Senior SEO Consultant

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YouTube is fast moving away from being a UGC video paradise to a serious digital content and streaming powerhouse. With the introduction of YouTube original series, the opportunities created by Netflix for digital content streaming services are huge.

A notable example of this is the Disney+ streaming service, which amassed 10 million subscribers within hours of its launch. Whilst this is no mean feat, Netflix’s market education and conversion have had an impact, along with Amazon Video and NowTV. The timing is also strong, as the notion of subscription fatigue will soon impact consumers who don’t want to pay for multiple services.

YouTube similarly produces YouTube Originals and offers both free and paid-for tiers (with varying benefits and content accessibility).

Aside from a platform to host and consume video content, YouTube is regarded by many as a search engine, and if you follow Alexa data and look at how users use the intent as a means to an end, YouTube is arguably the second largest search engine globally.

However, YouTube has two things that the others don’t:

  • An existing user base and a ridiculous amount of user-generated content (UGC)
  • Google

Now the first one draws in users on its own, whether it be consumable content like Between Two Ferns or Hot Ones, or hobbyist content, like the PokeTubers and other gaming streamers.

The second is by far the best parent company to have in your corner, as combined you can pretty much be the gateway to the internet (and content) for the greater majority of users. YouTube will also benefit greatly from any user data insights passed from the parent.

There is an increasing trend amongst younger generations, who are moving away from traditional search engines with their queries and instead are looking to YouTube. Notably, this trend is strongest in South Korea but is starting to take on elsewhere.

According to Statista, 96 percent of 18- to 24-year-old American internet users use YouTube, and Half of American internet users aged 75 plus use YouTube regularly.

YouTube Video Optimization Checklist

Optimizing for YouTube is also about getting good engagement and retention rates, and a lot of this comes from creating a good video user experience.

There are 10 “measurable” ways to optimize a video, but then each one is subject to how much effort you put into it. The 10 metrics are:

  1. Optimized video title (less than 70 characters)
  2. Optimized video tags
  3. Optimized video description
  4. Use of cards
  5. Use of End screens
  6. If the video is shared via Facebook
  7. If the video is shared via Twitter
  8. That the video is publicly available
  9. Contains pinned content
  10. Contains hearted content

To optimize the title, tags and description you want to make sure you’re using the right keywords and creating user demand/matching user intent (more on this to follow), whereas the use of cards is about accessibility, and making sure it’s shared is about visibility.

How To Optimize For YouTube

Optimizing for YouTube, YouTube SEO, or YouTube ISEO (Internal Search Engine Optimization) in principle doesn’t differ too greatly from traditional SEO. It’s about matching your content, in this case, a video, with the query and intent of a user.

However, as well as YouTube’s internal search engine and the personalized logged in user-interface, you’re also optimizing for Google’s own special content result blocks, in particular, the YouTube video carousel.

The whole process however of optimizing for YouTube starts with user keyword research.

Groundwork: YouTube Keyword Research & Discovery

There are a number of tools that you can make use of to conduct YouTube keyword research specifically for the platform, but given how YouTube integrates into Google search results, I find this approach limiting.

Here is a breakdown of some YouTube specific keyword tools:

Tool Pros Cons
TubeBuddy Adds a sidebar to the YouTube UI with additional keyword data, similar to Keywords Everywhere in Google search results. It also provides keyword stat data around subscriber levels, the number of times featured in titles, descriptions, etc, and the top channel. This tool is useful for discovering “long tail” queries. The competition figures aren’t “clear” in how they are established, and search volume data has reportedly been misleading and overinflated.
vidIQ Another Chrome extension and similar to TubeBuddy and adds to the YouTube UI, however, you’re able to export the video tags discovered as a CSV, and in my opinion, this small detail makes the tool infinitely more useful. The tool also shows channel tags and suggests tags during upload. Like TubeBuddy, it’s not 100% clear how they work out the competition values, and search volume data can be a little off… In fact, the data is almost identical across the two. It’s also worth noting the free version offers limited data.

However, you can get some good data combining these tools with traditional SEO tools like Ahrefs, using the YouTube API, and using YouTube’s autosuggest.

Keywords play a big part in YouTube’s ranking algorithms along with user engagement.

