YouTube is the second most-visited website in the world, receiving traffic from more than 2.5 billion active users each month and hosting hundreds of hours of content uploaded every minute.
The world of online video is incredibly vast and sharply competitive, and there are many algorithmic myths and misconceptions floating around. For new and seasoned video creators alike, it can feel like an uphill battle to gain a foothold with an audience.
But ranking on YouTube isn’t impossible. In this article, I’ll cover both on-site and YouTube video search engine optimization (SEO) from the ground up, share specific tips to drive more viewer engagement, and dispel some common myths about what it takes to rank.
What Is Video SEO?
Video SEO is the practice of boosting a video’s rank on a search engine results page for a given query. In theory, it works similarly to ranking on traditional search engines. But in practice, effective video SEO involves adopting a different approach to content creation and learning about the many different ways viewers can find a video — including beyond the classic search bar.
Since YouTube is by far the largest video hosting and sharing platform, I’ll mainly focus on YouTube’s search and discovery engines. That said, these recommendations encompass industry best practices that hold true across Google, Vimeo, and other sites.
How Viewers Find Videos: YouTube Search & Beyond
To get your content discovered on YouTube, you should first familiarize yourself with the different routes for discovery available to viewers. While Google presents users with a single search bar, YouTube offers many different avenues and opportunities for viewers to engage with a video.
In other words, the search bar isn’t the only way to attract traffic on YouTube. You’ll need to optimize for all these different traffic sources to earn clicks and views.
First, traffic can come from avenues within YouTube. Some of the most common internal sources include:
- Search bar results
- Home page (shows personalized recommendations based on view history or general “trending” videos if a viewer is logged out)
- Explore pages (includes “trending” videos broken down by categories, such as Sports, Music, or Gaming)
- Subscription/Watch Later feeds (which users curate themselves)
- Suggested videos (which appear as a list on the sidebar of a video)
- Channel pages
- Info cards and end-screen recommendations
On the other hand, clicks and views can come from external sources, such as:
- Traditional search engines like Google, which indexes videos posted on YouTube
- Social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook
- Email or third-party site embeds
You can view traffic source data in the ‘Reach’ tab of your YouTube Analytics page. I’ll talk more about researching your audience later in this article.
YouTube Algorithm Ranking Factors
As a search engine and content discovery platform, YouTube focuses less on technical optimization than Google does when ranking web pages. Instead, as explained in an official primer on their algorithm, YouTube sorts ranking factors into two categories:
- Video Performance. These ranking factors look at your channel’s past performance data. Video performance ranking factors include metrics like view counts, total watch times, audience retention rates, and the specific keywords used in your title.
- Viewer Personalization. YouTube aims to personalize content for viewers, so search results are often tailored to what viewers have previously watched. Viewer personalization features, such as thumbnail design and video length, don’t matter much to the algorithm, but they are important for enticing clicks and encouraging engagement, which is then important for video performance ranking factors in turn.
In summary, video performance factors are about the creator’s performance history; viewer personalization factors are about the viewer’s behavior history. Both influence whether or not your content is offered to viewers, regardless of whether they’re on a SERP or browsing their Home page.
Video Performance Factors
If you’re familiar with traditional SEO, you know search engine algorithms use specific, measurable ranking factors to gauge the quality and relevance of a page. The YouTube search algorithm works similarly but focuses almost entirely on user engagement.
YouTube wants users to click on a video and stay watching for as long as possible, so the algorithm prefers to serve videos that have a demonstrated history of engagement. Engagement is measured through various video performance factors.
Here are some of the most important video performance factors:
- Total watch time. Total watch time is YouTube’s most fundamental metric. It measures the gross amount of time users have spent viewing a particular video.
- Average view duration. The average number of minutes users spend watching a particular video. Average view duration is calculated by dividing total watch time by total video plays.
- Audience retention rate. Audience retention rate is an average measure of how far users get through a video before they click away, shown as a percentage. A higher percentage means viewers are staying engaged longer into a video’s runtime. (Note that your audience retention rate can never be perfect. A 100% rate means that every viewer watches every video to the last second, which isn’t realistic. One study found the typical retention rate is 30-40%.)
- Impressions click-through rate. How often users click on your video after being shown the thumbnail on a SERP or the Home page feed. YouTube has effectively stated that a high click-through rate is valueless without a corresponding high watch time, which is intended to diminish the effect of misleading clickbait-style video practices.
- Upload frequency. The rate at which you upload videos over time. YouTube typically prefers to show users recent videos from channels that post regularly. There is no official best upload frequency, so check out your competitors’ schedules and plan accordingly.
If a video gets a lot of engagement and performs well among a small audience segment, YouTube may recommend it to more and more people, allowing videos to grow without an existing subscriber base.
