YouTube is one of the Internet’s largest platforms. It’s also an interesting hybrid platform – YouTube is simultaneously one of the Internet’s largest social networks, one of the Internet’s largest search engines (by queries processed), and the largest video hosting platform.
YouTube’s hybrid nature provides versatility but it also creates some confusion around best practices, getting started, and optimizing your channel for discovery, engagement and business goals.
I’ve been able to do work on client channels, my own successful hobby channels and I’m working on a YouTube strategy for the new ShivarWeb channel. Here’s my guide to YouTube optimization – for your videos and channel based on my experience and curation of the best YouTube resources on the Internet. First I’ll cover goals, concepts & benchmarks. Then I’ll tackle all the nitty-gritty details.
Goals, Concepts & Benchmarks
Like any marketing strategy, you have to start with defining your goals and your audience. Before you optimize anything, you have to think about who you are optimizing for and what you need to justify your time and money.
What are you trying to do? Sell ads based on pageviews? Build awareness for your product? Build an audience for your brand on YouTube? Complement your marketing strategy on your website? Complement sales & support?
If you are business trying to drive sales, keep in mind that YouTube typically makes a poor direct response platform. Read Phil Nottingham’s excellent Business KPIs for YouTube. Whatever you decide your YouTube goals are – you’ll need to define what they are and how you’ll measure them. Also check out my guide to YouTube Analytics here.
Once you figure out what your goals are, decide who you want to reach. Think about what they are typically doing online. Think about how they might research whatever they are trying to solve.
What is your target viewer looking for? Entertainment? Something to share? A how-to guide? If you are trying to build a YouTube audience – what type of content would you ideally have?
If you are looking for best practices on the types of content to create, YouTube’s Brand playbook has a great exploration of “hygiene” (everyday) content, “hub” (occasional), and “hero” (infrequent standout) content.
YouTube traffic sources are as diverse, if not more diverse, than traffic to your own website. Many new channel owners look for the opportunity to get traffic from Google and YouTube Search. They focus exclusively on search engine optimization (SEO) for YouTube.
But that’s not the only opportunity. For my most successful channel, most traffic comes from YouTube Related videos and website embeds. Engagement, relevance and relationships drive those traffic sources.
It’s important to remember that YouTube optimization has several feedback loops going on at the same time. Your goal should be to focus on the highest impact piece of optimization to get the highest impact feedback loop rolling.
That said, in addition to understanding YouTube traffic sources, you have to understand the concept of engagement. On the YouTube platform, engagement has been the primary factor for YouTube Search and YouTube Related videos since 2012.
YouTube wants to keep viewers on YouTube. That means much of your optimization has to be aligned with YouTube’s goals. You have to focus on helping people find relevant videos, watch those videos for longer and then click to find more videos.
That means that you have to think of optimization as more than just having the right title. You have to plan and produce videos that are in line with what people are looking for. Your scripts and production has to encourage continuous watching. And your content has to encourage viewers to watch even more videos.
For example, since Watch Time is a primary (if not the) factor for measuring engagement, some channels have optimized just for that factor and built huge followings on YouTube. The top channel on YouTube – PewDiePie – used Watch Time almost exclusively to go from just another gaming channel to the biggest channel on YouTube.
Keep your ideas, production and tactics focused on YouTube’s goals and many pieces of your feedback loop will fall into place, which you can then bend to meet your own business goals.
Paid media specialists and SEO specialists use benchmarking and competitive analysis to improve campaigns. Pre-qualifying content and reverse engineering competitors ideas are essential parts of any successful content strategy.
But before developing a strategy and optimizing your videos and channel – learn from your competitors.
What are they doing on their channel? What playlists are they using? What channels do they feature? How do they write their descriptions? What keywords are they using? What kind of like ratios do they get? What are their average views? What related videos play after their videos? What are they doing well? What are they doing poorly?
Now that you have some goals, concepts and benchmarks in mind, let’s look at specific items on your channel and videos that you can work on.
Optimizing Your Channel
Setting up your channel is not essential to have videos – but it is important for a long-term strategy to build an audience. Your channel page is analogous to your website homepage.
Like your website, although most visitors will not enter through the homepage, it is where they will go to find out exactly who you are. And it’s where returning visitors will go to learn more and subscribe.
If you are a Google account holder, you can set up a channel at YouTube.com/account → Overview.
Nearly everything about your channel can be edited either directly on the homepage by hovering or under your Dashboard → Channel.
Here’s an overview of where to edit your channel features –
Channel Name is straightforward, but also consider including your topic if your brand is not self-explanatory.
Channel Header has specific design requirements. Make sure you follow YouTube’s Channel Art recommendations – and you’ll also want an uncluttered design that looks good on any device.
