- What is YouTube SEO
- How YouTube's algorithm ranks videos
- How to reverse-engineer your YouTube content for search
- 8 YouTube SEO best practices for online creators
- Don't forget: Always put your audience first
“Have you ever tried giving someone something they didn’t want? It doesn’t go over well.”
Sean McCabe knows first-hand how difficult growing a successful YouTube channel can be.
Yet despite spending years sharing valuable videos, Sean knows he could have grown his audience and email list faster by reverse-engineering his content for search. “Let’s say you really know what you’re talking about. You have a lot of expertise and insight that could help many people. But in order to help people, you have to get their attention.”
“If you don’t reverse engineer search, it’s Game Over.” – Sean McCabe
Sean's struggles are common, especially for new creators. YouTube is not only the world's largest video sharing platform—it's also the world's second-largest search engine behind Google. And it's a crowded one. According to YouTube, creators upload over 400 hours of new video content every minute.
Standing out amongst all the noise ain't easy. But according to Sean, the key to growing an audience and ranking YouTube videos fast is to create videos around what viewers are already searching for. According to Sean, “Every piece of content you create should be in direct response to questions, struggles, or goals your audience already has.”
YouTube SEO might feel like a black box at first—but getting started is a snap. Optimizing your videos based on what your audience is already searching for helps your videos rank higher for valuable search terms, getting you more eyes on your videos and helping to grow your business.
Here's how you can start ranking your YouTube videos quickly.
What is YouTube SEO?
YouTube search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of creating, sharing, and optimizing video content on YouTube to rank highly in YouTube's search results for specific queries or phrases.
How does that help you grow your audience? Well, it turns out the phrases people search for give surprising insights into what your audience is struggling with.
“What people search for is a window into their soul,” Sean explains. “To succeed with growing an audience, you have to spend the majority of your day living inside their minds and thinking about their problems. You need to know them better than they know themselves.”
When you understand what people search for on YouTube—and more importantly, why they're searching for it (referred to as search intent)—you can create highly engaging and entertaining videos that naturally rank well. When your videos rank well, you'll start to attract an audience of similar people—an audience you can then use to grow your online business.
Before you jump in and hit record, though, you need to learn the basics of how YouTube ranks videos—which means first understanding how YouTube's business model works.
How YouTube's algorithm ranks videos
YouTube's core business is simple: they make money from advertising. The more viewers on their platform (and the more time those viewers spend watching videos), the more ads they can show, and the more money they bring in.
To maximize how much time each viewer spends on the platform, YouTube uses a complex algorithm to match viewers to the videos they're most likely to watch and enjoy. The algorithm matches viewers with the videos they're most likely to watch and enjoy, using a combination of past behaviors and the search queries they type in.
“YouTube SEO is all about audience engagement and retention,” explains Amir Shahzeidi, digital marketing manager at UScreen.tv. “The YouTube algorithm is built around keeping users engaged and watching more videos, so always make audience retention your #1 goal.”
Videos are ranked based on two different factors:
- How relevant the title, description, tags, and video content are to the viewer's query
- How engaging the videos are that match that query.
Notice anything that isn't part of the algorithm?
That's right—subscriber count. Brian Dean from Backlinko analyzed 1.3 million YouTube videos and found that a channel's subscriber count only mildly affects their rankings.
This is great news for new YouTubers with small channels—you have a strong chance of ranking videos quickly on YouTube, even without a ton of subscribers.
That doesn't mean you can just post the videos you want and expect results, though.
How to reverse-engineer your YouTube content for search
One of the main reasons YouTubers struggle to grow an audience is that they create the videos they want, not the videos their audience wants.
“It's not about you, your needs and what you want to do,” explains Marko Saric, co-founder of Plausible Analytics. “It's about the audience you are trying to reach. What questions do they have? What issues do they want to solve? What things do they need help with? That's what your content strategy should be based on and what your effort should be focused on.”
To rank YouTube videos quickly, you need to be strategic with your content. Before you hit record, do some research to find out what questions your audience has, and what they need help with. These questions and insights will become the topics for the videos you create. When you are ready to break out the camera, you'll have a much better chance of ranking quickly and getting more eyes on your videos.
Let's walk through each of the three steps to help you reverse-engineer your YouTube content for search, and look at a few examples to explain how you can do the same for your channel.
Step #1: Uncover valuable video topics and search keywords
The best way to rank your videos quickly is to start with what your audience is already searching for.
