Video SEO: 10 Steps to Optimizing Videos for Search and Discovery

Video SEO has changed dramatically over the years.

If you’re still following the advice that a video optimization expert shared at an industry conference back in 2008 – or that some YouTube guru wrote in 2015 – you may be getting used to disappointing video performance.

Today, YouTube’s algorithm tries to match each viewer to the videos he or she is most likely to watch and enjoy.

With more than 500 hours of video content uploaded every minute, this is quite a challenge.

In this post, you’ll learn how YouTube’s algorithm works and find actionable advice on video SEO best practices in order to give you a step-by-step guide to optimizing your videos.

How Does YouTube’s Search Algorithm Work, Anyway?

YouTube’s search and discovery systems tackle this Herculean task by sorting through loads of videos to find the most relevant and useful results to a user’s search query.

YouTube’s algorithm then “follows the audience” by paying attention to things like:

  • What they watch.
  • What they don’t watch.
  • How much time they spend watching.
  • Their likes and dislikes.
  • “Not interested” feedback.

Stop using the tips, tools, and tricks that you learned way back when and get current in your understanding of how YouTube’s search and discovery system works now.

You can start by reading Matt Southern’s post, “20 Confirmed Facts About YouTube’s Algorithm.”

Then, dig into the process below to optimize your own videos.

1. YouTube Search

Like Google’s search engine, search on YouTube strives to surface the most relevant results according to keyword queries.

Videos are ranked based on a variety of factors including how well the title, description, and video content match the viewer’s query.

Beyond that, YouTube looks at which videos have received the most watch time and engagement for a particular query.

In other words, YouTube Search results are not a list of the most-viewed videos for a given query.

Want to know which keywords and search terms to target for video SEO?

Well, YouTube introduced a keyword tool in November 2008 but disabled it in September 2014. So you’ll want to check out 10 Best YouTube Keyword Tool Alternatives to see which tools are worth using today.

Tools can give you lots of options but you need to select just a small subset of them for your newest video.

And your selection not only needs to help your target audience find the videos they want to watch but also maximize their long-term engagement and satisfaction.

2. Suggested Videos

Suggested Videos are a personalized collection of videos that an individual viewer may be interested in watching next, based on his or her prior activity.

These videos are shown to viewers on the right side of the watch page under Up next, below the video on the mobile app, and as the next video in autoplay.

Studies by YouTube have found viewers tend to watch more videos when they see recommendations from a variety of channels, so that’s what Suggested Videos do. Recommendations are ranked to maximize engagement for the viewer.

Signals that contribute to these recommendations include:

  • Videos that viewers watch along with the current video, or videos that are topically related. These could be videos from the same channel, or from a different channel.
  • Videos from a viewer’s past watch history.

You can see which videos bring viewers to your channel from Suggested Videos in the Traffic sources report in YouTube Analytics by clicking on the Suggested videos box.

Here are some tips for optimizing your videos for Suggested Videos:

  • Make strong calls to action to encourage viewers to watch another video in your series.
  • Long endings may delay viewers from watching more, so be mindful of how your videos end.
  • Use playlists, links, cards, and end screens to suggest the next video to watch.
  • Develop a series of videos that are organically connected.
  • Make videos related to popular formats on YouTube such as challenges or lists.

Finally, expect Google to roll out Related Topics for Videos on YouTube fairly soon.

Elizabeth Reid, a vice president at Google, just gave a demo of this feature at Search On ’21 and said:

“With this new feature, you’ll see a list of topics in the video. And since we’re applying MUM, we can identify what’s referenced in the video, even if it’s not explicitly mentioned by name.”

Search On ’21 in under 7 minutes, Google, September 2021

3. Titles and Thumbnails

Titles and thumbnails are usually the first things viewers see when browsing on YouTube.

They work together to help viewers decide to watch your videos and build anticipation – if they accurately represent what’s in your video.

If viewers click into your video and stay to watch most or all the way through, this lets YouTube know that the viewer is enjoying your content.

However, if your titles and thumbnails don’t deliver on their promise of what’s in the video, then viewers tend to leave almost immediately. This can limit your discoverability on YouTube.

The longer you can keep people watching on YouTube because of your content, the more your content may get surfaced.

