It’s common to think of YouTube as a media or a social platform. But, at its core, YouTube is actually a search engine.
In fact, it’s the second largest search engine in the world. To succeed on YouTube, your videos need to be optimized for search — just like any other type of content on the web.
The guide below will unpack the basics of YouTube SEO and help you get your videos watched, ranked, and recommended.
1. Find topics that are popular in search
No video, no matter how interesting, is going to become successful if the topic is not in demand with the users. So, this is where search optimization begins — decide which videos are worth creating and which are not. To do this, run keyword research and find the topics that are most popular in search.
YouTube Search Suggest
One way to see the most popular queries related to your topic is to use YouTube autosuggest. Open YouTube, start typing your main keywords into the search bar, and YouTube will provide you with a number of autocomplete suggestions.
These suggested queries demonstrate what people actually type when searching for a video, and what they search for most often. The only downside of this method is that it takes time to manually check all of your keyword ideas.
Luckily, there’s a way to speed things up. Some keyword tools offer YouTube autocomplete as a research method so you can check all keywords at once. On top of that, these tools will supply data on each keyword variation, like search volume, keyword difficulty, and competition level.
Using Rank Tracker as an example, you can go to Keyword Research > Autocomplete Tools > YouTube Autocomplete, and type all the keywords you need to check. With just a few seed keywords, you’re able to generate over a thousand of keyword ideas and compare them on key metrics:
Another way to identify popular keywords is to search them on Google. Similar to YouTube, Google has the autocomplete feature — a source of popular keyword variations. Google SERPs also have features like related queries, related questions, and image search modifiers, all of which can be used to find additional keyword ideas.
Type all of your keywords in Google manually, which is manageable if you don’t have many keywords to cover. Or, if you have more than a few keyword ideas, automate the process with a dedicated keyword research tool like Rank Tracker. It has a dozen different keyword research methods. You can also use it to see which keywords tend to trigger video results in Google:
Of course, YouTube and Google keywords are not 100% interchangeable, but altogether they will give you an insight into the popularity of certain topics.
Once you’ve settled on the final list of keyword ideas, it’s time to check them with Google Trends. This tool shows topic popularity over time, going as far back as 2004. You can also switch to the YouTube search feature to see the trends specifically in YouTube.
Go to Google Trends, enter one of your keywords, and click Search. Then, switch to YouTube search (click on Web search > choose YouTube search) to get more accurate data. If you want to compare some of your keywords, you can enter more queries (click Compare > type one more keyword).
Scroll down below the Interest over time graph to see more insights such as region popularity and top and rising related terms. This helps get some new keyword ideas and understand what’s more popular with your audience (if you intend to make a video for a certain region).
2. Use keywords when writing a script
Today, YouTube can actually listen to what you say in a video. It can convert sound to text and then analyze the text looking for relevance signals.
This means what you say in your videos should be carefully planned — your script should be well structured and include a certain number of relevant keywords. Here’s how you can fit them in.
Headings are commonly used to split articles into sections, but they can also be used to split videos into segments. If your video consists of several parts, use transition phrases to announce each new part.
Say you are shooting a video about the best chest exercises. As you move from one exercise to another, you can say something like exercise number two is weighted dips. On top of adding relevant keywords, this will also allow segments of your video to rank for each specific keyword.
Pronouns are generic words with no semantic weight — they are just placeholders for nouns. Each time you use a pronoun in place of a noun you lower the relevance of your copy or, in this case, your video.
Say you are shooting a video about a fitness diet and are talking about salmon. You can say it’s a great source of nutrients or you can say salmon is a great source of protein and vitamins B, D, and E. In the latter, we’ve taken a pronoun and another generic word and switched them out for specific terms. Now the algorithm has more detail to work with.
Whenever possible, give a little background to your main topic or other important concepts in your video.
Say you are shooting a video about triceps exercises; you can begin with an explanation of what is triceps. What is a tricep? A tricep is a large upper arm muscle that consists of three heads: lateral head, medial head, and long head.
In doing this, your video has barely started and is already packed full of relevant keywords.
Note: Use definitions with caution. Make sure you only explain difficult terms and that the explanations are relevant to the video concept. You don’t have to dwell on who invented cheesecake and when, if your video is a cheesecake recipe.
Speaking of clarity, don’t use abbreviations if they can be omitted. Abbreviations are pronounced like separate letters and can be easily misinterpreted by search engines.
Replace abbreviations with full names. For example, say World Health Organizationinstead ofWHO, or Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty instead ofIRNFT.
Some abbreviations can be kept, if they have become even more recognizable than full names (US, BBC, NBA) or if they are pronounced as words and not as independent letters (NASA, NATO, and FIFA).