Channel Icon should be set to match your other branding. Follow YouTube’s recommendations to make sure it works well across devices.
Channel Links should be set to your website and relevant social profiles.
Channel Navigation should be set to customize the sections on your channel page. Once that’s enabled, refresh your channel page, and look at the new layouts that you can customize.
Channel Sections should be experimented with as you add new content. Remember that you are trying to drive watch time and retention for returning visitors and subscriptions for new visitors.
Channel Trailer should be short, simple video pitch about your channel.
Channel Description is under About. It can be up to 1000 characters.
To make Channel Settings changes, navigate to your Dashboard → Channel → Advanced
Here you can change your Channel Name. You should also look at these to make sure YouTube understands your channel.
Channel Keywords should be broad keywords that describe your channel. Based on my testing, the limit is 100 characters, including spaces. Use YouTube Suggest and Keyword Planner to estimate the broadest, most accurate target keywords that you can go after. Remember that you can spy on your competitors’ channel keyword by going to their homepage, and View Source and looking for the meta keywords field.
Linking your channel to a website benefits both your website and your channel. Adding your Google Analytics UA code allows you to pull Channel-level (not video level) data directly into Google Analytics. Be sure to separate the traffic to not skew your website data. For video level data, you’ll need to use YouTube Analytics.
Under Branding, be sure to set a watermark. If you have a high-quality video, set it as the Channel Ad under Featured Content.
Optimizing Your Videos
Although your channel is important, optimizing your videos are the primary opportunity and goal on YouTube. Here’s are the items that you can edit within YouTube to increase visibility and engagement.
But remember, no trick or tactic that you make on YouTube can overcome poor production or poor content. Before you upload and “optimize” your videos – they need to be optimized before and during production so that they are engaging in and of themselves.
Meta Data is the information that you provide about the video. A video’s meta data helps YouTube index and understand your video’s content for search and suggested videos. In aggregate, meta data is the primary factor in how YouTube determines your video’s relevance.
Once you optimize your video’s meta data, it should achieve a feedback loop –
- It will bring in more search traffic since YouTube will be able to match your video with relevant search queries
- It will increase your overall click-through rate since users will be more likely to judge your video’s relevance
The increased click-throughs and views will increase engagement, which will increase both rankings in search and will make your videos appear in Related videos.
On YouTube, meta data is composed of your video’s Title, Description and Tags.
Aside – before you start optimizing your meta data, be sure you have a general understanding of what keywords you want to target on YouTube. Check out this guide for more information there. The easiest method is to use YouTube Suggest (or scale out that research with KeywordTool.io), complement it with Google AdWords Keyword Planner, and bring that together with looking at the types of videos that show up with your search.
You video title is, well, your title. Writing an effective title is an art.
- align with searcher’s intent – if people searching for “safety razors” are trying to find videos on how to use safety razors, then your title should reflect that.
- make it clickable – it has to make sense for humans so don’t keyword stuff; remember that your title is also used in Related results and on other social networking platforms.
- make it clear; lead with keywords, not brand – emphasize what viewers want to see, not what you want them to see.
- go for detail and descriptiveness – “clickbait” or cryptic headlines can hurt both your search visibility and your engagement by bringing in viewers who immediately click away.
Like titles, descriptions have to serve a balance. They need to help provide context for YouTube, but it also needs to serve the humans who are reading it – which means providing links and a concise overview.
Focus on the first few sentences for similar effect to meta descriptions. Write them like an ad to entice the click. Don’t lead users off-site because that will affect that core metric: watch time.
According to YouTube, your description should –
- accurately describe the video in one or two sentences
- describe your channel and link to the channel page – this should include a “recurring keyword tagline with several search driven keywords”
- drive viewers to subscribe (or other CTA)
- link to other related episodes
- use all your 5000 characters (~1000 words)
- use a template in your upload defaults that will allow you to quickly edit for each video
Additionally, your description keyword focus should align with the title and tags. It should provide a broader overview of the video (enough for someone to understand the gist of the video without actually watching it).
Tags are keywords that YouTube uses to understand your videos’ relevance and context. They are otherwise known as your videos’ keywords. As a technical note they are actually used in the meta keywords field (something that is now irrelevant across the rest of the Internet). And like Channel Keywords, you can look at them with View Source and/or scrape them with a video’s URL.
Your tagging should be like a 3 level pyramid – use a set of broad keywords that applies to every video on your channel (including your channel); use a set of more focused keywords that apply to that video’s category or playlist; use a set of keywords that applies to that video alone.
For example, if you are uploading a DIY tutorial video, you might have: Flapper Replacement, Flapper Valve, Leaking Toilet, Toilet, Plumbing, DIY, Home Improvement. Note how those go from specific to broad.
