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YouTube SEO Tips: How to Rank #1 on YouTube

By August 15, 2018June 17th, 2022No Comments

Every minute 400 hours of video content are uploaded to YouTube. So, how do you make your video or channel stand out to catch the eyes of more than 30 million active daily users? This question becomes even more important once you start monetizing your channel. But what can you do to rank your videos high on YouTube? The answer to that question is YouTube SEO and that’s the topic we’ll be discussing today. If you are looking for YouTube Channel SEO tips, I’ve covered those in a separate blog post.

What does YouTube SEO mean?

YouTube SEO is the practice of optimizing your videos and video metadata to rank high on YouTube. Similar to polishing your content for Google Search, search engine optimization (SEO) can also help your visibility on YouTube. The only difference is the approach.

How does SEO work on YouTube?

YouTube SEO starts before you step in front of the camera. It is important to know in advance what keyword you would like to rank for.

Learn more about Keyword Research for YouTube.

This keyword will provide the focus for your

  • video script,
  • thumbnail,
  • video file name,
  • title,
  • description,
  • tags, and
  • captions.

YouTube Ranking Factors

YouTube aims at delivering the most relevant and enjoyable videos. As such, when determining whether a video should get exposure, it looks at the following (among other things):

Views. There is sufficient evidence suggesting that the number of views is an important ranking factor, however, the quality of views (engagement) is yet even more important.

Watch time. It is an indicator of how much other viewers are enjoying this video.
Average view duration. This indicates how much of the video other viewers are watching and helps YouTube determine how “engaging” the video truly is.

Video length. The average length of a first page video is between 12-15 minutes, depending on search term. This makes sense, because YouTube cares highly about watch time. The longer the video, the higher the watch time (if average view duration is high also).

Likes / dislikes. This is an indicator of the likeability of the video. If the dislikes-to-likes ratio is high, the video’s exposure will likely be throttled. There is a strong correlation between likes and rankings.

Shares / Comments. This again is an indicator of “engagement” and perceived favourably by YouTube. There is a strong correlation between likes and rankings.

How many comments does the video receive and are they of positive or negative nature?

What has the viewer watched in the past? Is the current video related to those this viewer has enjoyed based on data of similar viewers.

How much time the viewer has spent watching similar videos in the past.

What does this viewer normally not watch and does this video fall within that category.

Is the video driving subscriptions?

Is this video HD optimized to perform well on bigger screens?

SEO your YouTube Metadata

If you’re new to YouTube SEO, “metadata” refers to information that you provide about your video. This includes your video title, description, tags, and annotations. The purpose of YouTube metadata is to help users find your video. Metadata is not only important for YouTube search, but also to increase your chances to appear where YouTube features related videos.

If you’d like to read more about how YouTube search, trending, etc. works, please see this related blog post for more information.

For more information on YouTube Keyword Research before you get started, please refer to this helpful YouTube Keyword Research Guide.

Video Title

Your video title, along with your video’s thumbnail, are the first impression your video makes on a potential viewer. Unlike in real life, you can change it if you don’t get it right the first time around.

Think of your video title as your “pick-up line.” Put a lot of thought into it and measure its success (click-through-rate).

YouTube has a 100-character limit for titles, though I would recommend keeping it under 60 to avoid truncation. The title also needs to include the most important keywords as early as possible while still sounding natural.

Best Practices for Video Titles

Keep your titles within 60 characters (including spaces) to avoid truncation on mobile, in playlists, and in search results.

Before you upload your video to YouTube, name your video file the same as your intended video title.
Include the focus keyword early on

Don’t use sensational titles as clickbait. They can hurt your retention rate and thus discoverability.
Avoid EXCESSIVE CAPITALIZATION and symbols in titles!!! They appear “spammy” and might hurt your click-through-rates.

Always comply with YouTube’s Community Guidelines.


Video Thumbnails

Even though thumbnails are not directly influencing rankings, because YouTube can’t read images, they affect the perception of your video and thus its click-through-rate, which does impact your rankings. If we pick our “dating” example from above again, your thumbnail would be the photo you upload to a dating platform. It needs to be eye-catching and represent your video in a positive light.

Best Practices for Thumbnails

Specs: 1280 x 720 pixels (16:9 ratio) and high resolution if possible, to ensure that your thumbnails don’t appear blurry on larger screen sizes.

Keep under the 2MB

Run a YouTube search for the keyword and determine if the thumbnail would stand out. Perform this test on multiple screen sizes (mobile, desktop, TV).

High contrast images where the foreground stands out from the background usually perform better.

Don’t use sensational thumbnails as clickbait. They can hurt your retention rate and thus discoverability.

