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Every second, YouTube suggests countless videos to viewers around the world, hoping to keep them watching for as long as possible. But with more than 500 hours of video added every minute, learning what each individual viewer likes and suggesting relevant content is no easy feat. To keep up, YouTube uses a sophisticated algorithm that analyzes content and user data to suggest content you might like.
But how does the YouTube algorithm work? And what can you do to get your videos to rank higher?
In this guide, we’ll answer all that and more—including why ignoring the algorithm may actually be the best strategy. First, we’ll start with the basic theory behind algorithms, then explore specific ways to maximize your videos’ performance on YouTube.
Broadly speaking, an algorithm is a set of rules or steps designed to perform a calculation. Computer programs use algorithms to sort, filter and manipulate data, and produce meaningful results.
In the context of search engines like Google, YouTube and social media platforms, this means filtering massive amounts of user-generated content in order to serve users the most relevant results.
On YouTube, the algorithm decides which videos you see on the home screen, in search results, in the “up next” column and more. A lot of data goes into these decisions, including your viewing history, likes, subscriptions, comments and demographic data. But it wasn’t always this way. YouTube has spent years developing their algorithm and they’re still constantly fine-tuning it for better performance.
Before 2012, YouTube ranked videos based solely on view count. While this ensured that everyone with an internet connection got a chance to see “Numa Numa,” it meant that a lot of good content got buried as well. You could still search for the content you wanted to watch, but you might find yourself scrolling through hundreds of videos to find the right one.
From 2012 to 2016, YouTube experimented with emphasizing factors such as view duration and total session time. While this improved the platform by favoring content that held peoples’ attention, the experience still wasn’t customized for each user. And before long, this approach gave rise to subversive tactics like making unnecessarily long videos to maximize placement.
In 2016, YouTube adopted a machine learning approach, using statistics and user data to “teach” its algorithm which videos people are most likely to watch next. This means that every view, comment, subscription, thumbs-up and thumbs-down makes the algorithm smarter. After four years of machine learning and tweaking by data scientists, the 2020 YouTube algorithm is more sophisticated than ever.
Marques Brownlee showcasing the Blue Yeti USB microphone on YouTube.
If you came here hoping to reverse-engineer the YouTube algorithm, we’ve got some bad news. The exact equations and statistics involved are closely guarded trade secrets, making it virtually impossible to game the system. However, making the YouTube algorithm work for you is actually pretty simple. Read on for some helpful strategies you can use to boost your rankings organically.
If there is a “golden rule” for ranking videos on YouTube, it’s this: just focus on making great content. According to this video from the YouTube Creator Academy, “The algorithm follows the audience. If people love your videos, the algorithm will surface them to others.”
In other words, your objective should always be to make videos people love. All the algorithm can do is help more people find them. Before focusing on any of the other tips in this list, make sure each video you create is engaging, relevant and original. If the quality is there, the views will follow.
YouTube may be a video-centric platform, but search engines like Google work primarily by analyzing text. Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the practice of using specific keywords to make content rank higher on search engines. And once you realize just how much text is associated with each YouTube video, you’ll be amazed at the SEO potential.
When writing for SEO, start by thinking like your audience. What specific words and terms are they searching? Are there any buzzwords in your field that you want to be associated with? Next, use a keyword research tool like SEMrush or Ahrefs to make a list of related keywords. Finally, sprinkle those keywords into your video titles, descriptions, tags and anywhere else you can.
View duration is a major part of the YouTube algorithm. That’s why it’s so important to keep viewers watching all the way through your videos. The longer they stay engaged, the better your videos will rank, so you need to keep them hooked.
To grab your viewers’ interest in the first few seconds and keep them from “bouncing” away, try using a catchy theme song, cool title sequence or unique salutation. To hold your audience’s attention throughout the video, use a clear narrative flow that builds toward something important. Think of each video like a movie, and you’ll have viewers glued to the screen in no time.
Beatboxer KRNFX shooting a YouTube video with the Yeti X USB microphone.
YouTube gives creators two convenient ways to direct viewers to even more of their content: cards and end screens. Cards are small notification boxes that appear in the upper right corner of your video at a specific time, prompting viewers to take action. You can have up to five cards per video, which can link to other videos, websites, crowdfunding campaigns and more.
End screens are special overlays you can add to the last 5-20 seconds of a video to direct viewers to even more content of your choosing. Unlike cards, end screens can have up to four elements, each with a thumbnail image. End screens are often used to direct viewers to the next video in a series, link to an online store or encourage viewers to subscribe to your channel.
What’s even better than making one great video? Making a bunch, of course! Instead of making one long video to exhaustively cover a topic, try splitting it up into a series of shorter videos contained in a playlist. This way, each video will auto-play after the last, keeping viewers on your channel instead of losing them to the next video suggested by YouTube.
Say you want to teach people how to build a PC. Instead of one video called “The Ultimate Guide to Building a PC Start to Finish,” you could make “How to Choose a Video Card,” “Installing a Liquid Cooling System,” and so on. Viewers will be more inclined to watch each video all the way through, and they’ll probably watch several in a row.
Once your channel has accumulated some traffic, you can learn a lot from YouTube’s analytics. The YouTube Studio dashboard gives you a real-time readout of key stats like views, subscribers, watch time and top videos on your channel. You can also access stats for individual videos and trace how viewers found your content.
Recognizing patterns and reverse-engineering your successes can teach you valuable lessons. For example, if one of your videos gets a ton of views but the average view time is short, it may indicate that the video doesn’t deliver on what its title promises. If an old video is suddenly seeing a lot of traffic, viewers may be finding it through a popular website or blog.
When you find the magic formula and one of your videos starts generating lots of views, make more content in the same vein.
Say you run a gaming channel and mostly post gameplay videos, but one day you decide to do a review of your new keyboard and your views start skyrocketing. Consider doing more product reviews, walkthroughs of your setup or even in-depth game reviews. Over time, you can fine-tune your approach and experiment with new types of videos to find exactly what your audience wants.
Now that you’ve brushed up on basic algorithmic theory, learned how the YouTube algorithm matches viewers with videos and gotten some helpful tips for ranking on YouTube, it’s time to put all this knowledge into action. Remember to be patient. Organic growth takes time, so don’t be discouraged if your next video doesn’t go viral overnight. Keep making great content and the results will come!