Another tool to consider that uses YouTube data is Ahrefs. Whilst Ahrefs is a wider SEO tool, the YouTube data can prove to be useful when used in conjunction with other data sources (which are explained in Phase 1 of this article).

Ahrefs data UI

YouTube’s Autosuggest

Much like Google search, YouTube provides autosuggest to make searching for content easier for users. Going incognito with no sign-in or personalization, it can reveal interesting related search trends to your topic – as well as factoring in time decay, so it’s worth checking back over time as trends change.

It’s worth noting that these are actual terms that people actually type into YouTube.

Scraping YouTube Video Tag Data

A well-optimized video makes use of YouTube tags, and whilst these aren’t visible on the standard YouTube UI, by using the VidIQ Chrome extension, you can see a video’s tags directly on the page.

So let’s look at an SEO video, who will have optimized their tags – Neil Patel. For the video “What are the MAJOR changes in SEO for 2020?”, we have the following tags:

VidIQ shows you the tags that have been given to any YouTube video, from the video page.

As you can see, this video has been optimized with tags around SEO, Neil’s brand – and then wider questions such as how to rank on Google and how to get traffic, which the video isn’t directly about, but I can see what he was trying to do here.

The easiest way to do this is to go to YouTube and search the terms and topics you’re wanting to produce video content for and look at which videos rank and the creators behind them. Some creators get verified depending on the number of subscribers, views, and their status, so it’s important to weigh this into any analysis you perform.

Identifying Keywords That Trigger Video Carousels

In general, Google tends to use video results for these types of keywords:

  • How-to keywords (“how to trim a beard”)
  • Reviews (“Blackbeard beard balm review”)
  • Tutorials (“Setting up Sloth Edge Worker Generator”)
  • Anything fitness or sports-related (“How to perform a situp”)
  • Funny videos (“fails compilation”)

One of the more important elements of this, in my opinion, is the “how-to” intent searchers. According to Think With Google:

70 percent of millennial YouTube users watched a video to learn how to do something new last year

And, according to the same Think With Google article:

Users can be three times more likely to watch a YouTube tutorial video rather than read a product detail page

However, through the use of general SEO tools, we (as SEOs) can identify keywords at scale and combine the keyword lists with our own “SEO keyword research” so both strategies complement each other.

My preference in tools for performing this analysis at scale is Serpstat. Let’s use the example of generating more blog and website traffic for the next part.

Using Serpstat & Ahrefs For YouTube

Serpstat doesn’t advertise this feature overly well, in my opinion, but being able to use their keyword data to explore related search phrases, in the native UI it displays what special content result blocks are displayed in the SERPs for that keyword:

Serpstat UI for identifying SCRBs

But if you then export the data into Excel, you get this data (and more) in a more scalable and usable format:

Serpstat data export shows all SCRBs in line with the related keyword

Then very quickly from an unfiltered list of 1,499 keywords, I can identify that 218 of these keywords show the YouTube video carousel.

Then filtering by search volume, I can quickly see that the three most searched for phrases are:

  • How to get more traffic to my website?
  • How can I generate more traffic to my website?
  • How can I get more visitors to my website?

Using Ahrefs’ Content Explorer tool, you can also find estimates for how much organic traffic some videos receive based on topic, through using advanced search operators.

In the Content Explorer search bar type: inurl:watch title:{insert topic here}

And this will return videos with your topic in the title, and filter by organic traffic, not relevance, and you’ll get back some interesting data that shows estimates based on how many users are discovering the videos via organic search and not natively via YouTube.

Ahrefs SEO traffic estimations for YouTube videos in organic search

And this information can then be used for optimization, as demonstrated in Phase 2 of this guide.

Other tools such as Mangools report on this data, but they just report it as being a Featured Snippet and it requires manual investigation on each keyword to identify if it is a video result.

Optimizing Your Videos: Putting The Research To Use

Now you’ve done your research and you’re about to put together great video content it is important that the time invested in your YouTube research is working as hard for you as possible.

This comes through effective use of the keywords on YouTube to best target your users.

There are a number of ways to use keywords on YouTube and each carries different weightings and can bring about different benefits – not only to appearing higher in YouTube’s native search results.