Viewer Personalization Factors
Viewer personalization factors are about appealing to the individual watcher, not a bot or algorithm. YouTube’s goal is to “find videos for viewers, rather than viewers for videos.” That means video recommendations are largely based on the unique data YouTube collects about individual users and their watch histories.
Here’s a basic example of viewer personalization in action. Let’s say Watcher A and Watcher B search for the same keyword. Data on Watcher A indicates they prefer short videos, while Watcher B exclusively clicks on very long content. YouTube will tailor results to show mostly short videos to Watcher A and mostly long videos to Watcher B, even though they both searched the same keyword.
Ultimately, many viewer personalization factors are a matter of taste, but you can still analyze broad audience trends on your YouTube Analytics page to tailor your content strategy accordingly.
Here are the most important viewer personalization factors to consider:
- Title and thumbnail design. A video title and its thumbnail work in tandem to entice clicks from your target audience. While algorithms use the specific language of a title to determine a video’s relevance to a query, the style, tone, and visual appeal of these two elements are what earn clicks from real people.
- End screens, info cards, and playlists. End screens, info cards, and playlists can be used at different points in a video to promote related content. By strategically using these three features, you can send viewers “down the rabbit hole” of your videos. I’ll talk about each of these more in-depth later in this article.
- Video length. There is no ideal length for a YouTube video; the best length depends on each viewer’s individual preferences and the type of content you’re creating (long, in-depth tutorials vs. short comedy sketches, for example). Look at competitor channels to get a general sense of what viewers prefer, or check the expanded analytics report in YouTube Analytics to evaluate whether your longer or shorter videos perform better with your existing audience.
Officially, monetization status is not a ranking consideration for YouTube’s algorithm. However, if your video contains unskippable ads or too many ad breaks, viewers may click away, which can hurt your performance metrics.
Do Comments, Likes, and Subscriber Counts Factor Into Rankings?
YouTube’s algorithm aims to share high-quality content at all times, and measuring engagement is the primary way they determine a video’s quality. It would make sense that view and subscriber counts would contribute a lot toward rankings, right? Aren’t they the clearest measure of engagement and quality?
Actually, the truth is more complicated than that. As you probably know, YouTube (and other video platforms) have a major issue with bot spam, which can artificially inflate view and subscriber counts. YouTube is doing its best to fight what it calls “illegitimate” views, but it’s still possible to purchase bot traffic and make a channel or video look more popular than it is.
In short, these metrics don’t directly influence the ranking algorithm because they’re too easy to “game.” However, likes and shares are still publicly visible and may attract clicks outside basic search results.
Step-by-Step: YouTube SEO Tips To Increase Visibility
Optimizing a video for YouTube requires satisfying algorithmic factors and enticing viewers with creative visuals and value offers. Mastering both is how your video gets seen, whether watchers find you through a search bar or a Home page recommendation.
Let’s go through it all from the beginning. I’ll group these steps into three phases: the research and planning phase, the content creation phase, and the distribution phase.
Phase 1: Research Your Audience
1. Understand How Viewers Find Your Videos
On your YouTube Analytics page, there’s one report in particular that will influence how you target your audience and research keywords and topics. That’s the report titled “How viewers find your videos.”
On Google, the search bar is the be-all and end-all for content discovery. However, YouTube adds algorithmic content suggestions into the mix to show users content they may be interested in but never thought to search for. The key to more clicks and views on YouTube involves expanding your strategy beyond simply optimizing for search bar queries and thinking about the other ways viewers find your videos.
What does the “How viewers find your videos” report say about your channel? Do any of the percentages surprise you? Do you want to focus on boosting the percentage of your lowest traffic source or play to your strengths by optimizing content just for your highest traffic source? The answer will depend on your specific goals and content creation style.
2. Find Trending Keywords
Video keyword research allows you to uncover specific queries that viewers plug into the search bar and what topics are trending. Keyword-optimized videos have a chance at appearing in search bar results and may also be recommended to viewers who have previously searched for related terms.
Plug your seed term into your keyword research tool of choice and look for queries that can be answered or addressed in a video format. Here are some ideas for content formats that are well-suited for videos:
- Walkthroughs, tutorials, demonstrations, how-tos
- Product reviews or comparisons
- Deep-dive explainer videos on specific topics
- Trending/viral social media challenges
- Question keywords
Just as with traditional search, consider building a keyword theme based on your seed term to help create a more interesting and robust video.
3 Methods for Finding YouTube Keywords in Ahrefs
Did you know you can use Ahrefs to find trending keywords on YouTube, just like you can for Google and Bing? Here are a few methods for uncovering video keywords.
Method #1. Plug a seed term into the Keywords Explorer and select “YouTube” as the search engine.
I’m searching for chocolate cake, which is pretty general.
