Most of the time we don’t think of YouTube as a search engine—that’s Google’s job, right? But YouTube is actually the second-largest search engine in the world (and Google happens to own YouTube, too). This means that when you’re uploading killer content to your YouTube channel, it’s important to keep search engine optimization (SEO) in mind.
But how do you optimize content for search engines like YouTube and Google? Start by getting acquainted with YouTube’s algorithm! With hundreds of hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, the algorithm helps match users to the content that is most relevant to what they’re searching for. Basically, the algorithm processes information like video titles, tags, and descriptions—plus other metrics like watch-time and engagement—then uses that information to determine where videos will appear in search results for specific terms.
This is a really big deal. If YouTube’s algorithm determines your video’s position in search results, this means that working with the algorithm can mean the difference between your video appearing first and appearing 203rd.
To ensure that your content is reaching your target audiences, make decisions with SEO and the YouTube algorithm in mind. Luckily, there are plenty of free strategic tools to help you out. Use Google Trends to research popular keywords within your area of expertise. Type a term into keywordtool.io to see the related searches that YouTube autocomplete generates. The key is doing your research ahead of time and using that information to inform your channel’s strategy.
YouTube SEO Ranking Factors
In our post about the YouTube algorithm, we talked about how titles, tags, and descriptions can affect a video’s performance. In terms of YouTube SEO, these elements specifically affect where your video appears in search results (on both YouTube and Google). To increase a video’s chances of appearing higher in search results, there are a few rules-of-thumb you can follow when writing titles, tags, and descriptions. We’ll also go into how length, watch time, and engagement impact a video’s SEO performance.
Remember all of that keyword research you did? Now it’s time to put it to use. Make sure that you put the keyword you want to rank for in the video title. Before you even upload, though, some YouTube creators also suggest changing your video’s filename to that keyword. For example, if you wanted to rank for the term “YouTube SEO,” you could change the file name from “video16.mp4” to “youtube_seo.mp4.”
People will click on content that best fits their needs, and descriptions are there to help with that process. When writing descriptions for your videos, make sure that you include the keyword in the first 1-2 lines. The very first part of the description is what people will see in YouTube and Google search results, so placing the keyword in both the title and early in the description is important for SEO and user decisions.
But don’t forget that there’s more to a description than the first few lines! Once someone clicks on your video, they’ll see part of the video’s description and then a “see more” button. The part of the description that’s already visible is “above the fold,” while the part after “see more” is “below the fold.”
You can get really creative with the information that you include below the fold, and that info can help improve your video’s SEO for both YouTube and Google. You can write a little bit about your channel (which is helpful for first-time viewers and potential subscribers), include links to your website and social media accounts, or provide an in-depth description of the content your video will cover. Just make sure that the info is relevant to your video and write using natural language (i.e., don’t write a string of words like you would for tags—that’s what the tags section is for).
Bonus: You can also include hashtags in your description! Try to sprinkle them throughout the entire text, and don’t include more than 15—after that, the algorithm stops reading.
This is the place where you can (and should) include all of the relevant terms for your video. Tags are really just additional information to help the algorithm figure out what your video is all about. In turn, this will help viewers find your videos when they search for similar terms. Make sure that your tags are accurate to ensure that viewers find what they were looking for (and keep watching your content after clicking).
Watch Time & Video Length
We’ve talked about how watch time is one of the most important YouTube metrics, but how does it impact SEO? The YouTube algorithm prioritizes videos (and channels) with high watch times in search results, so high watch times = better search results position. This also ties in with video length. Although the length of a video doesn’t necessarily affect where it appears in search results, YouTube is trying to encourage longer videos to increase watch times and keep people on the platform longer. Basically, longer videos can increase both your videos’ and channel’s watch times, which helps with SEO.
Just like with social media platforms, YouTube loves when users engage with its content. Content with higher engagement rates will typically rank higher in search results. By “engagement,” we’re talking about views, thumbs up/down, comments, links, and shares.
While YouTube has made a big push to prioritize watch time over number of views, a video’s view count still matters in terms of how it interacts with all of the other metrics. For example, a video with a high view count but low watch times signals to YouTube’s algorithm that users aren’t finding what they were looking for (or, even worse, that the video is just clickbait). However, a video with a high view count and high watch times will likely perform well in search results. The same goes for other engagement metrics. For example, lots of comments combined with high watch times will help improve a video’s SEO ranking.
It may seem like engagement isn’t something that you can optimize, but there are plenty of strategic ways to interact with your audience. When you’re planning your videos, make sure that you include calls to action to get your viewers to like, comment, and share. You can also pose a question that people can answer in the comments. Including these elements in your videos (and descriptions) will help you hit the YouTube SEO sweet spot: in-demand content combined with high audience engagement.
Keep Optimizing with Analytics
Now that you have the tools to optimize your YouTube videos, make sure that you keep track of your efforts using analytics tools. YouTube Analytics can show you what keywords led viewers to your videos, helping you learn more about your audience as well as your channel’s performance. If you notice that an important term isn’t showing up in that report, YouTube Creators Academy recommends that you make sure the term is in your video’s description.
YouTube SEO can be tricky to navigate, but one thing is clear: the competition is fierce. Keep your content fresh and professional to stay ahead of the curve, and post consistently on your channel. Time is of the essence, so cut down on your workload by using high-quality stock footage and customizable video templates. Top off beautiful visuals with the perfect music and sound effects—you’ll be racking up subscribers in no time.