Here are some tips for optimizing your titles:

  • Write titles that spark curiosity, but also include keywords.
  • Keep titles concise (60 characters) with the most important information upfront.
  • Save episode numbers and branding towards the end.
  • Check that your titles don’t get cut off in suggested videos, search results, and mobile.

Thumbnails are usually the first thing viewers see when they find one of your videos, and 90% of the best-performing videos on YouTube have custom thumbnails.

When you customize your thumbnails, be sure you’ve got a strong, vibrant image that looks great large and small, and conveys key information about your video.

You can apply the “rule of thirds” to compose interesting and dynamic images, then overlay them with your branding and/or descriptive text.

If you add text, make sure to use a font that’s easy to read onscreen. Also, think about how you can be eye-catching and age-appropriate for your audience.

Here are some tips for optimizing your thumbnails:

  • Think about your thumbnail before you shoot so you can capture several options.
  • Make as high a resolution of a thumbnail as possible but keep under the 2MB limit.
  • Specs: 1280 x 720 pixels (16:9 ratio) as a .JPG, .GIF, .BMP, or .PNG.
  • Zoom in and out of your thumbnail to see if it looks good small and large.
  • See if your thumbnail would stand out among other thumbnails.

4. Descriptions and Hashtags

The description field is incredibly useful for helping viewers find, learn about, and decide if they’d like to watch your videos.

You can think about the description as two parts – what viewers see before they click Show more and what they see after.

Here are some tips for optimizing your descriptions:

  • Be sure each video has a unique description – this makes it easier to find through search and helps it stand out from similar videos.
  • Use the first few lines of text to explain what the video is about using search-friendly keywords and natural language.
  • Use the rest of the text (what shows up once they click Show more) for 300 to 2,100 characters of extra information like what your channel’s about, social links, etc.

In YouTube Overhauls Search Results, Southern reports that YouTube has changed the visual presentation of its SERPs.

For example, viewers can preview each video and see chapters – time-stamped images that detail the different topics covered in a video, which let viewers jump directly to the section most relevant to their search.

Even though this isn’t a change to the algorithm, it is a game-changer.

So how do you optimize for chapters? Well, you can add timestamps in your descriptions to help viewers skip to important parts of longer videos.

As Southern points out in another article, YouTube has also launched a new type of search results page that appears when users look for videos by hashtag.

Use related hashtags (#) in your video’s title and description to help viewers find your video when they search for a specific topic on YouTube, on either the desktop or mobile app.

Here are some tips for optimizing your hashtags:

  • Ensure that you only use hashtags related to your video. For example, if you upload a review of a specific movie do not add hashtags related to different or unrelated popular movies, actors, or unrelated topics to falsely increase views.
  • A little goes a long way – don’t saturate your description section with hashtags. YouTube will ignore all hashtags on a video if it has more than 15 hashtags.
  • Hashtags are especially great to use with trending content, such as upcoming events or people in the news. This ensures that viewers looking for videos about the trending topic will find a variety of relevant content.

What about regular tags? Well, once upon a time, tags were more important than descriptions. But these days, regular tags are not important.

They are primarily used to help correct for common spelling mistakes (for example YouTube vs. U Tube vs. You-tube).

5. Home

Home is what viewers see first when they visit or open the YouTube app.

It’s their “personal primetime” destination; a place where he or she can discover the most relevant, personalized recommendations.

It’s also a great place for your videos to be found by non-subscribers.

Over 200 million different videos appear on Home each day for viewers around the world.

When a viewer visits Home, YouTube displays videos from their subscriptions, videos watched by similar viewers, and new videos.

The selection of videos is based on:

  • Performance: How well the video has engaged and satisfied similar viewers, among other factors.
  • The viewer’s watch and search history: How often the viewer watches a channel or topic and how many times YouTube has already shown each video to the viewer.

It’s worth noting that subscribers watch more from their subscriptions via Home than through the Subscriptions tab.