Verbally Use Your Keywords

This might sound obvious, but it’s extremely important that throughout your video you use variations of your target phrase as well as your main phrase very early on. Why?


Captions are billed by YouTube as being a great way to make content accessible for viewers.

They’re also a great way to get YouTube to record your keywords within its data, and I recommend they are enabled in your YouTube Studio.

This can be done through the video introduction in a natural manner:

YouTube Captions: Automated, so it won’t always get it 100% accurate. Source: JohnnyCanal

So the above example is of a video that ranks well for a common Pokemon Sword search term at the moment, how to evolve a certain Pokemon.

Whilst this an extreme example, the Pokemon in question is Farfetch’d, and it evolves into Sirfetch’d, which isn’t plain English so YouTube reads this as “far-fetched” and “surf edge”.

If you want to invest real time into this, you can make your own captions, or really work on avoiding made up words, like Pokemon names.

YouTube Video Title Optimization

Your video title should include your primary target keyword, and be as concise as possible.

Using “YouTube SEO” as an example search term, below are the titles of the top 5 ranking videos:

  • YouTube SEO: 9 Actionable Tips for Ranking Videos (2019)
  • YouTube SEO: How to Rank Your Videos #1 (2019)
  • Video SEO – How to Rank #1 in YouTube (Fast!)
  • How to TAG YouTube Videos to RANK HIGHER
  • How to Get More Views on YouTube — NEW Strategy for 2020

Whilst the top two videos lead with the keyword, YouTube’s algorithms, much like Google’s understand that words have multiple meanings so you don’t need to be an exact match.

YouTube does understand the intent behind the searches, so if we look at these videos from an intent perspective and not an exact match keyword perspective, we can understand why 3 of them don’t even contain the phrase SEO in the title:

  • YouTube SEO: 9 Actionable Tips for Ranking Videos (2019)
  • YouTube SEO: How to Rank Your Videos #1 (2019)
  • Video SEO – How to Rank #1 in YouTube (Fast!)
  • How to TAG YouTube Videos to RANK HIGHER
  • How to Get More Views on YouTube — NEW Strategy for 2020

So Google understands the intent behind why users are searching for “YouTube SEO” even though it’s not explicit in the query.

This is done via neural learning and a two-part process using a candidate general model, and ranking generation model – built on top of Google RankBrain.

YouTube Description Optimization

Unlike the meta description in Google, your YouTube video description is important in helping both YouTube and Google understand the context of your video, and the better they understand the video content (and intents it is trying to satisfy), the more opportunity you will have to rank in YouTube’s native search results and appear in the Suggested Video sidebar.

According to Brian Dean, the basics of writing an optimized YouTube description are:

  • Include your keyword in the first 25 words
  • Make the description at least 250 words
  • Include your keyword 2-4 times

From experience, it’s also good user experience to include links to other related videos you’ve produced, as well as product links back to your site (if applicable), as well as using in video annotations and cards.

Optimizing YouTube Tags

Tags are probably the least important video optimization element, however, they can help and the use of targeted tags can really help your video relevancy.

Which is where we then look at the varying practices being implemented on YouTube. To do this we need to look at established content producers with good audiences and YouTube reach.

Gary Vaynerchuk

From looking over Gary’s videos, he includes a lot of associated entities such as “Thank You Economy” and in some videos even tags the equipment used to produce and film it.

Later videos include question tags about topics covered in the video. Using the video Why Instagram is Losing Steam to TikTok | DailyVee 598 as an example, the tags used vary from variations of his name, generic things he wants to be known for (i.e. entrepreneurship) to questions relating to the video topic itself.

Gary Vaynerchuk YouTube Tab Example

Eric Enge

By contrast to Gary Vaynerchuk, Eric Enge’s YouTube tag usage is more reserved and minimalistic – which I don’t think is a bad thing. However, as it goes to show the viewership of the videos is less (but there is nothing to say this is purely down to the tags).

Looking at a recent video with Google’s Martin Splitt, titled Why You Must Know about the New Evergreen Googlebot, only four tags are used. These being:

  • Googlebot
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Martin Splitt
  • Google i/o

Which do relate to the topic being discussed, but not tagged are equally as valid topics of JavaScript and rendering.