3. Add search-friendly metadata
Despite artificial intelligence, the algorithm may still misinterpret your video. Metadata is an intermediary between the video and the platform — it helps YouTube understand what the video is actually about.
Make sure you add metadata before you publish your video — if the algorithm ranks it incorrectly, it can be hard to recover.
Metadata is also what users see first, so make it appealing, eye-catching, and relevant to users’ search intents.
The title of your video represents its core idea, and users will decide whether the video is worth watching based on the title. Just as you put keywords in the titles of your written content, put keywords in the title of your video. Moreover, videos with keywords in the title rank better.
Don’t overhype the title: avoid clickbaiting, typing in all caps, and adding too many keywords. Test several title ideas to see what would you click on if you were a part of your target audience.
If your audience speaks different languages and you want YouTube to display the video in their native languages, you can translate the title and description.
Note: If you want your video ranked by Google, make sure the title does not exceed 60 characters — otherwise it may be cut off on SERPs.
Descriptions help viewers find your video and decide if they should watch it. Descriptions also help search algorithms understand the idea of your video. Aim to write a catchy, natural description with relevant keywords placed close to the beginning — remember that only the first three lines will be demonstrated on the YouTube SERPs.
Don’t forget to enrich your description with #hashtags. Hashtags are not keywords; they represent broader concepts and themes, e.g., if the title of your video is How to assemble an IKEA bookcase at home, your hashtags may include words like crafty, DIY, and decoration.
YouTube only displays the first three hashtags of your video above the title. However, you’re not limited to this number, and your video will appear in the search for all the other hashtags you put in the description.
The video from the screenshot above was found by the #DIYfurniture hashtag, which is at the end of the description.
A thumbnail is also displayed in YouTube SERPs and serves as an advertisement for your video. YouTube can automatically generate a range of thumbnail ideas from your video, but we highly recommend uploading a custom one. The Creator Academy research says that 90% of the best-performing YouTube videos have custom thumbnails, so it obviously pays off.
Note: The custom thumbnail option is only available if you have a verified YouTube account. Check YouTube verification instructions.
What makes a good thumbnail? First, stick to technical parameters of the image:
- 1280 x 720 pixels
- 16:9 ratio
- < 2 MB
- .jpg, .gif, .bmp, or .png format
Some other tips include:
- Feature a person if possible — this makes videos more approachable
- Make sure that the text doesn’t cover more than 30% of the image — this would keep the image informative but catchy
- Double-check the quality of the image — professionally-made photos and high-quality images raise credibility
The query for this video was home workout. This thumbnail caught my eye because it’s professional, features a person in good shape (a piece of motivation — “exercise, and you will be fit, too!”), and some clear text that says how long the workout will take and what you’ll need (no equipment).
Tags are not the same as hashtags — tags are put in a special tag section and should contain your keywords. YouTube guidelines say that tags are helpful if your keywords are often misspelled and that overusing them is against the YouTube spam policy. So, don’t overdo it: 10-12 tags is enough.
One way to find powerful tags is to do competitor research and see what tags are used by other successful videos. Note that tags are not visible to users, so you’ll need special plugins to extract them — VidIQ is a common choice.
Closed captions (CC) help search engines analyze the contents of your video and rank it better for related queries. YouTube can either generate closed captions automatically based on what it hears in your video, or you can submit your own to avoid mistakes. We suggest the latter option.
The added benefit of having closed captions is that Google can use them to generate quotes when featuring your video in search results. It can also use the text of closed captions to split your video into smaller segments that better match search queries. All in all, having closed captions makes your videos much more search-friendly.
Just like titles and descriptions, closed captions can be translated — consider this option if your audience is worldwide. Although YouTube can generate a machine translation, it is highly recommended to translate CC on your own to avoid mistakes due to cultural context.
To submit your CC, sign in to YouTube Studio > select Subtitles on the left menu > choose the video > click Add Language > click Add under subtitles. You can either upload CC as a file (click Upload file > choose between With timing or Without timing > choose a file of appropriate format > Save), sync them with the Auto-sync feature, or by hand.
Note: If you proceed with Auto-sync, make sure that the text you say is supported by the YouTube speech recognition technology, and the quality of the audio is high enough for AI to recognize the speech.
4. Avoid common timestamp mistakes
If your video consists of several parts that cover different aspects of a topic, consider adding timestamps. Timestamps divide the video into segments and let users skip boring or irrelevant chapters, which increases retention. As an additional benefit, timestamps let Google index the segments of your video if they match certain queries.
Say your video explains how to make a lemon cake, and it’s logically divided into segments: how to make pastry, how to make lemon curd for filling, how to make frosting, and how to decorate the cake. If you provide this video with timestamps, Google will be able to show the part about lemon curd to a person who searches for a lemon curd recipe. Now each chapter of your video is competing for its own search query.
