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With more than 3 billion monthly searches, YouTube is not just a popular social networking platform, but the second largest search engine on the Internet. Five hundred hours of video footage was uploaded to YouTube every single minute in 2019 — and that figure has likely grown since.
YouTube has 2 billion active monthly users who watch over 1 billion hours of content on the platform every single day. With content coming in at that volume, it gives a more accurate sense of scale to think of any individual video not as a person shouting amidst a crowd, but as a single grain of sand on a beach. It’s not a perfect analogy, because grains of sand on the beach are not individually identifiable, searchable, or able to be organized and catalogued. YouTube videos are.
That doesn’t mean that it’s in a marketer’s best interest to have an “if we build it, they will come” mentality on YouTube. Content creators and marketers who publish video to YouTube sometimes assume that the most interesting content is naturally selected by the algorithm and pushed to the front page, to be rewarded with millions of views by some combination of timing, luck, and merit. But considering the sheer scale of content available on YouTube, it’s a bit more useful for our purposes to think of YouTube as the largest video library archive ever to have existed. The key to getting more views on YouTube videos isn’t to be special enough or loud enough to get noticed in the throng. Rather, the key is to tag your content with lots of detail-rich identifying information, making it searchable in the catalogue for viewers who are already looking for videos like yours.
YouTube is a search engine
Does this sound really similar to the SEO principles that get websites to rank on Google? That’s because it is. YouTube is a search engine for video, which means that videos can be optimized to perform better by making them easier to search for.
This post is a primer on how YouTube tags, catalogues, and recommends videos to their users, and how you can use those features as tools to help you set your video up for success. This assumes, of course, that generating more views on your videos is a part of your strategy. Many people use YouTube as a convenient hosting platform for their videos to embed to their own websites and social feeds, and attracting viewers on YouTube isn’t a priority for them. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to use the platform. We’re going to focus on how to optimize video content that is intended to attract new viewers and broaden your audience, and the technical steps needed to do it.
Plan for the audience you want, then work backwards
To increase the views on your YouTube videos, you need to start by making it easy to find you for those already interested. You can only do that effectively when you know who those people are, and why they would want to see what you post. Starting there, you can work backwards to tag your video as likely to be relevant to them.
The benefit of posting to mega-networks like YouTube is that the audience is already there without you having to build it. But because of the sheer amount of video content offered, waiting for viewers to find your stuff serendipitously is unlikely to get you more than a handful of views and very little return for your investment. For your video content to be worth the cost and effort of producing it, you need to proactively plan your content and posting around the specific people you want to see it and marketing outcomes you want to achieve.
Check out Moz’s resources on audience targeting and content strategy if you’re just getting started on that. With those basic outcomes in mind, you can start working backwards to determine what metrics you’ll need to watch to gauge your success, and how you’ll structure your content to get there.
A refresher on YouTube analytics
YouTube Studio Video Analytics, Overview, from “Relics from a Lost Future (Full Album 2021) [INSTRUMENTAL POST ROCK]” courtesy of Undercover Rabbis.
Before we take a deeper dive into YouTube keywords, it’s important to define the different KPIs that we use to measure the success of videos. In simplest terms, they’re the stats on your video that tell you whether your plan for video marketing is working or not. They include:
Watch time: This KPI measures the total amount of minutes a viewer spends watching your content. Content and channels that have longer watch times are elevated by YouTube in the recommendations and search results. A low average watch time can indicate that your viewers are getting bored or that your video is too long to hold their interest.
Retention rate: This is the percentage of audience members who stay to watch the video all the way through compared to those who leave before it’s over. The YouTube platform favors videos with high retention rates, judging them to be more likely to be relevant and recommending them to more viewers.
YouTube Video Analytics (under Overview) from “Bosses Hang (Godspeed You! Black Emperor Cover)” courtesy of Undercover Rabbis.
Engagement: This refers to the actions that viewers take beyond just watching the video, like taking the time to comment, like, share, subscribe, or bookmark for later. Engagement is often the most important metric for marketers to track, because it tells you how many people are interested enough in your content to take further action. Comments can paint a clear picture of how your content affected viewers. Shares gauge how much viewers value your video and your brand, and are crucial to growing a following. Likes and dislikes can help you evaluate what content did or did not work, and it further indicates to YouTube what content is likely to be high quality when recommending videos in users’ feeds.