Neil Patel

As I’ve shown in a previous example, Neil Patel’s approach to YouTube tagging feels more like hashtagging on an Instagram post, it’s a bit scattergun and the kitchen sink has been thrown in for good measure.

Using his video STOP Paying for SEO Tools – The Only 4 Tools You Need to Rank #1 in Google as an example, the following tags have been applied:

Lots of YouTube tags

Whilst none of these are 100% irrelevant (although I’m not sure how a video about free tools a technique), they’re not targeted and are clearly designed to try and capture searches related to the topic – and not satisfy direct intent.

That being said, the man has a following so it will get the requisite number of views.

The TLDR of tag usage is, there is no steadfast right way to do it. But I’d avoid going off in tangent approach personally.

Getting YouTube Visibility: The Importance Of User Retention & Engagement

Unlike Google, YouTube’s algorithms rely heavily on user interaction and engagement in order to ascertain which videos (and channels to an extent) deserve prominence within YouTube’s internal search results and recommended video areas.

So if you’re videos are suffering from an adverse bounce rate, they will be impacted, whereas Google & bounce rate is a correlative relationship.

To quote YouTube directly:

Your goal is to keep audience retention as close to 100% as you can because this means viewers are watching all through your videos. And videos with consistently high audience retention and watch time have the potential to show up more frequently in Search and Suggested locations on YouTube.

So the short-hand version of this:

If your video keeps people on YouTube, YouTube will rank your video higher in the search results and recommend it to more people watching similar videos.

YouTube Ranking Factors

YouTube has cited Audience Retention as being one of its main ranking factors. In short, this is how long people watch your videos before exiting.

Audience Retention is a combination of the below data points:

  • Average view duration for all videos on your channel
  • Top videos or channels listed by watch time
  • Audience retention data for a specific video for different time frames
  • Relative audience retention for a video compared to the YouTube average for similar videos

But this isn’t the entirety of the algorithm as user engagement also plays a part in determining which videos to show in internal search results and in the recommended sections.

User engagement is measured through:

  • Video comments
  • Subscribers – after watching a video
  • Video shares
  • Click-through rate
  • Thumbs up/Thumbs down

However, the weighting of these factors can vary. If you’re using the VidIQ Chrome extension (linked to previously in Phase 1), it will score a video engagement based on views versus interactions, and the highest-ranking videos don’t always have the best engagement scores.

Let’s take the top 5 videos that appear in search results for “YouTube SEO” and look at their engagement rates.

# Video Title Video Views Channel
1 YouTube SEO: 9 Actionable Tips for Ranking Videos (2019) 273k Brian Dean
2 YouTube SEO: How to Rank Your Videos #1 (2019) 63k Ahrefs
3 Video SEO – How to Rank #1 in YouTube (Fast!) 931k Brian Dean
4 How to TAG YouTube Videos to RANK HIGHER 92k Gillian Perkins
5 How to Get More Views on YouTube — NEW Strategy for 2020 984k Brian Dean

According to VidIQ, all of these videos achieved a “good” engagement rate, which numerically is around 5% of all viewers at least interacting.

This data does also correlate that channel popularity has an impact, with 3 of the top 5 videos coming from Brian Dean – who has produced a lot of content around the topic and uses much more targeted tags to the video core topic:

Brian Dean 2020 YouTube tips video tags

And given this article was written in December 2019, the 2020 video should easily smash 1-million views. Well done Brian.

CTR (Click Through Rate)

I know in SEO I’ve written about how CTR isn’t a ranking factor, but this is the YouTube world, and in the YouTube world it is.

The best way to boost your CTR in YouTube is to create compelling thumbnails and titles.

For best practice thumbnail advice, I recommend reading The Definitive Guide to Making YouTube Thumbnails That Will Be Clicked from TubeFilter.

YouTube Opportunities

It’s apparent that with the new generations of internet users both here in the Western World, in Asia, and the next 1-billion online users from Africa being mobile and more internet-enabled than ever that the paradigm shift in how users consume content is coming sooner rather than later.

So it’s important that you’re ahead of the game and established, as playing catch-up in this space is a lot harder than playing catch-up in SEO.


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