Adding timestamps is fairly simple — just type them into the description of your video. Beware of these common, seemingly insignificant mistakes that will stop you from displaying timestamps properly:
- The first segment is missing. Your first timestamp should always start at 00:00. If nothing interesting happens at the beginning of the video, you can just name this segment Intro.
- You add fewer than three timestamps.
- Any segment is shorter than 10 seconds.
- Finally — and this happens way too often — the timestamps are added as a comment and not as a part of the description.
Note: Your timestamps will not display if you make any of the above mistakes!
Name the timestamps according to the content of each chapter and use the keywords you’d like these chapters to rank for.
5. Exploit the recommendation system
YouTube recommendations define 70% of what people watch on the platform. As a bonus, videos from the Recommended section have double the CTR of any Most Viewed, Top Rated, and Top Favorited video. That’s why your YouTube success greatly depends on whether the algorithm recommends your videos to viewers.
YouTube has released a detailed document describing how the recommendation algorithm works and how it determines whether two videos are similar. To keep it short, we’ll put the math aside and focus on the factors used when evaluating each video.
Note: There’s not much you can do to manipulate the recommendation system. But you can put some effort into your audience research and overall quality of your video to slightly improve the chances of being noticed by YouTube and recommended to as many users as possible.
Co-visitation is a metric that shows which videos are watched after a seed video (the video a user searches for and watches first) within a session (usually 24 hours), and how often. The videos watched in sequence after a seed video often end up being recommended.
How can you make your video co-visited?
One way is to provoke users’ engagement by linking from your video to other videos of yours or to popular videos from other channels.
Another way is to create playlists that contain popular videos from other channels in addition to those from your channel — users will watch them together and YouTube will begin associating your videos with popular ones.
Similarity is usually signaled with a matching set of keywords and tags, as well as a few other factors, like videos coming from the same channel or the same playlist.
Example: If you watch an official music video of Lady Gaga, YouTube will most probably recommend watching another official video of the same singer, some live performances, a couple of interviews, and some funny videos like Lady Gaga sings without autotune.
Search for your top competitors’ keywords and tags and add them to your videos. Don’t forget that this works in both directions, and your competitor may be recommended after your videos, same as you can be recommended after theirs.
Diversity is a factor that prevents YouTube algorithms from recommending videos that are too similar to the ones you’ve just watched.
Let’s get back to our Lady Gaga example. If you watch an official music video on the official Lady Gaga channel, YouTube will not recommend the same video from any different channel.
Users are unlikely to want the same information again, so make sure your video is not a blind copy of an already existing one. Moreover, YouTube is generally not impressed by plagiarism.
The trick here is that your video has to be popular to be recommended, yet still remain somewhat of an underdog. YouTube explains that between two similar videos it will choose a less popular one. The assumed logic here is that you are likely to discover popular videos on your own, so there is more value in recommending “rare finds”.
To become a “rare find”, consider making narrowly focused videos that serve a very specific search interest. Such videos face less competition from other creators and will usually attract very enthusiastic viewers.
For example, a specific video like top 10 biceps mistakes to avoid is more likely to get views than a generic video like 10 mistakes you make in the gym, simply because a more generic topic is likely to have much higher competition from popular channels.
Recommendations are tailored individually to each user depending on their history and their search journey within each topic. That’s why your video may get into the most unexpected recommendation sets and why it is impossible to predict all of the video topics your target audience can watch.
This system is very similar to the one used in Google Discover — it explores your search history and tries to guess what video you are likely to watch next. Say you’ve been watching lots of bicycle-related videos: How to choose a bike? Gravel vs. road bikes. Best gravel bikes. By this point, YouTube knows that you’ve gone from wanting a bike to wanting a gravel bike, so it will recommend videos about new gravel bike models and gravel bike builds. YouTube is not going back to any other types of bikes because it knows what piques your interest.
Consider making a series of videos to cover different angles of a topic. This will help you target the users on any stage of their learning journey, thus your videos will become relevant for a wider range of viewers.
You can also influence users’ watching histories by encouraging them to watch more videos from your channel — add CTA at the end of your videos. Ask viewers to subscribe, and suggest watching other videos from your channel by adding cards (up to five per video). Cards hide under the i icon in the right upper corner of your video, and are used to promote videos, playlists, channels, or websites:
Make good use of these YouTube SEO tips
Here you have it — five steps to leverage YouTube SEO to get more views for your videos.
YouTube SEO doesn’t differ much from any other SEO related to content: you choose a hot topic, find prospective keywords, see what your competitors do, and do your best in terms of quality and optimization.
Finally, check out AppSumo deals to boost your SEO!