YouTube SEO: How to Optimize for the YouTube Ranking Algorithm


Over the last few years, video content has proven to be a key tool in attracting audience attention online – and it’s still on the rise, with demand for video increasing over time. And which platform is synonymous with online video? While Facebook and Twitter are evolving their offerings, it’s YouTube that still leads the way.

With over 1.5 billion monthly active users, YouTube is the key video destination, and has become an essential platform in the search and discovery process for many users. These days, users are just as likely to look up a product video on YouTube as they are on Google – in fact, YouTube is now considered the web’s second largest search engine.

Given this, YouTube is an important consideration for marketers – and having your content visible, and searchable, on YouTube can drive greater results. But as with regular SEO, visibility on YouTube depends on how you optimize your videos for its algorithm, considering vital factors, as well as various aspects that tend to correlate with higher rankings or better user experience.

As YouTube’s a part of Google’s universe, optimizing your videos can also give you a better chance to appear among organic Google’s search results, and boost your overall visibility.

In this post, we’ll look at how YouTube ranks its search results, and how you can use that to boost your brand content.

Proper Targeting

Trends and Relevant Keywords

First off you need to start with thorough research on the keywords people tend to use when looking for content like yours.

With the help of Google Keyword Planner, or other keyword research tools, you can find topically-relevant keywords and phrases based on broader seed keywords, and evaluate the competitiveness of each along the way. For a newer channel, it would be reasonable to start with easier, less-competitive keywords or more specific long-tails, and once you succeed – to try ranking a video for more competitive terms.

Using YouTube’s autocomplete suggestions, you may also get some good target phrases to consider, as well as harvest new ideas for future videos. Google Trends for YouTube Search can also help you evaluate the popularity dynamics of topical keywords and phrases.

So-Called Video Keywords

The next step is to hunt for the so-called ‘video keywords’ – the ones that tend to return videos among the regular organic results in Google. Optimizing for such keywords, you’ll additionally fight for standing out among regular results on Google SERPs.

A tool like RankTracker can ease the job ten times – it enables you to add however many keywords into a project and then check the rankings for them. This not only highlights the positions a certain site occupies, but it also allows you to analyze whether the results pages include any SERP Features (videos, in this case).

Having these details at hand, you can better detect the keywords to keep in mind, which are likely to bring up a video and are worth targeting.


The number of views alone may not indicate the real audience coverage – to ensure the clicks on your video go along with actual engagement, you should focus on quality of the views before quantity.

For this, you can use YouTube’s option to set a Location for your video, to increase the chances of ranking for geographically-relevant audience.

  • Go to Video Manager and click to Edit any of your videos, and in the Advanced Settings section use the Video Location field to specify the relevant location.
  • Additionally, make sure to choose a relevant Category in the same section.

Video Metadata

Both Google and YouTube are constantly getting better at understanding content and context, and gradually shifting to relying on machine learning for object recognition to interpret videos more effectively. Now they don’t rely as much on the metadata you provide for a video to determine its relevance to a search query – for instance, a recent study by Backlinko showed that keyword-rich metadata has a rather weak correlation with higher rankings nowadays.

However, that doesn’t negate the fact that title, description, and thumbnail are the first things a searcher will see, which will likely determine whether they click through on your video or not.

To encourage clicks on your video, and to prevent users from abandoning it in a moment, consider the following:


  • Write a catchy title of less than 60 characters which clearly reflects the topic covered in the video (phrase the title according to video’s purpose: answering a how-question, listing X ways to do something, telling a story, covering an event…).
  • Make sure the video absolutely contains what the title promises, to prevent disappointment and bounces.
  • If the video is a part of a series, keep the numeration closer to the end of the title.
  • Don’t use clickbaity, misleading, offensive, vulgar or ALL-CAPS titles.


  • Provide a brief and realistic overview of what your video is about – use natural tone and feature relevant keywords from the title towards the beginning of the description.
  • Make sure the first few lines fairly describe the point, and use the rest (the part of description that is hidden under Show More) for extra details.
  • Consider pasting video credits, social links, related videos/playlists or other useful details there.
  • Optionally, add up to 10 topically-relevant hashtags (#tag) in the end, to help users discover your video – but don’t overuse them and never add irrelevant ones.