Together you’ll have a “theme” where you can discern pretty much exactly what the video is about from the keywords alone; enter them from video to channel specific; don’t go above the 120 character limit.
Other Tag Tips –
- include a mix of recommended general tags and specific tags that you create
- leverage keyword research (see this guide) to capture the widest relevant “footprint” of search queries
- keep an eye on YouTube Analytics to bring more keywords into the fold – and revise older videos
Thumbnails are the static image that shows up across YouTube in search and related. Optimized thumbnails matter for one reason – higher click-through rate.
When a potential viewers sees a list of videos, your thumbnail should help grab their attention and get that click. A higher clickthrough rate increases not only views, but also engagement, which, again, feeds back into ranking factors.
The critical question about thumbnails is defining exactly what grabs your viewers’ attention. There is no correct answer and no best practice. But here’s a few general pointers.
- Thumbnails that work in Gaming will not work for Beauty – and vice versa across all niches. Look at your niche for what’s typical.
- When you start your channel, look for points in your video that could serve as a good static image.
- Use tools like Canva that have thumbnail templates built-in so that you aren’t spending lots of time on something that you’re not sure will work well.
- Make sure it’s in 16:9 aspect ratio and make sure it scales well depending on device.
- Test different formats and watch YouTube Analytics to see what works best.
Transcriptions & Captioning
YouTube has the ability to “listen” to your videos to understand what it’s about. However, if you have ever turned on automatic closed captions – you’ll see that YouTube’s automatic transcription is not that good.
If you have invested significant resources in a video, look into uploading a custom transcription to YouTube. You can outsource transcription to a service like SpeechPad or just use YouTube’s manual transcription tools to type along with your video.
Either way, a custom (accurate) transcription will do 3 things –
- help YouTube understand your video more, and hopefully rank it better than competitors that it doesn’t understand as well.
- make your video more accessible to viewers who need closed captioning.
- make your video more accessible to international viewers, since an accurate transcription will lead to more accurate language translation.
Annotations are like hyperlinks within your video – they provide calls to action, more engagement and context. If you have an associated website, they can drive clicks to your website.
Best practices for annotations include using them for –
- Calls to action – ie, subscribe or watch the next video
- Clarifications – ie, post upload content corrections
- Context – ie, linking to a related video or playlist
Annotations are also the kind of thing that seem awesome as a producer, but are often horrible for viewers. When you are optimizing your videos, you must look at YouTube Analytics to determine effectiveness.
YouTube offers a few other tips to make sure annotations are useful and not annoying –
- Avoid annotations along the very top of the frame – this is where your title will show if embedded.
- Don’t obstruct the actual content.
- Don’t bombard the viewer. This can feel “spammy.”
- When appropriate, set annotations to open a new window when clicked. But be careful! Don’t take viewers away from a video too soon or your Watch Time will suffer.
- Annotations at the end of a video should open in the same window (to keep that Watch Time running!)
It’s also important to remember that annotations don’t work on mobile. To provide a more uniform experience across devices – YouTube has introduced “Cards.”
These provide similar functionality, but are arguably classier and simply better for calls to action. Explore using Cards for call to action and keep annotations for clarifications and context.
For after video calls to action – also look into YouTube’s formerly known “InVideo Programming” which includes watermarking your video (Dashboard → Channel → Branding) and running a Featured Video or Playlist across all your videos (Dashboard → Channel → Featured Content).
Playlists are the primary way to organize your videos on YouTube. Playlists also form a core part of your channel and video optimization. Playlists serve three primary roles for optimizing your YouTube presence.
First, playlists allow you to organize your videos to autoplay together, which drives views, watch time and engagement for all the videos in the playlist.
Second, playlists also help YouTube understand relevance among various videos and helps YouTube make smarter decisions for Related videos.
Third, playlists can rank and gain visibility on their own. You can think of them like category pages on your website. Use them to “target” specific search terms with your playlist title and description to rank in both Google, YouTube Search and YouTube Related.
Use playlists when you have a series of videos that are meant to be watched in order, or when you have a set of videos that forms a broader theme.
When setting up the playlist, be sure to write a compelling, detailed and descriptive playlist description and title. If you have a series of videos, look at using the “series playlists options” to define the official playlist for a set of videos.
Playlists are also an excellent way to move from optimizing your own channel to promoting your channel. Including videos from complementary channels can be first step to building relationships on YouTube (similar to guest posting or linking out strategies when promoting a website).
That is all the optimization features that YouTube offers on their platform. But remember that optimization goes beyond using a tool or tactic. It starts with figuring out what you want to do and who you want to help.