“A lot of people go for the ‘create the video I want and cram in SEO stuff later' approach,” explains Drew Gula from Soundstripe, “but that limits a video's success. The truth is that taking time to craft a video for a specific keyword is the best way to get that content in front of the right audience.”
Marketing consultant Andrew Stephenson agrees. “Before you press record, start by finding the keywords and phrases people use in YouTube and Google search that relate most closely to the topic of the video you want to create.”
How do you find what people are searching for? The simplest (and cheapest!) way to get started is to use suggested search results on YouTube and Google. Open an Incognito window (so your personal searches don't affect results) and start typing relevant keywords into the YouTube search box.
For example, let's say you're creating a video teaching the basics of sketching and illustration, like Eric Friedensohn from Efdot Studio. You might start by searching for “sketching” to see what comes up:
You'll see a list of suggestions appear that are relevant to your search topic. All of these suggestions are specific terms that people are already searching for. You can use these terms to plan topics for your videos.
You can also add a preposition like “how to”, or use “_” as a wildcard, which should bring up even more relevant results:
Outside of YouTube, Google is another great place to find keyword suggestions. Try searching for the same terms in both places, and look at what keywords and video results rank on Google as well as YouTube.
Just from these results alone, you can see a few great ideas for videos:
- Videos teaching sketching basics
- Tutorials showing how to draw realistic shadows
- Face sketching tutorials for beginners
- Time-lapse videos of sketching
- Fun sketching tutorials for kids
By creating videos based on these results, you can feel confident they'll rank quickly for your chosen keywords without a huge amount of effort.
Make sure you don't just go after the most popular keywords, though, like “sketching.”
“Especially as a small creator, you need to target keywords that aren’t as popular,” explains Erika Kullberg, attorney and founder of Plug and Law. “If you go for highly competitive keywords when your channel is small, you have little chance of ranking.”
Step #2: Understand search intent—the “why” behind each search
Beyond finding the exact terms people are searching for, you also need to consider why they're searching for that particular keyword or phrase:
- Are they searching for entertainment, perhaps by watching time-lapse videos of others sketching?
- Are they looking to learn a skill, like sketching shadows?
- Are they seeking an answer to a question, like how to hold a pencil?
- Are they looking for an escape, like setting the kids up with a sketching tutorial?
- Are they hoping to make a purchase, maybe by searching for the best sketching pencils?
It's a concept known as search intent—the “why” behind a viewer's search query. You need to create content that matches what people are already searching for, and what they're hoping to achieve by finding that content.
You can find out the intent behind each search by looking at the phrases people use in their search queries. Are they asking questions? How much detail do they include? Do they include instructional keywords like “tutorial”, “how to”, or “learn”? Or do they include transactional phrases such as “buy”, “best”, or “review”?
Let's jump back to our sketching example. Searching for “sketching tutorials” brings up videos on drawing simple elements like faces, bodies, and trees. These videos are relevant to a beginner who is just learning the basics of sketching—they might not be the best place to, say, promote your course on advanced sketching techniques.
Search for “sketching equipment,” though, and you'll uncover mostly reviews of drawing tools and equipment, like pencils and sketchbooks. These videos would be a great opportunity to send traffic to, say, an online course on sketching, or an ecommerce store selling drawing equipment.
Understanding the intent behind each search helps you create videos that match that intent, giving your videos a much better chance of ranking quickly.
#3: Create engaging and entertaining videos that fulfill search intent
As I mentioned earlier, engagement and audience retention are among the top factors that YouTube's algorithm uses to rank videos. Just because you mention a specific keyword in your video title and description doesn't necessarily mean you'll rank well for that phrase—your content also needs to be enticing and engaging for viewers.
“Audience retention is more important than video length,” explains Raymond Cua, founder of Travelling Foodie, who has grown his YouTube Channel to nearly 12 thousand subscribers and over five million views. “Most people think their video needs to be long, but a big indicator YouTube considers is how long people actually watched in that video. People watching 30 seconds of a one-minute video is better than 30 seconds of a 15-minute video.”
There's a lot that goes into creating stellar videos, from how to look (and feel) good on camera to creating your first vlog and even buying the right video equipment—if I tried to cover everything here you'd be reading all day. But the best way to improve your videos is to measure what works using YouTube Analytics.
YouTube's built-in analytics platform lets you see how much time viewers spend watching each video, along with additional metrics showing how many likes, comments, and shares each video receives. You can use it to find out which of your videos are most engaging and replicate your success in future videos.