Here are some tips for optimizing your videos for YouTube’s Home Screen:

  • Upload new videos on a consistent basis to give your audience an expectation of when they can see more new content.
  • Keep viewers engaged for longer and encourage them to come back for more. Whether it’s with a long video or several short ones, the longer you keep people watching, the more your content is likely to get surfaced.
  • Keep doing what works. When you create something that’s working for your audience, do it again. YouTube surfaces more content that your viewers like. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but do so mindfully. Observe feedback from your audience and give them time to adjust.
  • See how often your channel appears on Home, globally, by going to your YouTube Analytics Traffic Sources report, clicking the Browse features box, and looking at the stats for Home.

6. Shorts

As I explained in YouTube Shorts: An Introductory Guide, viewers may find your Shorts by tapping Shorts at the bottom of the YouTube app.

This is one of the benefits of creating short-form videos that are up to 60 seconds long.

Viewers may also find Shorts:

  • On the YouTube homepage.
  • In their notifications.
  • By checking their Subscriptions.
  • Featured on your channel page, so learn how to customize your channel layout.

Once they tap into a Short, viewers can scroll to watch more short videos.

You should also include #Shorts in your short video’s title or description to help YouTube’s system recommend your Shorts across YouTube.

Since Shorts are short, how does this impact a video’s watch time and engagement?

Well, YouTube’s discovery system uses absolute and relative watch time as signals when deciding audience engagement and they encourage creators to do the same.

Ultimately, YouTube wants both short and long videos to succeed, so they encourage you to make your videos the appropriate length depending on the content.

Broadly speaking, relative watch time is more important for short videos and absolute watch time is more important for longer videos.

You can use the audience retention report in YouTube Analytics to understand how long your viewers are willing to watch and adjust your content accordingly.

It’s worth knowing that views of Shorts are counted the same as regular videos. Plus, subscribers gained from watching your Shorts count toward Creator Awards Program milestones.

Here are some other short-form best practices that can help:

  • Focus on making the first few seconds captivating to grab viewers’ attention and keep your content snappy.
  • Remember that Shorts loop, so pace your content accordingly and think of ways you can encourage replayability.
  • Try making your content relevant by incorporating a trending moment, event, or song.
  • Make Shorts relatable by using your authentic voice or showing a behind-the-scenes moment.
  • Make your Short rewarding by making content that educates, entertains, or leaves your viewers feeling good.
  • You can post Shorts on your main channel or start a second channel or keep your Shorts in a Shorts section on your channel homepage, which makes it easier for your viewers to distinguish between Shorts and your regular long-form videos.

7. Cards and End Screens

Cards and end screens encourage your viewers to take an action.

Cards are preformatted notifications that you can set up to promote your brand and other videos on your channel.

Once they’re set up, a small rectangular box, or teaser, will appear in the top right corner of the video to give your viewers a preview of the message.

If fans tap or click the teaser, the card associated with the video appears below the player on mobile devices in portrait mode (or along the right side of your video on desktops). If fans don’t tap or click the teaser, it disappears from their view.

Cards work well when they are placed in conjunction with scripted calls to action or when they are relevant to your video content.

For example, if you mention a specific video or a piece of merchandise, then you could try adding a card at that exact moment.

Here are some tips for optimizing your cards:

  • Use cards and scripted calls to action to link to other videos, playlists, associated websites, or to prompt your audience to buy merchandise or support your crowdfunding campaign.
  • Use cards in older videos to highlight your most recent uploads, or to promote merchandise or fundraising campaigns.
  • Use up to five cards per video.
  • Use cards to cross-promote other creators, and credit collaborators in your video.

End screens are also a powerful tool that can help extend watch time on your channel by directing viewers to something next at the end of your videos.

You can add them to the last 5-20 seconds of a video and they appear on both desktop and mobile.

Here are some tips for optimizing end screens:

  • Use end screens to promote up to four different elements: a video or playlist, encourage viewers to subscribe, cross-promote another channel and link to approved websites.
  • Consider leaving space at the end of your video for your end screen elements to sit.
  • Don’t use card teasers and branding watermarks during an end screen because both are suppressed.

8. Likes and Dislikes

Do likes and dislikes impact how your video is recommended? Somewhat.

Likes and dislikes are among the hundreds of signals that YouTube considers for ranking. Their recommendation system learns from whether or not viewers are choosing to watch a video.

