YouTube Video Optimization

/ Max Thorpe

YouTube SEODid you know YouTube is the second largest search engine after Google? With more studies showing increased user engagement with video, it should come as no surprise that YouTube SEO is a hot topic among marketers. There are over 323 million articles claiming to be the ultimate guide to YouTube SEO; that is, a guide to choosing the magical keywords to get more eyes on your video.

Want to optimize your YouTube channel for search? It’s important to remember YouTube’s goal: serve the right video to the right person, at the right time.

In order to do that, YouTube’s algorithm is constantly changing. Because of these frequent changes, people become obsessed with “beating the algorithm” and start tailoring their content to robots rather than human beings. Search engines can’t read an image or video, so they rely on things like alt text and meta descriptions to understand what the content is about (or so we thought). However, despite not being human, YouTube’s algorithm has gotten quite good at serving relevant, quality content.

Gone are the days of fooling the system with a purposely misleading title. Gone are the days of choosing that one unicorn of a keyword that’ll guarantee your video will go viral. All things considered though, there are certain best practices you can follow every time you upload a video to YouTube.

YouTube’s algorithm is designed to show you the most relevant videos to your search terms first. Those videos typically become the most popular videos for your search as well. When optimizing your videos, you do have control over a few things that can influence your ranking, including the content itself, title, thumbnail, description and tags. Then there are the factors that you have little to no control over: the number of comments, shares, likes, views, duration of view and first/last view. Do your best to optimize the factors within your control to give the other variables the best chance of succeeding.

YouTube SEO Factors Infographic

Research your YouTube video keyword

Just like starting a YouTube gaming channel, doing your keyword research is a critical part of every SEO endeavor. You can quickly get an idea of the most searched keywords relative to your topic by looking at related terms that appear when you type in the YouTube search box.

To look for a more niche keyword, you can use free tools like Google Ads keyword planner or keyword tool for YouTube. When choosing a keyword, focus on the word or phrase that you think best embodies what your content is about. It’s better to be as specific as possible rather than broad and generic (you’ll have the opportunity to be broad later). For example, if your video is a cooking demo on making chili, you’ll have a better chance of ranking with a specific title like “8-hour spicy chicken crockpot chili recipe” instead of a generic title like “chili recipe”.

Keep in mind that choosing a keyword for your YouTube video only because it’s popular could end up costing you rankings if it’s not relevant to your content (more on this later).

Include your keyword in your raw video file

Once you’ve decided on a keyword that best describes the content of your video, it’s a good idea to add it to the name of your video file before you upload it to YouTube. Since YouTube’s algorithm changes constantly, it’s not totally clear how much this actually boosts your YouTube SEO, but changing your video file name from “GoPro_072.mp4” to “How-to-do-a-handstand” certainly won’t hurt (assuming your video is actually about doing a handstand).

Stop words like “a”, “the”, or “for” aren’t necessary to include, especially if your query is already long.

Add your keyword to your YouTube video title

The title of your video is one of the most important factors in determining search engine optimization. Your keyword should flow naturally within your video’s title. Try to keep your title to 60 characters or less; any longer and your title will be cut off.

Write a video description

While you should always include a video description for your YouTube video, there’s no observed correlation between keyword-optimized video descriptions and high search rankings.

Tim Schmoyer, YouTube expert and author of “30 Days to a Better YouTube Channel: A practical guide to creating a highly subscribable channel”, said a large reason for this is because many people tend to lie in their descriptions. It also supports the notion that YouTube’s algorithm is getting better at determining what the video content is about.

Although descriptions aren’t a major contributor to your video’s search ranking, you should still include one. You can use this space to provide the viewer with extra information that might not be included in the video itself, or add a transcription of your video content. According to Google, the maximum description length is 1000 characters, so there’s plenty of room for details. But before you begin typing out an essay, be aware that only the first two to three lines of text are displayed without the user having to click “show more”. Be sure to include important information such as your call to action or a link at the beginning of your description rather than the end.

Tag your videos accurately

Tagging helps YouTube associate your video with others that are similarly tagged. When it comes to YouTube tagging, consider using the first keyword that’s also in your title. Aside from that, it’s best to have an even mix of broad genre-focused keywords (“cooking”) and specific-niche keywords (“8-hour spicy chicken crockpot recipe”).