Always comply with YouTube’s Community Guidelines.

Upload custom thumbnails with the video file.

Use visuals (colours, images, shapes, personalities) that are consistent with your brand.

If your thumbnail features a person, ensure that it includes a close-up of the face, rather than a body-shot of the individual, unless the latter is intentional.

Make sure that your thumbnail accurately represents the content to comply with YouTube’s Community Guidelines.


Video Descriptions

Video descriptions are often unter-utilized, yet they’re an important part of YouTube SEO. Use them to describe the video, provide links for additional information, and include important call-to-actions (CTAs). In the video description you can also provide a clickable table of contents if your video is long.

Do not use video descriptions for keyword-stuffing, though. This might get your video flagged and/or removed. If you include your focus keywords in the description (and you should), do so in a natural manner, rather than using a list of keywords in your video description.


Best Practices for Descriptions

Keep to 1-2 paragraphs (although a maximum 5,000 characters is allowed)

Start the description with the most important (keyword-rich) information in the first few lines because that’s what viewers will see first. Remember that viewers are more likely to click on a video if they see their search term appear (in the title and/or the description). The description is usually truncated after around 100 characters.

Use natural language that your audience uses.

Respect YouTube’s Community Guidelines.

Save a default description under Creator Studio >> Channel >> Upload Defaults for your channel. It will auto-populate in all videos during upload. This saves time and allows you to have information even if you ever forget to write a customized description.

Customize your video description and use the default description (see previous bullet point) to complement it.
When the video is long, consider including time stamps to make the sections skipable.

If there is a playlist that relates to this video, consider adding the video to it (or at the very least link to the playlist).
Always add http:// in front of a web addresses so they become clickable.

After the video has accrued some views, review YouTube Analytics to see what keywords users typed in to find this video. If the most important keyword (both in # of searches and in average view time) aren’t included in the title, description, and tags yet, consider adding them.

Use (shortened) tagged URLs when sending people to the website to see which video users were coming from when arriving on the homepage.

Consider using related hashtags (#) in the video descriptions for the younger, hashtag-loving audience. Hashtags also connect related videos for which you have used these hashtags, because users can click them and are then redirected to a search results page for that particular hashtag. Keep hashtags to a maximum of 10.

Each video needs a customized (keyword-rich) description that describes the video as accurately as possible. A default description is not a short-cut to writing a customized description for all videos, however, as those customized descriptions are needed for YouTube SEO.

Describe your channel and link to your channel page. This simply addition to your video subscription will increase your chances of gaining new subscribers. 

Consider providing links to related videos and playlists in your description to keep viewers on YouTube and increase Session Watch Time. 

If your video is very long consider providing a table of contents. This helps your viewers skip to and re-watch important sections.


Video Tags

You might already be familiar with tags from other platforms, such as WordPress, social media (# tags and @ tags), and even Photoshop allows you to add tags to make your content easier to find.

Tags are single words or short phrases that help categorize your video. It is not surprising that this applies to YouTube as well. The platform gives you a specific section where you can add your tags and please be advised that this section is the only location where you should include tags. Don’t stuff your title or description with tags or you might see your video getting flagged or removed.

Tags are still important and I recommend using them, however, their involvement in YouTube rankings seems quite low.


Best Practices for Video Tags

Don’t include more than 20 tags.

Include the most important keywords early on (in order of relevance)

Always include your brand name as a separate tag. This might help land your video in the suggested videos listing on the right hand side.

Be aware that copy-pasting tags into this section could result in the words being separated. For example, “YouTube SEO” could become “YouTube” and “SEO”, which is not the same tag-wise, as “YouTube SEO.”

Update catalogue videos’ tags when new search trends emerge. Need inspiration? Check out the tags that trending videos use.

Include keywords from your title.


Video Captions

Video captions are something you hardly hear about when people talk about YouTube SEO, however, they are important. Just like Google doesn’t rank your blog post solely based on your title, meta description and WordPress tags, neither does YouTube. There are dozens, if not hundreds of ranking factors, and just like with Google content and context is important.

When you upload a new video to YouTube, the platform auto-generates a video transcript for your video, which you can update in the video manager, along with the above metadata. This autogenerated transcript is like the content of your blog posts and does seem to play a role in YouTube SEO.