The system learns how much of the video the viewer watches and if they’re satisfied. Your overall video performance is decided by a combination of these factors.

See YouTube Introduces ‘Typical Audience Retention’ Data to learn about how YouTube Analytics now reports key moments in audience retention. This can help you understand what’s working and what’s not.

You can see for yourself why many YouTube creators ask viewers to Like their video. They also ask viewers to post comments, share the video on their social networks, and subscribe to their channel.

All of these are forms of viewer engagement and satisfaction – they are all signals that YouTube considers for ranking.

9. “New to You” and Explore Feeds

YouTube makes a point of noting that the New to You feed is different from the Explore feed.

YouTube users were reportedly voicing complaints that their Home feeds were getting stale with the same types of recommendations.

So, YouTube added New to You to the mobile homepage. This allows users to explore beyond their typical recommendations and browse different types of videos that are related to their interests.

The question is, how do you optimize videos for the New to You Feed? Well, do your homework.

Start by reading How YouTube Recommends Videos.

Then, conduct some keyword research.

And finally, use your brain.

You can help this process along by going for a long walk, taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret.

As for the Explore feed, it helps viewers on YouTube discover content that is trending worldwide. It also helps viewers discover content in specific verticals like Music, Movies & Shows, Live, Gaming, News, Sports, Learning, as well as Fashion & Beauty.

Explore isn’t necessarily personalized to individual users, and the recommendations don’t take users’ interests into account.

How do you optimize videos for the Explore feed, then? Start by checking out which videos are trending or popular – especially in your vertical.

Then, quickly create a new video of your own that can be discovered in Suggested Videos after viewers watch what’s trending or popular.

This could help you to reach new fans who might not yet know about your channel yet.

10. Uploads and Playlists

Finally, a regular publishing schedule can draw viewers back to your channel to watch more.

You can then use playlists to help them easily find more of what they like on your channel.

To stay on top of viewers’ minds, many creators have found that setting a routine publishing schedule will help viewers know when to expect your next release – it’s like anticipating when the next episode of your favorite show is coming on next.

Subscribers can find your new uploads in their Subscriptions feed and can opt-in to mobile or email notifications based on their interests.

Here are some tips for optimizing your upload schedule:

  • Aim to publish at set intervals (such as weekly) and on certain days (for example, every Tuesday). Your publishing frequency may depend on your staffing and content.
  • Stay flexible enough to respond to search trends or timely topics. For instance, you can supplement your regular programming if there’s breaking news.
  • Try spacing out videos (instead of publishing several at once). You can upload videos and then schedule the date, time, and time zone you want them published.
  • Let your viewers know when you plan to release new videos. You can let them know in your videos, video descriptions, channel trailer, and About section, for example.

In addition, use playlists to provide a lean-back experience for your viewers to easily watch more.

A playlist is an ordered list of videos that you create, often with a specific theme. Your playlists may appear in search results and in suggested videos.

Playlists can help you introduce your fans to more content that they love while showcasing your channel’s creativity and personality.

You can include videos from your own channel and from other channels you admire.

Great playlists can keep viewers watching longer. Some creators make playlists around big events. Or they assemble “best-of” playlists so it’s easy for viewers to find the most popular videos.

Stay On Top of Video Optimization Developments

Let me finish where I began: Video SEO has changed dramatically over the years. Use these 10 steps to optimizing videos for search and discovery sooner rather than later.

In fact, if the advice in this column had a “best if used by date,” it would be today.

For example, eMarketer forecasts that 130.8 million YouTube viewers in the U.S. (57.7% of total viewers in this country) will watch the platform’s content on connected TV (CTV) devices in 2022, up from 113.1 million and 52.8% in 2020.

Now, I knew that YouTube viewers were pivoting to TV screens as their method of choice for watching content, a trend that experienced significant growth before and during the height of the pandemic.

But I didn’t realize that more than half of YouTube viewers in the U.S. already watch on a CTV device.

I recently attempted to do a YouTube search on my CTV and it took a painfully long time to use my TV clicker to tap out each letter in my target term.

Maybe the integration of voice search will make this easier in the future. Or, maybe getting found on Home or Suggested Videos and Related Topics will make YouTube Search a relic of the past.

More Resources:

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