If you're only just starting, you might not have much data to look at. Never fear—you can also poach ideas from your competitors to guide your content.
Look at the top 10 or so results for a keyword you'd like to target and see what's similar (or different) about each result:
- Are the videos all a particular type (tutorials, reviews, talking head, how-to's, or demonstrations)?
- Do the thumbnails look the same?
- Do people format their titles in a particular way?
- Do the videos include an intro with a teaser or an engaging hook?
Try matching some of these elements in your videos to give yourself the best chance of ranking fast. Just don't forget to put your unique twist on each topic!
8 YouTube SEO best practices for online creators
Alright, let's get down to business. Optimizing your YouTube content to rank quickly boils down to five main areas you can work to improve:
- Writing an engaging YouTube video title
- Creating a searchable YouTube video description
- Including relevant tags with each video
- Designing an attention-grabbing thumbnail
- Verbally including your keywords in the video itself
Each area is an opportunity to improve your rankings for the keywords you're going after, driving more viewers to your videos (and more sales for your online business).
Let's look at a few best practices for how you can optimize each area for search, along with a few extra tips you can use to get even more eyes on your videos.
YouTube SEO tip #1: Write an engaging video title
Your video title is the first message viewers will see when they come across your video in YouTube's search results. Your headline needs to immediately grab their attention so they'll click on your video—but you also need to include your target keywords to give your video the best chance of ranking.
To show you what I mean, here's an example of a title designed to pique a viewer's interest:
And here's a contrasting example of a video title written purely for search:
Finding the right balance of being succinct yet enticing often takes a little experimentation. “Unlike other search engines,” explains Adam Lumb of Cashcow, “you can change your video’s title or description and it will often be updated in YouTube’s search results pages in a matter of minutes. This is great for experimenting as you can see if your update made any kind of impact to the rankings relatively quickly.”
Try to include your main keywords in your title whenever possible, but don't go overboard. If your title is too specific and packed full of keywords, viewers may not be interested enough to click. On the flip side, avoid being too clever with your titles. It’s more important for your video title to be clear and keyword-specific—YouTube users who are looking to learn through tutorials or educational content want to know what they’ll find in the video from its title. When in doubt, always keep your titles focused on your video topic.
Finally, try to keep your titles short. A study by YouTube consultant Jason Briggs found that most videos ranking in the top 20 positions have titles around 47-48 characters in length. Aim to keep your titles under 50 characters in length to have the best chance of ranking quickly.
YouTube SEO tip #2: Write a searchable YouTube video description
Next, let's take a look at how to write a YouTube description that's optimized for search.
The Youtube algorithm scans your video descriptions for signals on what your video might be about. The better the algorithm can understand your video content, the stronger your opportunity to rank in search results.
A few important elements you should include with every YouTube video description you write:
- A summary or description of your video that includes your target keyword
- A brief bio of yourself and your channel
- Links to additional related videos viewers can also watch
- Links to your website, landing pages, or email newsletter
- A call for viewers to subscribe to your channel
Here's a great example of a video description from Marie Poulin, who creates YouTube videos and teaches an online course on mastering Notion:
Don't overuse keywords. Just like Google, you can be penalized for “keyword stuffing,” or including too many of your target keywords in your description to boost your rankings. Try to include your target keyword in the first 25 words of your description, and aim to include it 2-4 times in total throughout your description.
Long descriptions help, but only to a point. Your description should be at least 250 words in length, to give the YouTube algorithm the best chance of determining the context behind your video. Justin Briggs also found that rankings began to drop off after 350 words, so the sweet spot for your YouTube descriptions is around 250-350 words.
Finally, don't forget to include links! YouTube provides a platform with a built-in audience, but it's still your job to guide them on what to do after watching your videos. Your video descriptions are the perfect place to include call-to-action links to your landing pages, website, email newsletter, or even a related video.
YouTube SEO tip #3: Include relevant tags with each video
Tags are a little less important than title and description when optimizing for YouTube search, but they're still worth considering when optimizing your videos. Including relevant tags with each video tells YouTube what categories your video falls under so it can suggest and recommend your video to interested viewers.
There's no real right or wrong way to use YouTube tags, but you do want to make sure all your tags are relevant to your video and channel. You want to include two different types of tags with each video:
- Tags with general keywords you'd like your channel to rank for
- Tags with keywords related to your specific video
How do you find the right tags to include? This is where dedicated tools like VidIQ or TubeBuddy come in handy. Both VidIQ and TubeBuddy are Google Chrome extensions that help you optimize your SEO and improve your rankings. They both pack dozens of features, but the most helpful is the suggested tags. You can easily analyze competitors' videos and channels to see the tags and keywords they use, and how videos rank for each keyword.
