YouTube SEO 101

Based on Alexa traffic rankings, YouTube is the second most visited site on the web, right after Google. Unfortunately, a lot of digital marketers still treat it like any other social media site. But success on YouTube isn’t about posting content, it’s about optimizing your content — just like your website.

It’s easy to find videos with millions of views and videos with almost none that are basically the same. The difference between success and failure often boils down to a few elements.

When it comes to YouTube SEO, a lot of the optimization work can be encapsulated into a process that you can apply to all your old videos and then to each video as you publish it. And you’re about to learn that process.

Here’s what you need to know if you want your content to rank number one on YouTube for the keywords you care about.

The basics

This section contains the essential background information you’ll need to understand before you dive into YouTube optimization tactics.

Start with keyword research

Given that YouTube is a video search engine, you should approach content creation in a strategic way, as you would when optimizing your website. This means conducting keyword research to find out what your audience is interested in and how they talk about it online.

It’s easy to start your YouTube keyword brainstorming. Simply go to YouTube and start typing a keyword in the search box. As you type, you will get popular searches suggested to you by YouTube Suggest, which is the autocomplete feature built into the search box on YouTube. You can take this to another level using the free Ubersuggest tool, which will iterate through the alphabet for the first letter of the next word of your search phrase. Remember to select “YouTube” instead of the default “Web.”

Keyword brainstorming is one thing, but you probably need to be able to compare keywords to each other to see which ones are searched on more frequently. There’s a tool for that, and it’s completely free, provided to us by Google: Google Trends. It’s surprising how many SEO practitioners don’t realize Google Trends has a “YouTube search” option underneath the “Web search” option, which will give you YouTube-specific search volume data. This tool doesn’t give you actual numbers, unfortunately (everything is in percentages), but nonetheless, it is quite handy for comparing keywords to each other.

Track your YouTube search rankings

You probably track your positions in the Google search results for a range of your favorite keywords, but are you doing this with YouTube? If not, you should be! There are many tools for this, both free and paid, so find one that you feel comfortable with so that you can track your progress as you optimize your videos.

Content is king, but consistency is queen

Obviously, to compete with all the other creators in the fast-paced, aggressive world of YouTube, you need great content that stands out from the crowd. While achieving a viral hit is great, remember that YouTube isn’t just about views: You’re looking to build a subscriber base and form long-term relationships with viewers.

How can you accomplish this? By producing quality content and publishing it on a regular schedule. Posting irregularly will only hurt you and result in lost subscribers. If you commit to posting every day, make sure you post every day. If you post once a week at 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, never skip a week or post a late video (even if it is only a few hours or the next day).

Short is not sweet

Beware of agencies and production houses that tell you people only watch short, one- to two-minute videos on YouTube. Remember, YouTube’s ultimate goal is to compete with television so they can charge TV-like advertising rates. What they’re looking for is high-quality, long-form content that will allow them to run more ads and keep users on the site for longer. Videos that are at least five minutes in length tend to perform better and have a higher chance of ranking in Google searches.

A key metric to keep an eye on is watch time — not just for each video, but for your channel overall. Ideally, you should be seeing monthly increases in watch time as your channel grows.

The power of playlists

Playlists are an underrated promotional tool on YouTube. While most businesses create playlists around dates, content genres, products and other broad categories, to really take advantage of this feature, you need to go deeper.

Use your keyword research to figure out what people are searching for in your niche, and create playlists based on those topics. If you don’t have much content, you can even create playlists using other people’s videos to drive viewers to your YouTube channel page.

First 48 hours are critical

YouTube’s algorithms are notoriously unforgiving. When you upload a new video, make sure you have all your optimizations ready to go (see below). Come out of the gate strong, or not at all. Don’t publish a video with the intention of optimizing it sometime later. If YouTube can’t get a clear picture of what your video is about, or if you aren’t getting any traction from viewers (in terms of watch time and other engagement metrics), you’ll suffer in the rankings — and it will be hard to recover that lost ground.

While it is possible to go back and fix poorly optimized videos by revising the titles, description, tags, thumbnail, transcript and so on (which I do encourage), much of the damage will have already been done after the first 48 hours have passed. It is incredibly hard to come back from being buried once the algorithm has judged your content as unworthy (please forgive the Thor reference).

How to optimize your videos

Now that you understand the basics, it’s time to get down to business. Here’s how you can optimize your videos for success on YouTube.

The title

The video title should be punchy and should grab the user. It shouldn’t be too wordy — instead, it should concisely convey why the user should bother watching your video. Hit them with the good stuff!

Before you decide on your title, do your keyword research (as described above), and then take a look at your competitors for those keywords. These are the videos you’ll be going up against, so you want your title to be as good as theirs, if not better.

Titles play a large part in the ranking of your video, so make sure they are at least five words long and include the keyword that you want to rank for.

The thumbnail

A video’s thumbnail image is actually more important than the title in terms of attracting the click from the YouTube searcher. You could do every other thing right for your SEO, but if you have an unappealing thumbnail, no one is going to click on your video.

Think about it: The thumbnail is the only image that gives people a sense of what they’re about to invest their time in watching. If it looks unprofessional or boring, people aren’t going to consider it a good use of time.

For the best results, go with a “custom thumbnail” (you will need to be verified by YouTube in order to do this) and have that thumbnail image include graphical text.