Thumbnails: The thumbnail is the picture of your video that appears with the title on a results page or link. It provides a sneak peek of the content you’re sharing to help the viewer decide whether to watch it or not. A thoughtfully crafted thumbnail is easy to make and can have a big impact on how many viewers will ultimately choose to click and watch your video.
Title keywords: The keywords you use in your video title tells YouTube what’s in it, and helps guide viewers to your content when they search for similar words or phrases.
Re-watches: This metric measures the number of times viewers re-watch particular parts of your video. If there is a high re-watch rate, viewers are likely interested and invested in the topics you’re covering, and might want to know more. This can be useful for strategizing and planning future content.
Demographics: These stats account for the different types of viewers who are watching your content, segmented by gender, age, and geography.
It’s important to understand what these YouTube metrics are meant to measure. They all play an important part in your video rankings on both YouTube and Google, so it’s prudent to implement some basic best practices to keep these stats out of the gutter, as we’ll outline below. However, it’s important to keep your focus on the end goals, and not just chase the stats. Good metrics are to be used as indicators of your progress, not the goal in and of itself.
How Google ranks YouTube videos
YouTube views don’t only come from people already logged on to YouTube. Google is also a huge driver to your YouTube videos. Google needs to understand the content of your video in order to include it in search results. Google ranks YouTube content in the following ways:
Crawling the video and extracting a preview and thumbnail to show the user
Extracting meta tags and page texts from your video descriptions to tell the user more about the video’s content
Analyzing the video sitemap or structured data to determine relevance
Extracting audio to identify more keywords
Keywords aren’t pulled just from the text attached to your video in the descriptions and tags — they can also be pulled from the audio itself. This is why including the right keywords in your video script will help boost the video’s rankings on Google.
Choosing keywords is about relevance, not volume
This begs the question: what, then, are the “right” keywords? A better question might be: what makes a keyword the right one? Let’s return to the “YouTube is like an enormous library archive” analogy for a moment. If only making noise and getting noticed mattered, then the right keywords would be the ones that get the most search volume to attract the most viewers. But like we said, YouTube is too saturated a platform to count on viral spread. Search engines don’t really think in terms of “best and worst” videos to make their rankings. (Search engines don’t really think at all, but that’s a topic for another day.) Search engines are designed to identify “what video is best for this particular viewer, in this particular instance?” That’s not a question of volume or popularity. That’s a question of relevance.
It is rarely going to be an effective marketing goal to merely seek out lots and lots of viewers regardless of who they are. Most campaigns are better served by a smaller group of highly engaged fans than by millions of lukewarm passive viewers. If you spend all of your focus optimizing your content for Google’s bots, high volume and low engagement is what you’re likely to get. If you want to build a meaningful fan base, then you must build your content for the people watching it, not just the search engines ranking it.
Defining your audience and their needs
You must have a clear idea of who you are trying to address with your YouTube content if you want to know what to say to them. Defining your target audience first will make the SEO optimization process more goal directed and specific.
Identifying and defining your target audience can start with the motivations behind their video searches. Some common motivations include:
YouTube Studio Channel Dashboard courtesy of Undercover Rabbis.
I want to know: The user wants to learn more about a specific topic they’ve already identified. They’re likely to be interested in tutorials, how-to’s, and explainer videos.
I want to do: The viewer has a specific action already in mind that they want to take, like planning a trip or exploring a new hobby. They might watch videos either aspirationally or proactively, like vlogs for inspiration or travel guides for actionable tips.
I want to buy: The potential viewer is seeking information related to a specific product they want to purchase, including reviews or comparisons. They might look for unboxing videos, reviews from influencers, or product demos.
Understanding your audience, their pain points, and their purchase drivers is key to identifying which keywords can help guide those viewers to your YouTube videos. Keywords are the language viewers use to ask a search engine for specific content, which is why we often start with viewer intent and work from there. Jot down a few words or phrases that a viewer might use to describe what they want to see in your video. Think about both the featured topic (like “dogs” or “makeup” or “golf swing”) and format/genre (like “tutorial” or “vlog” or “Let’s Play” or “reacts”). List the relevant verbs, like “buy”, “play”, “learn”, “explain”, “explore”. By building out a word cloud like this, you’ll have a starting point for your keyword research.