Once you've installed either tool, click through to some of the top competing videos for your topic. Take a look at some of the tags those creators include, and be sure to match those tags in your videos. Both VidIQ and TubeBuddy will also suggest additional tags as you type, so look for opportunities to add even more relevant tags and increase your reach further.
Oh, and don't forget to include your brand name and any other brand-specific tags with each video. You want to rank for your business and brand, too!
YouTube SEO tip #4: Always design custom thumbnails for your videos
A video's thumbnail is often the first thing that grabs your attention as you browse YouTube, so it's important you create enticing and interesting thumbnails for every video. The more people that click on your thumbnail, the higher your video will rank in search.
“The first thing people will see about your video is the thumbnail, not the title,” explains Will Azevedo, founder of VloggerPro.com. “Make sure the thumbnail catches a lot of attention and that they can understand what it's about just by looking at it.”
Most thumbnails include some combination of these elements:
- A bold and colorful text summary of the video
- An image of a person (often making some kind of face)
- A contrasting background to stand out from other videos
Again, there's no right or wrong way to design thumbnails. You can keep all your thumbnails consistent, like YouTubers Becki and Chris:
Or you could be more wild with your thumbnail designs, like YouTuber Roberto Blake:
YouTube will automatically create three thumbnail options for you to choose from by selecting key frames from your video. Unfortunately, these often aren't the most engaging (or even the most flattering). Instead, use free design tools like Canva or Adobe Spark to create thumbnails and grab your audience's attention.
YouTube SEO tip #5: Verbally use your keywords in your video
It might sound obvious, but you also need to include your target keywords in the content of your video. While YouTube's algorithm can't actually watch your video to see what it's about, including a transcript with your videos can help describe your content to the algorithm and help improve your video rankings.
YouTube automatically generates captions for all your videos, but they often aren't perfect. You can use manual transcription services like Rev to generate accurate transcriptions (for a fee), then manually upload your captions to each video.
YouTube SEO tip #6: Optimize your existing videos
If you've been publishing videos for a while, optimizing the titles on your existing videos for search can be a great way to attract more viewers and help your videos rank.
For example, last year my friend Matt Giovanisci shared on his blog how he optimized every video on his YouTube channel, Swim University. He updated every title, description, tag, and thumbnail for all of his videos, and his traffic and business revenue jumped dramatically almost overnight with very little effort on his part.
Tools like VidIQ and TubeBuddy can help you find opportunities for improving your existing videos.
YouTube SEO tip #7: Feature your videos on your blog
YouTube isn't the only place you should be sharing your videos. Try embedding your video on a blog post or page on your site (along with a text transcript or blog post), then share that page instead of simply sharing your video.
YouTube consultant Justin Briggs found that videos with a high number of external links and embeds ranked 78% higher, receiving significantly more views and watch time than the average video.
To see what I mean, check out this example from marketing consultant Janelle Allen:
Janelle includes the video as the first item in her blog posts, along with the video transcript and a CTA button to subscribe to her channel. Posting the transcript text is an easy way to get more traction from your videos, giving you twice as many chances to rank and helping build links to your content.
YouTube SEO tip #8: Consistently add new video content
Not only is consistency important for your blog, but it’s also crucial to your YouTube channel’s success. If you upload eight new episodes one month but then disappear for three months, your subscribers will be wondering what happened to you. Or worse, they’ll forget about your content altogether.
It’s best to create a video content calendar that fits your schedule from the get-go. That way you can commit to posting regularly no matter what that looks like for you.
Whether you start with weekly, biweekly, or monthly content, find a way to weave it into your current marketing plan.
Don't forget: Always put your audience first
Optimizing your YouTube videos for search can certainly help you rank quickly, but it takes more than a carefully crafted title or description to rank.
Sean McCabe's biggest mistake?
“I made content about what I KNEW people needed instead of what they were asking for. You should never guess when it comes to content. All content ideas should come from the mouths (or the search boxes) of your target audience member.”
Your priority should always be to create the best possible content for your audience. Start by deeply understanding your audience's needs, then create videos to educate, entertain, and engage them. Only then should you focus on improving your title, description, tags, and thumbnails.
That's a wrap, folks 🎬.
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