Positive Engagement is a YouTube SEO Factor

YouTube states that

[custom_blockquote style=”eg. green, yellow, purple, blue, red, black, grey”] Donec eget dignissim augue. Donec ante felis, aliquam ut consequat eget, lobortis dapibus risus. Aliquam laoreet enim et lectus ornare hendrerit. Aliquam rhoncus enim libero. Morbi aliquam, nibh mattis feugiat dapibus, nisi massa adipiscing justo, sit amet condimentum urna ipsum et lacus. [/custom_blockquote]

Various studies have confirmed that positive engagement metrics, such as likes, comments, shares, and new subscriptions correlate to rankings and must therefore be part of YouTube’s search and discovery algorithm and are hence an important part of YouTube SEO. This should come as no surprise as Google (who owns YouTube) also takes engagement metrics into account when deciding which gmail folder an email should end up in. Positive engagement seems to be very high on Google’s priority list reinforcing the company’s goal to always create a pleasant user experience.

The best way to learn the tricks of the trade is to observe what other creators are doing well, who have accomplished what you’d like to accomplish. How are they asking for likes, comments, subscriptions, etc. When do these call-to-actions appear and for how long? What are they followed and preceded by? What’s their magic sauce?


How to earn more comments on YouTube

Analyze which videos get you the most comments to find out what content is driving this favourable engagement. You can see this in your YouTube Analytics.

Encourage your viewers to post their questions in the comments section below. If you receive a significant amount of questions, you can then create a separate video to address them or use these insights as fuel for future videos. And who wouldn’t want their star to feature their question in a video?

Encourage your viewers to share their opinion in the comments section below to get a conversation started, either as “question of the day/week” or simply by firing a question at them in the video. When asking for opinion, be specific what you’re looking for. If you ask too broad a question or multiple questions in your video that you are looking to receive feedback on, you will create confusion and confusion doesn’t convert. For example: “How do you feel about … ? Let me know if the comments section below.”

Plus points, if you share this question with your viewers as a pinned comment. A comment that’s pinned to the top can’t be missed and it communicates to your viewership what expectations you have for them, such as what stories and opinions you’d like them to share.

I’d encourage you to try to respond to as many comments as possible, specifically within the first 48 hours of posting your video. Why? Because the first 48 hours are the most crucial. If your video doesn’t see any pick-up in the first 48 hours, the chances are slim that it will be a success.

Respond quickly. Viewers who see that a comment or question receives a quick response are more likely to leave a comment themselves.

Moderate comments and delete spammy comments immediately. Viewers are less likely to leave a comment when the comment feed is full of spam. To make your life easier, you can “hold potentially inappropriate comments for review.” It will still allow legitimate comments through, but those that contain spammy words or phrases will not be posted to your feed until you’ve approved them. This helps keep your feed relatively clean and saves you time for moderating legitimate comments and interacting with your fans.

Aim for a comment to view ratio of 0.5%.

Does your video content allow a “Question of the day” at the end? Try implementing it.

How to earn more likes on YouTube

Analyze which videos get you the most likes to find out what content is driving this favourable engagement. You can see this in your YouTube Analytics.

If you want your viewers to perform a specific actions, ask them at the end of the video. That’s true for likes as well. Clients sometimes tell me that they don’t want to upset their viewers by asking them to like the video or subscribe to the channel. I’m not recommending you to bully them into liking your video. But reminding them that they can take actions to reward you for this beautiful content you so thoughtfully put together isn’t a bad thing, is it? So just ask.

Have a “like” animation.

Aim for a likes-to-view ratio of 4%


How to earn more subscribers on YouTube

Analyze which videos get you the most subscribers to find out what content is driving this favourable engagement. You can see this in your YouTube Analytics. Take note of the video content, length, style, and retention spikes.

Ask viewers to subscribe at the beginning or the end of the video. I would personally recommend to place this call-to-action at the end of the video so they are already familiar with the content they can expect from your channel, but it has been working for some channels to ask for the “subscribe” at the beginning of the video. Run a little test with your audience and settle for what makes the most sense.

Give them a reason to subscribe. Merely asking them to hit that button is not going to get you many results unless you clearly indicate to them, what they’ll get in return. In other words: What’s your promise to your future subscriber and why would they miss out if they don’t subscribe?

Add a watermark to your videos. This little icon in the lower right bottom of your videos acts as subscribe button while visible.

Integrate your subscribe button at the end of the video. You can add these by customizing the end screen in the video manager when you upload or edit the video.

Add a “subscribe to my channel” call-to-action in your descriptions.

When you promote your channel, specifically to viewers who have seen content from you before, create a URL that auto-subscribes users to your channel, by adding the following to your channel’s URL: ?sub_confirmation=1 So, your channel’s URL will look something like this:
Aim for a subscribes-to-view ratio of 14%.

Let your viewers know what your upload schedule is, so they know when to come back to watch your newest creation. Don’t disappoint. If you say you always upload on Wednesdays at 9am, schedule your new content to go out at that time. 