Begin your keyword research with an autocomplete tool or competitor browsing
The simplest way to start the keyword research process is by playing around with a keyword tool (Moz offers a free Keyword Explorer,) or the search function right on YouTube and Google. Trying out some different searches that your audience is likely to make can give you insight into what your target audience is already searching for, what they’re interested in, and the specific words or phrases they use when they’re talking about it online.
Type one of your potential keywords into the search box. As you type, YouTube will suggest related popular searches — this is an autocomplete feature built right in. The Ubersuggest tool is also a good place to try this exercise, which will run through the alphabet for the first letter of the next word in your search phrase.
Gauging YouTube keyword search volume
It’s also good to know which of your keywords people search for most frequently. The free Google Trends application “YouTube search” option lets you compare potential keywords in your list to see which ones rank higher and appear in more searches. Keep in mind that higher search volume usually also means more competition to rank for that particular word or phrase.
You can also keep tabs on the keywords your competitors are using to compare to the ones on your list. Find channels within your niche that have a few thousand subscribers, and sort through the content using the “Most Popular” option. Click on the video with the highest number of views and make note of the keywords used in the title, tags, and description. This can show you which keywords might already be saturated in your market with high competition, or reveal gaps where there are opportunities to provide content.
Attaching keywords to your videos
YouTube Channel, Basic Info Keywords courtesy of SustainablePR.
When you’ve identified a list of high-value keywords, it’s time to put them to work. Here are all the places you can incorporate keywords when first posting your YouTube video:
Video file name: SEO optimization begins before you even upload the video. Include keywords prominently in the video file name.
Video title: The title should be punchy and concise. Think about what you would want to click on. Avoid using video titles longer than 70 characters, because they’ll get cut off on the search engine results page and thumbnails. Try to include the keyword towards the beginning of the title when you can.
Description: Many content creators make the mistake of only writing a couple of sentences in their video description. The more words your description has, the better. YouTube allows up to 5,000 characters for video descriptions, so be sure to utilize that real estate. Include strategically placed keywords, information about the video, an enticing hook, and a specific call to action.
Transcript: The video transcript, or caption, is another opportunity to include keywords because it provides additional text used by the platform’s ranking algorithm.
Tags: When tagging your video, include the top relevant keywords, the brand or channel name, and the more specific keyword phrases. Keep all tags under 127 characters. The more the merrier, as long as they are all relevant and concise. No one likes a bait and switch, and too broad a range of topics in your tags will signal to YouTube that your video isn’t strongly relevant to anything in particular at all.
Try audio keywords to get more traction
A unique way to include even more keywords in your video is to speak them in the video itself. Since Google and YouTube no longer need to crawl a transcript to understand what you’re saying, you can utilize audio keywords. Always try to include the keywords in the first two sentences you speak in the video to keep your viewer retention rate up.
Bottom line: prioritize relevance over volume, and start with the viewer and work backwards
If you take nothing else away from this guide, know that a search engine like Google or YouTube has no concept of what “best” means. It cannot judge a video by merit, and it does not rank individual videos as being more or less worthy of views. Only the viewers can make value judgments like that. A search engine can only make determinations of relevance, and only using the keywords we give it, as compared to the keywords provided by the user when they perform a search.
The search engine only knows if it provided the right video for the right search by interpreting the actions the user takes next. If you give YouTube and Google plenty of keywords to parse by completely filling out your description, tags, titles, and transcripts, your video will be returned in more searches. If the viewer then leaves comments or subscribes to your channel after watching, YouTube’s algorithm concludes that your video was highly relevant, and returns you in more searches. It’s a relatively straightforward cause-and-effect relationship, not a mystical process.
Play around with some of the free SEO tools and Learning Center resources that Moz makes available, and see what you turn up. A little bit of effort, forethought, and consistency goes a long, long way when it comes to improving your performance on YouTube.