While there’s a keyword character limit of 400, top-ranking videos generally have between 5-8 keywords. Also, be sure to include your brand name as a tag in all of your YouTube videos. Check out how other videos similar to yours are tagged; it may give you inspiration and insights on what keywords to use. YouTube doesn’t openly display other videos’ selected keywords, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see them. Here’s how:

  1. Using a Chrome or Mozilla browser, go to the YouTube video page to watch the video.
  2. Once you’re on the page, right-click and select “View Page Source”. This will open a new tab with what looks like lines and lines of code.
  3. From here, type “Ctrl + F” (Command + F for Mac) and then search for “keyword”.
  4. This will take you to the section of the code with a list of tags used for that video.

How to find YouTube SEO keywords

Create custom video thumbnails

Your thumbnail plays an important role in your YouTube SEO, though somewhat indirectly. The thumbnail is one of the three things (title, description and thumbnail) that people see about your video before actively clicking on it. The more people that click and view your video, the higher your video will rank for that keyword. Thus, if you have an engaging and informative thumbnail that viewers feel inclined to click, your rank will improve.

When you upload a video, YouTube gives you the option to select one of three still images that have been taken from your video to use as a thumbnail. While this is the easy route to take, it’s even better to create and upload your own custom thumbnail. The ideal dimensions for your YouTube video thumbnail are 1280 pixels x 720 pixels tall — roughly a 16:9 ratio. Lastly, keep in mind that over 50% of YouTube videos are viewed on mobile devices, so make sure your thumbnail image and text are legible on a smaller screen.

Create YouTube cards, playlists and end screens

One of many things you don’t have control over is the amount of time a YouTube viewer spends on your channel. The longer the duration, the better, and while you can’t account for an individual's schedule, you can make sure that when they finish watching your video, there’s another one in the queue. That’s where cards, playlists and end screens come in.

YouTube Playlists
YouTube playlists are a group of videos that play automatically and sequentially. When one video ends, the next video starts playing unprompted. A YouTube channel can have multiple playlists. This is helpful to know since you can promote other playlists using the methods below.

YouTube end screens
End screens, or end cards, are the small rectangular prompts that appear in the bottom right-hand corner as you finish watching a YouTube video. End cards can be used to promote another video, playlist or an external website. These are great for guiding the viewer to stay on your channel by watching another video, directing them to your website for more information, or converting them into a lead or customer.

End screens are native to YouTube, but you can also make "end screens" within your video itself. Using our video editor, you can add motion titles, animation, or music to conclude your video in a memorable way.

YouTube cards
YouTube cards are similar to end screens in that they’re a type of call to action. However, with cards, you’re not just confined to using them at the end of a YouTube video. You can use up to five cards in a video, and there are five different types of cards:

  • Donation card: encourage donations to a cause or nonprofit
  • Poll card: promote engagement with a multiple-choice poll
  • Link card: link to an approved website off of YouTube
  • Channel card: promote another channel
  • Video or playlist card: promote another video or YouTube playlist

After you’ve addressed each of the factors listed above, much of the fate of your YouTube SEO rank is left in the hands of the viewers. The number of views your video gets plays a large part in determining whether the algorithm suggests it to others. However, just as much as the view counts, so does the duration of that view. For instance, if someone were to click on your video and then leave it 5 seconds later, this would actually affect your ranking in a negative way. The third big uncontrollable factor that the algorithm looks for is the enter/exit video (the first video the viewer watched when they started their YouTube session and the last video they watched before they left YouTube). If an individual starts their YouTube session with your video, that video’s rank will theoretically increase. If a viewer ends their session with your video, it will theoretically decrease your YouTube SEO. Granted, the duration of the view also plays a key role in all of this. Finally, user interaction plays a part in the algorithm as well. User interactions include liking a video, subscribing to a channel, commenting on YouTube videos, and sharing videos with others.

Let’s imagine a hypothetically perfect scenario for your YouTube video. A viewer starts their YouTube session by watching your video and continues to watch it from start to finish. Then, they like, comment and share that video, check out a few more of your videos, and finally, move on to someone else’s channel and leave YouTube.

Obviously, this won’t occur every time, and there’s little we can do to change that. But data shows that the first 48 hours of publishing your video matter the most in YouTube SEO. For example, sharing your video on social media and engaging with those who comment on your video are all actions you should take shortly after publishing. Above all, the best thing you can do to ensure a high video ranking on YouTube is to create quality content. At the end of the day, YouTube wants the most relevant content to show up first. 

In other words, don’t create video content for views. Create video content for your viewers — especially when it's so easy to do in our video editor! For more ideas about YouTube optimization, get our Complete guide to YouTube marketing.