The results will look a little different from Google keyword search results. Namely, YouTube results won’t include keyword difficulty or SERP overview.
Since this is such a general query, select ‘Matching terms’ in the left-hand menu.
This will provide you with a list of phrases containing your seed keyword and their estimated monthly search volume on YouTube.
Method #2. Plug a seed term into the Keywords Explorer, keep Google as the search engine.
Click on ‘Matching terms’ to find long-tail keywords containing your seed keyword.
Select “video SERPs” from the SERP features dropdown and click ‘Apply.’
This will show you what videos and keywords rank on Google SERP using Google’s video algorithm rather than YouTube’s algorithm. You may be able to find good question keywords this way.
Method #3. Use YouTube’s autocomplete feature to find topics. This is similar to Google’s autocomplete function and can be a useful jumping-off point for finding the right “angle” for your video. I recommend plugging these terms into a tool like Ahrefs to take a look at more specific data before deciding which to pursue.
3. Scope Out the Competition
Plug your target keywords into the search bar to see what your competition is doing. Take notes and ask yourself these questions:
- How long is the average video you’re competing against?
- What related keywords do your competitors cover (or not cover)?
- What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? What can you do better?
- How many results appear for your target keyword? (If the results are saturated with hundreds or thousands of videos on the same topic, you may want to choose a different keyword or find a more specialized long-tail keyword containing your seed term.)
Your goal should never be to copy your competitors but to identify trends and look for opportunities to offer more value to watchers.
4. Sketch an Outline & Production Plan
A polished, professional video starts with proper pre-production planning.
Before filming begins, you and your team should make an outline that includes these items:
- A target keyword and a list of semantically-related keywords.
- A hook. What’s your angle? How are you going to keep people interested once your video starts? What immediately sets you apart from the competition?
- Your objective. What’s your purpose or central thesis? Are you aiming to entertain, educate, promote, or do something else?
- A script. You can certainly ad-lib your video, but creating a script (even if you don’t follow it word-for-word) can save you time in the editing process and keep your content from straying off-topic.
- Props, graphics, and music. Are you filming in the field or on a set? Do you need to work with a graphic designer? Will you use royalty-free music?
- Call to action. What specific action do you want viewers to perform once they’re finished with your video? Do you need to create a landing page or set up a special short link in advance?
- (Optional) A storyboard. Consider sketching out a shot-by-shot storyboard if you’re filming a skit or putting a lot of emphasis on production value.
Phase 2: Create an Optimized Video
1. Film, Edit, & Reshoot
Use your research and outline to film a great video. Video production and editing tips are outside of this article’s scope, but you can check out YouTube’s official filming guide to orient yourself in the right direction. You might also consider creating YouTube Shorts, which are a new style of vertically-oriented videos under 60 seconds.
If you have an existing channel library, I highly recommend diving deep into your YouTube Analytics page to see how viewers interact and engage with your existing content. What video length performs best? Do viewers tend to drop off after a certain point? These metrics will paint a picture of your viewers’ average behavior.
2. Write an Enticing Title & Video Description
Your title and description help both algorithm bots and real viewers understand the content of your video. Here are some best practices to keep in mind:
- Titles should be eye-catching without being inflammatory, misleading, or “clickbaity.” Don’t try to trick people into clicking, and don’t misrepresent what your video is about.
- Use natural language — not a list of keywords. Keyword stuffing is a major no-no in all SEO contexts, including YouTube SEO.
- Include important keywords and links at the very beginning of your description. Description boxes show roughly 100 characters before hiding the remainder of the description under a “Show More” button. Don’t make watchers hunt for CTA links.
3. Add Info Cards, End Screens, & Chapters
Promote engagement by adding info cards, end screens, and chapters where appropriate in each video. These features are another excellent way of appealing to both bots and real people, as they provide a finer level of detail about the content of a video.
- Info cards are the video equivalent of internal links. They encourage interaction during a video’s runtime, allowing watchers to queue up other videos and browse related playlists without hitting pause. You can view stats about card clicks and teasers in the Engagement tab of your YouTube Analytics account.
- End screens are 5-20 second visuals that can be appended to the end of a video to encourage viewers to check out other content, such as other YouTube videos or a related channel. An end screen is a great basic CTA section, but note that it can’t be used to direct viewers to an external site unless you’re part of the YouTube Partner Program.
- Chapters divide your video into sections, allowing viewers to easily skim through and rewatch specific parts. Think of chapters like H2 and H3 subheadings in traditional on-page SEO, and use them to address semantically-related keywords throughout your video. YouTube can automatically generate chapters for new videos, but I recommend manually adding them to ensure accuracy.
4. Create a Transcript & Upload Captions
A transcript is a text version of a video that matches audio with timecodes. Transcripts can be used to generate closed captions or subtitles and be pasted onto a page so visitors can “read” a video instead of watching it.