  • Create an eye-catching thumbnail for your video that also reflects the subject, and teases the searchers (the most successful videos tend to have custom thumbnails, created separately from the video itself).
  • Make sure the thumbnail image goes well with the title and description, and looks good in large and small sizes.
  • Avoid shocking, violent, inappropriate and even spoiler-alerting thumbnails.

User Retention & Engagement

Early this year, YouTube announced an impressive stat – daily watch time has reached a benchmark of 1 billion hours (equals to a speed-of-light journey through the whole Milky Way).

It had been quite a while since YouTube had announced the importance of watch time and interaction over the number of views – while clicks and views can be manipulated (even with the false-promising and sensational meta details mentioned above), the actual time a searcher spends watching a video and interacting with it is a much more accurate indicator of retention.

Surely, there is be no better advice to master retention than to create awesome content and deliver it to the right audience on the right time – but there are still some tweaks that may improve user experience and boost engagement.

Optimize For Watch Time

Watch time doesn’t only consider the bare amount of minutes, but also the percentage of the video that’s watched.

Though YouTube removed their 15-minute limits for videos long time ago (for verified accounts it allows videos up to 11-hours long), don’t aim for producing a longer video if the same point can be disclosed in a shorter one.

The main focus it to keep the viewer as long as possible – thus you can’t let the video get boring or overextended at any point.

  • Don’t make the beginning of the video too long and get to the point before it’s too late. Check the top videos for your target keywords to analyze the winning length for alike kind of content.
  • Consider creating video series – shorter videos, each covering a separate aspect within the broader topic, and combine them into playlists – to get featured/recommended to someone who watches a single video from the series.
  • Tease viewers to watch your other videos (feature them in the video itself or in its description) to drive longer channel sessions.
  • Analyze your ‘Watch Time‘ reports to see the weak and the winning sports in your strategy, and the common traits of the moments at which your videos tend to lose viewers.

Encourage Interaction

YouTube offers various means to add interactivity to your videos and to encourage viewers to take action.

  • By adding Cards, you can initiate a poll, mention a relevant website/video or add any other helpful details. A great thing about cards is their unobtrusiveness – if a user’s not interested in clicking on it, it disappears from view.
  • Consider adding a custom End Screen. You can cross-promote other Channels, suggest your videos to watch next, use it for fundraising or merchandise reference, and surely, encourage viewers to subscribe and spread the word.
  • Use your imagination throughout the video to prompt viewers to comment. You could ask for an opinion on the matter at the beginning of the video, or suggest to choose a topic for future videos. Also, don’t forget to interact and to show appreciation where possible – reply to comments or add thumbs-up to the nicest ones.
  • Consider a regular schedule for your channel. Keep your activity consistent, and let your viewers know when to expect the next video, yet, you should also stay flexible enough to have a room if some hot newsworthy topic pops up.
  • Analyze the Interaction reports to see which tweaks in your channel are likely to draw likes/subscribers – and which may conversely cause the viewers to dislike or unsubscribe.

Retention and interaction remain the most valid engagement proof for YouTube, so drawing feedback and growing your subscribers base plays the major role in boosting your Channel.

Extra Tips

  • Upload your videos in HD. YouTube rewards HD videos in its search results to offer a better user experience.
  • Consider adding subtitles, and additional translation into your market’s secondary language (or multiple).
  • If you embed your YouTube video on your site, set the rel parameter to zero: this controls whether ‘related videos’ will be shown at the end of your video, and may prevent the distraction from your site.

Competitive Intelligence & Collaboration

To help your Channel get discovered, you also need to spread the word.

Apart from no-brainers, like embedding the videos on your site, featuring them in your social networks and prompting viewers to share them, you can also dig into two great sources of ideas: spying on your competitors’ tactics, and collaborating with others to expand the audience reach.

You can run through the videos that rank in top for your desired search queries, and analyze their common traits you see with a naked eye – how they cover the subject, which of the interaction tips they are using and how they approach metadata.

You could also consider setting up an alert in a social media monitoring tool like Awario – by tracking the URL of your videos, you can see where and how they’re being shared and promoted, what kind of buzz surrounds them, and which are the most popular communities or standalone users who tend to refer to it.

Bottom Line

In the same way as Google sorts its search results rank, YouTube relies on complex and hard-to-game algorithms to serve the content users will most likely want to watch. It analyzes retention and interaction patterns and user’s interests to surface the most relevant video suggestions.

By paying attention to such details, you can do your best to optimize your video properly, enabling you to deliver a great user-experience to your viewers.