Before you decide on an upload schedule, analyze what time your viewers are most likely to watch. 


How to earn more shares for your YouTube video

Ask your viewers to share your video toward the end of your video. Plus points for pointing to the share button in the lower right corner (viewer’s perspective). While you shoot the video you of course have to point to the lower left corner.

Create content that’s share-worthy. Not all content is worth sharing. Content that elicits an emotional response and highly practical content are best.


Watch Time

According to YouTube, “The longer you can keep people watching on YouTube because of your content, the more your content may get surfaced.” In other words: Watchtime is key. It is so important in fact, that creators who wish to become a YouTube Partner and monetize their channel need to accumulate 4,000 watch hours over a 12 month period, in addition to meeting the 1,000 subscribers threshold.

Watch Time is the total amount of accumulated time (minutes and hours) that people have spent watching your video since its publication.

What’s important to note is that watch time during the first 48 hours of your video is crucial. It is a reflection of your video content. If your video accumulates a lot of watch time during those critical hours, your video will receive more exposure. This is why video optimization at upload is so important, rather than optimizing your YouTube SEO at some other time after video upload.

How to Increase Watch Time for Your YouTube Videos

SEO your YouTube video upon upload. Make sure to spend the time needed to give it your best. Need some guidance? Download this checklist.

Create longer videos. Longer videos (10+ minutes) tend to accumulate more watch time hours so it is no surprise that they outperform shorter videos in rankings. Let’s assume that you have 1,000 people watch your video. A 50% audience retention on a 3 minute video would clock in 90,000 watch time minutes (1,500 watch time hours), while a 50% audience retention on a 10 minute video would record 300,000 watch time minutes (5,000 watch time hours). However, don’t just shoot a longer video for the sake of shooting a longer video. The content needs to entice viewers to stick around.

Study your past video’s Audience Retention to know what makes people leave your video or what makes them rewatch a sequence. Armed with this knowledge you can create highly engaging videos that keep them watching until the end. Audience retention is very important for accumulating watch time hours.

Check your YouTube Analytics and make note of what videos have accumulated the most watch time hours, as this is a good indication of what content really resonates with your audience. What do these videos have in common in terms of video content, length, titles, thumbnails, style, viewership, visuals, etc.?

In the first 15 seconds of your video, give viewers sufficient reasons why they should watch the video until the end.
Don’t just “wing it”. Videos that are following a clear structure and a script very often perform well, because proper planning reduces the chance of “rambling on.”

If you’re creating a longer video, make sure to mix things up to avoid boredom. Simply adopting a different camera angle or showing a visual can make all the difference.

Focus on acquiring (quality) subscribers. Subscribers are the fans that will cheer you on and watch your videos. Promoting each video from scratch is much harder than informing your existing subscribers that you’ve uploaded another video for them to watch.

Include a call-to-action (CTA) in your videos and channel trailer to enable notifications. E.g. “tab the “bell” icon next to the subscribe button” so you won’t miss out!”  With notifications enabled, the viewer will be notified whenever you post new content. This helps make them come back to your channel to watch your newest content and if you’re lucky, the notification initiates a new YouTube session. What that means we’ll be discussing in the next section below.

Promote, promote, promote. Your video content can be promoted off YouTube as well. You can embed your videos in your website, share it on other social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even via email.


Session Watch Time

Similarly to Google Analytics sessions for websites, a YouTube session starts when someone arrives on YouTube and ends when the viewer leaves YouTube.

As you might be have guessed already, YouTube regards videos who start a session higher than videos who end sessions. YouTube loves videos that increase session watch time, because more time spent on YouTube means more ad revenue for YouTube. As a result, videos and channels that result in high session watch times get a boost in visibility on the platform.


How to Increase Session Watch Time for Your YouTube Videos

The best way to increase session watch time is creating interesting playlists. In your playlist you can feature your own videos and videos of other creators. The great thing about playlists is that they are like tracks on a CD. Each video in the list plays after the previous one is finished until you reach the end of that playlist. If there is sufficient interesting content about the content you’re creating, aim for a longer playlist, rather than making a playlist with only a handful of videos.

Create an end screen. End screens are a fantastic way to introduce more video content to your viewer in the last 5-20 seconds of your video and ask them to subscribe to your channel. If you are already a YouTube Partner and you’re using your end screen to link to your website, for example, be aware that if your viewer is indeed clicking on your website link, their YouTube session ends.

Use cards. Throughout the video you also have the option to share information (depicted with the i icon in the top right corner) with your viewer. This is a fantastic way to promote another one of your videos or a related playlist. Be careful, however, not to take viewers away from a video too soon.


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