the sheer size of the audience (a third of all web users) means that the rewards are there if you get it right.
In this post, I’ll look at some of the factors which determine YouTube video rankings, some tips to help improve visibility, and some of the factors behind how Google chooses to show videos in its search results pages.
I’ve split this into visible and invisible factors, i.e. those that can be seen by general users and those used for internal purposes.
Thanks to PI Datametrics for their help in compiling these ranking factors.
Invisible ranking signals
- Video file name. This is used when attempting to categorise the content, so be sure to label it using target keywords.
- View density. We can all see how many views videos attract over time but view density matters to YouTube. If your video receives a lot of views in a short space of time, it’s more likely to be pushed up the rankings. This can be visible, but most brands don’t show this. John Lewis does, and here are the stats for the last Christmas ad.
- Meta tags. YouTube’s spiders rely on tags to interpret a video’s content. This is thought to be a big factor in determining the positions a video is able to achieve in YouTube. When you upload a video to YouTube you can tag it with your keywords. 6-8 tags are thought to be the ideal amount. Look at the most popular/top tags on YouTube for your topics, and learn from them.
- Watch time. YouTube used to use view counts and comment volumes as factors, but changed this to watch time in 2012 as the previous factors could be gamed relatively easily.
- Flags / reports. These are negative factors which could harm your video’s visibility.
Visible ranking signals
- Title. The maximum character limit is 100 characters. Use them well, place keywords towards the front of the title. As with a writing a good headline, titles need to be descriptive and compelling. The video should also deliver on the headline. If you over-promise, people won’t spend time with the video, share it etc.
- Description. There are 5,000 characters to play with here, but only the first (roughly) 150 will be visible to people when they land on your page, so these have to work well. This is also an opportunity to add a link back to your site or target landing page.
- YouTube subtitles, closed captions and transcripts. These make the videos accessible to a wider audience.
- HD videos. HD quality videos are preferred to lower picture quality ones, though this does not mean that lower quality homemade videos don’t work at all.
- In-video annotations/YouTube cards: Annotations allow you to add linkable text to a video; including notes, calls to action, and links to related video assets. This serves to build greater authority and encourages CTR, views and shares. YouTube developed ‘annotations’ in 2015 to include ‘Cards‘ which are better looking version of annotations. The big difference is they work better across screens, and especially on mobile.
- Thumbnails. Not a ranking factor, but a well-chosen thumbnail should help to improve click through rates and increase views. The ideal size = 640 x 360 pixels minimum, 16:9 aspect ratio.
- Likes and dislikes. These provide an indication of the engagement around a video.
- Comments. These provide a way for YouTube to gauge the authority and relevance of videos. Not as significant a factor as before, perhaps because the comments on many YouTube videos are likely to test your faith in humanity.
- View counts. Again, not as influential a factor as in the past, but still an important indication of popularity.
YouTube channel factors
A distinct YouTube channel can help give brands (or anyone) a longer term and more effective YouTube presence. There are some useful tips on this from YouTube.
- Focus on content. Content needs to match the brand and give customers a clear indication of what to expect from your channel.
- Keep it simple. Branding should communicate the message behind your channels, so make sure videos, channel trailers etc align with this.
- Make it discoverable. Your branding should help people to find your videos and channel. This means consistent titles, tagging, descriptions and themes.
- Channel views. As with video views, the channel stats will contribute towards your rankings.
- Vanity URLs. Not a ranking factor, but something that should help improve other ranking signals by making your channel more easily discoverable.For example, Sainsbury’s has https://www.youtube.com/user/Sainsburys. This helps to give the brand nice and neat results in Google:
- Subscribes. If people have subscribed to your channel after watching your video, this indicates to YouTube as well as to Google that your video is authoritative.
- Bookmarks. Another factor is the number of people who add your video to their ‘watch later” list.
- Social shares. This is another factor which indicates the quality and engagement around your video.
- Backlinks. Links back to your channel or embeds of your video carry weight, and are a further ranking factor.
Branding example: Sainsbury’s
Though John Lewis is better known for its Christmas ads, rival retailer Sainsbury’s manages to out-perform it in terms of YouTube visibility.
This detailed post from PI Datametrics explains in more detail, but Sainsbury’s is more consistent with branding, produces more content, and seems to work harder to optimise it.
Tips for improving YouTube performance
Learning from the ranking factors listed above will do a lot, but here’s a few more tips:
- Promote videos through your own channels. Using your YouTube videos in emails, promoting on social sites, and embedding on your own website will all help to build momentum around your video content.eSpares is a great example of this. It creates videos around fixing DIY problems, posts them to its YouTube channel and uses them onsite by embedding them. This way it gets full value from its video content.
- Create video content which addresses user needs. Think about the questions customers will have around your product and service. Do some keyword research to find out the relative popularity of these terms.This is what eSpares and others do, this helps them attract views from target audiences, and a side bonus is that videos will often appear in the SERPs.
- Encourage comments. As comments contribute to your ranking, it’s a good idea to do as much as you can to encourage a discussion underneath your videos. This could be by creating content which is likely to attract comments, or simply by asking people to comment.
- Use YouTube analytics. Data is your friend, so use it to see how your videos are performing, which are performing better than others, which attract most comments / likes etc.
All this data can help you to learn from what does and doesn’t work, and to improve the effectiveness of your video content.