These days, captions and subtitles are almost a requirement for creators. In addition to helping search engine bots parse the content of a video, captions are key for reaching as wide an audience as possible. Some viewers may have impaired hearing, some may want to watch in a crowded environment without earphones, and others simply prefer captions in addition to spoken audio.
Once your video is complete, create a transcript as an SRT file. Next, upload the SRT file to YouTube to generate captions. SRT files can also be used to generate translated versions of your video. If you’re uploading your video directly on your website, you can paste the contents of the transcript as body text. This is particularly helpful for users with slow internet connections that might limit streaming media.
I don’t recommend relying on auto-generated captions as they’re often inaccurate and lag behind the visual content. For more details, check out YouTube’s full guide to creating captions.
5. Create an Eye-Catching Thumbnail
YouTube may serve your video to viewers, but your thumbnail entices them to click and watch. I recommend brainstorming ideas for your thumbnail during the initial outline and pre-production phase.
A compelling thumbnail:
- Is visually appealing and easy to comprehend (thumbnails are small, so any text should be both large and minimal, and images shouldn’t be too visually complex).
- Accurately represents the contents of your video.
- Matches your target keyword’s search intent (or otherwise immediately demonstrates the value offer of your video in some way).
- Adheres to YouTube’s thumbnail content policy.
Remember, don’t try to mislead watchers or misrepresent what your video is about in an attempt to bait for clicks.
6. Add to a Playlist
Playlists are collections of videos on related topics or based on similar themes. A playlist can contain videos from different creators or be used to group your own videos on your YouTube channel page.
When a watcher plays a video from a playlist, YouTube will automatically recommend the next entry in that playlist. Playlists are great for serving content that viewers wouldn’t necessarily search for independently but might still be interested in seeing. For example, your playlist could start with an Adobe Photoshop tutorial and then suggest viewers watch an interview you did with a design industry expert about Photoshop. This practice is similar to recommending related blog articles on a website at the end of a page.
You can also collaborate on playlists with other channels, which is a great way to increase your exposure and reach new audiences outside of search engine results pages.
7. Optimize Your YouTube Channel Page
Don’t forget to optimize your channel page! Upload a unique channel banner, fill out your “About” section, create playlists, and link to related channels. These features won’t contribute to your search bar results rankings, but they do help build your brand and make your channel feel more inviting.
8. Optional: Tags & File Names
YouTube allows creators to tag their videos with specific keywords. This practice used to be a great optimization opportunity, but tags have actually lost their influence in recent years. YouTube openly admits that “tags play a minimal role in your video’s discovery.” One creator’s experiment confirmed that adding a keyword tag will not make a video appear in search results for that keyword. It’s unclear why YouTube allows creators to use tags if they serve no direct purpose, but you still may want to insert your keyword theme terms as tags just to be on the safe side.
On a similar note, YouTube formerly used a video’s file name as an initial indicator of its content. However, like tags, this practice has been phased out and is no longer used by the ranking algorithm. What you name your file is up to your discretion. (That said, I recommend using descriptive and consistent file names if only for your own organizational purposes!)
Phase 3: Share Your Video Across the Web
1. Distribution & Promotion
By sharing and embedding videos on other sites, you can reach viewers outside of the YouTube Home page or search bar. Promoting content off YouTube is also key for budding creators who have no existing audience base. Videos embedded on other sites will still contribute view and engagement data as long as the video is hosted on YouTube.
Here’s where you should be promoting your content:
- Social media. Include a direct link to your video on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Instagram doesn’t allow for third-party video sharing, so consider posting a sneak peek preview clip and directing viewers to watch the full piece on YouTube.
- Your own site. Click the “Share” button on a video and copy the “Embed” code to publish a YouTube video on your site. Note that this is different from independently uploading a video directly to your website CMS, which will not couple the video with YouTube view and engagement metrics like embedding will. (By the way, be sure to work your video content in your internal linking strategy!)
- Newsletters. Embed your video in your next newsletter or email blast.
- Press releases or a media kit. A video is an excellent component of a media kit or as a piece of source material if you engage in HARO link building.
2. Keyword Metadata & Schema
If you’re using your video on your site in addition to YouTube, follow these optimization recommendations to improve your chances of showing up on traditional search engine results pages.
- Use your target keyword in these places:
- Page title/H1 header
- Meta description
- Image alt text
- Use schema markup. Labeling structured data using schema markup increases your chance of appearing in rich search results and earning views from users who find your video via Google rather than through a video hosting site. Read more about using video structured data on Google Search Central.
- Include your transcript on the page. Make the content of your video clear to search engine bots by including the transcript (with or without timecodes) as the page body copy. This is also helpful for visitors who can’t or don’t want to watch a video.
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