YouTube is the internet’s second-largest search engine (surpassed only by Google), in terms of content as well as traffic. With over 500 hours of video uploaded every minute, it’s hard to even conceive of how big the platform really is.
But, with that much content to compete with, how do you stand out and get people to see your content? The answer is SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. By getting smart about SEO, you can rank higher on YouTube and Google, drawing more viewers to your videos and attracting more YouTube subscribers.
What is SEO?
Search Engine Optimization is the practice of optimizing content to make it more discoverable on search engines. This means thinking like your viewers to determine which keywords they’re searching for, then using those keywords strategically to get your content to rank higher in searches.
The Magic of Keywords
Keywords are at the heart of SEO. Any word or phrase can be a keyword, as long as it’s relevant to your content, such as “what is SEO” (see what we did there?). Understanding how to use keywords effectively is the first step toward getting more views and higher rankings.
Say your viewers want to learn how to play “Stairway to Heaven” on guitar. They might search for “How to play Stairway to Heaven,” “Stairway to Heaven chords,” or “Stairway to Heaven guitar lesson.” If any of these phrases appear in your video’s title or description, they’re much more likely to find your content.
However, if your video is called “Lesson: The Best Led Zeppelin Song” or “How to Shred STH by LZ,” potential viewers will be far less likely to find it. No matter how good a guitar teacher (or makeup artist, podcaster, pop culture critic, gamer, etc.) you are, none of it matters unless people can find your content.
SEO Tools and Services
Sometimes, the best keywords to use are obvious. Other times, you may need help finding the best keywords to use for a particular video. To complicate matters further, the obvious keywords aren’t always the best to use. The more popular a keyword is, the more traffic it gets, and the more competition you’ll have trying to rank for it.
SEO services like SEMrush, Moz and Ahrefs can help you find the best keywords to use for your videos, analyze your videos’ search engine performance to further optimize your content, and even assess your competitors’ search rankings to learn valuable insights. Each of these services have slightly different feature sets and pricing models, so we’ve broken them down to help you find the best fit.
- SEMrush is a great all-in-one SEO tool that has all the features you’d expect for analyzing keywords, finding new ones and checking your own page rankings as well as your competitors’. The Position Changes report is especially useful for monitoring your videos’ long-term performance, showing how your rankings have increased and decreased for specific keywords so you can go back and optimize your content.
Best of all, SEMrush gives you up to ten requests per day at no cost, making it one of the best free SEO tools. Paid plans range from $99.95/month (Pro) to $399.95/month (Business), with custom and enterprise plans available as well.
- Moz makes SEO research a cinch by combining complex data into easy-to-understand metrics. The Domain Authority (DA) and Page Authority (PA) stats give you a clear picture of how well a website or page will rank on search engine results pages (SERPs) with a score of 1-100.
Moz also calculates Difficulty and Priority stats to help you make decisions on which keywords to focus on for the best results and least competition (you can even set a custom “My Score” for your own reference. Another cool feature is the MozBar toolbar for Google Chrome, which lets you easily analyze any page, any time. Moz offers a free 30-day trial and paid plans from $99/month (standard) to $599/month (Premium).
- Ahrefs began as a backlink analysis tool, and while it’s evolved into a full-featured SEO platform, backlink analysis is still where Ahrefs shines. With an index of approximately 16 trillion backlinks, Ahrefs gives you a comprehensive look at where your traffic is coming from. It also features all the standard SEO tools, such as a Site Explorer, Keywords Explorer, Site Audit, Rank Tracker and Content Explorer.
If there’s a downside to Ahrefs, it’s the price—a seven-day trial costs $7, and plans range from $99/month (Lite) to $999/month (Agency). Still, if you plan to utilize backlinks heavily in your SEO strategy, Ahrefs is a fantastic choice.
If a premium SEO service isn’t in your budget, you can still take advantage of free SEO tools like UberSuggest. Google’s free Google Ads Keyword Planner is another great place to start (no AdWords account necessary), and Google Trends is handy for tracking the popularity of specific search terms over time.
How To Use SEO To Rank on YouTube
SEO is the key to higher rankings on YouTube.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of SEO and keywords, you’re probably wondering how to turn that information into higher rankings on YouTube. On the surface, it sounds simple: just find the best keywords for your videos, then copy and paste, right? But good SEO goes much deeper than that, touching every piece of text on your channel with the ultimate goal of guiding viewers to the content they’re looking for—your content.
YouTube Channel SEO
If you haven’t already filled out the “About” section of your channel page, this is where you should begin your YouTube SEO journey. And, if you already have an About section, now’s a great time to give it a refresh from an SEO perspective. While the main function of this section is to give viewers a broad overview of your channel, it’s also a natural place to stick some keywords.
Don’t worry about getting hyper-specific with your keywords just yet (you’ll have a chance to do that with each video you create, anyway). The keywords in your About me section should relate to any and all content you make, so it’s best keep them fairly broad.
You’ll quickly start finding opportunities to refine existing text for better SEO. For example, “I make daily motivational vlogs” could become “daily motivational vlogger.” Likewise, “pro gaming organization” could become “professional eSports team,” and so on.
Video Title SEO
When it comes to optimizing individual videos, the title is arguably the most important piece of SEO. This is the first thing people see in their search results, and it lets them decide quickly if your content is relevant to them or not. Titling your videos effectively is an art and science, but when it’s done well, it can have a huge impact on views and rankings. Here are some tips for titling videos:
- Use your main target keyword in your video’s title. Whether it’s “how to build a table” or just a good old “fail compilation,” make sure the top keyword you want to rank for is in the first few words of the title.
- Keep it Concise. YouTube video titles can be up to 100 characters long (including spaces), but only the first 66 will be visible in certain situations, such as mobile viewing. Therefore, it’s best to keep it short and put the most important information and keywords first.
- Be specific. Give an accurate description of your video that sets it apart from similar content by using titles like “How to Build a Table with No Nails (Japanese Wood Joinery Tutorial)” or “Carpentry Fail Compilation: Top 5 Nail Gun Accidents”
- Don’t spam keywords. The YouTube algorithm is smart enough to know that “Cat Video Compilation Apple Macbook iMac iPad Computers Laptops Tablets Best of 2019 2020 2021” isn’t really about cats. In fact, jamming your title full of keywords (relevant or not) can actually hurt your rankings.
Description Text SEO
Located just below the video itself, the video description is the ideal place to add additional information, links and (you guessed it) keywords. Use this opportunity to sprinkle in additional keywords that didn’t make it into your title, but don’t go overboard, or the algorithm may penalize you.
The description field can fit up to 5,000 characters, but only the first 166 are shown directly below the video (the rest are hidden below the fold until the viewer presses “show more”). With that in mind, enter details in order of importance, using the first 166 characters for important information like a product link or a call to subscribe to your channel.
After that, you can add anything you want, like timestamps for quick access to different parts of your video, links to other videos, and of course, all your social media handles. Timestamps are especially useful, as Google often uses them to direct searchers to specific information in a video. The order of your keywords doesn’t matter here, so just work them in wherever it feels natural.
YouTube’s Creator Academy channel has lots of great tips for making your videos more discoverable.
Tags are a great way to associate your video with specific keywords—especially ones you can’t fit in your video’s title or description. To add tags to a new video, scroll down to the bottom of the upload window and select “More Options.” To add tags to an existing video, click “Edit,” then go to “Video Information.”
When tagging your videos, start with the top keyword you want to rank for (and be sure to spell and phrase it exactly the way it is in the title). Then, start adding related keywords in order of relevance. Finally, cover your bases with more general tags like “tutorial” or “compilation.”
Captions, Transcripts and Translations
One little-known but powerful SEO strategy is to create captions, transcripts and translations for every video. Search engines primarily analyze text, so the more text you create for your videos, the more discoverable they’ll be. Plus, it will increase accessibility and help more people enjoy your content. To maximize the SEO impact, make sure to say your keywords several times in each video.
- To add subtitles and closed captioning to a video, sign into YouTube Studio, then click “Subtitles” in the menu on the left. Select a video, click “Add Language” to select a language, then click “Add” to start adding captions. Remember to include music and sound effects for extra context. Finally, hit “Publish” to finish.
- If you’re working with longer videos, use a transcription service like Descript, which can transcribe your content automatically in seconds or have a human look it over for increased accuracy. You can even export transcriptions in the exact format YouTube requires, with timestamps included. To add your transcription file, go to Videos > More Options > Upload subtitles/cc.
- Translating your videos isn’t strictly necessary, but we highly recommend it to increase discoverability in other languages (and it’s just a good idea anyway if your channel has an international audience). If you have the budget, we recommend getting a qualified human translator, but Google Translate will work in a pinch.
Start Ranking Higher
When used effectively and strategically, SEO can do wonders for your videos’ ranking and discoverability. Implement these tips with every video you make, and you’ll be on the path to more views, more subscribers and higher rankings. For more tips on maximizing your reach on YouTube, read up on how the YouTube algorithm works.