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In this post, I’ll go through the very basics of YouTube SEO (Search Engine Optimization – if you’re complete new to SEO, read this first!), how to rank your videos on YouTube, the do’s and don’ts, all aimed at the very beginner. I’m assuming that you’re a complete noob, or at least know very little, about SEO in general, just so we all start out on the same foot. If you already have a solid background in SEO, you can probably skip a few points, especially in the beginning.
A few weeks ago, a relatively simple point dawned on me. While I’ve written up case studies about the Rankify YouTube course, while I’ve done and posted research on the (non) influence of backlinks on YouTube rankings, and written about YouTube as a search engine, I hadn’t actually made a simple post about YouTube SEO. Why? I’m not entirely sure, it has just been one of those things, that have been so self-evident to me, that I never actually got around to making a simple “Beginners Guide”.
Why should you care about SEO? When you upload a video to YouTube, most get the majority of their views from their subscribers, in the first few days. But when happens when a video gets older? At that point, it only gets found through search or related videos. That means, that generally, your video will no longer get any views (or very few views), unless it’s found when someone searches for a relevant term in YouTube, or it’s otherwise shared between friends or on social media.
Essentially, your video is dead on your channel. SEO comes into play, by making sure that your video shows up correctly (as well as it can), for popular search terms, for which it is relevant. For instance, if you have a “Let’s Play” of the video game “Spore”, and someone types in “Let’s play spore”, it would give you a higher chance of showing up in those search results (note, “Spore” would be a bad keyword to go for, far too competitive, but more on that later in “Keyword Research”).
I want to point out here, in the start, that I won’t go into complete detail. If you’re looking to really amp up your presence on YouTube, I highly suggest you check out my video course, Rankify YouTube, which goes into far more detail. This post is really aimed at SEO beginners, and I’m only going to go through the basics.
I also want to point out, that you should be very careful with all those “Ultimate Guide to YouTube SEO” or “Advanced Techniques” posts out there. Not that the information in them is necessarily bad, some of them do in fact talk about some very valid things. But rather, because they are incredibly lacking. The problem is, that most of them are written people SEO’s, who has a little bit of experience with YouTube, instead of YouTube’ers who also know SEO. That means, that many of them simply skip entire features on YouTube, not out of malice, but because they simply don’t know they exist. My Rankify YouTube Advanced course has over 20 lesson, 3 hours of video, and it still doesn’t cover every single point there is to know.
Another important point, is that my recommendations, are based on actual case studies and research that I’ve done, not just “well I think this makes sense” type stuff.
Not saying that there that isn’t some great posts out there, there certainly is. I’m just saying, “be careful”.
Before going further, I would also like to direct you to a previous blog post of mine, titled “YouTube is a Search Engine”, where I explain exactly why you should view YouTube as a Search Engine, just like Google or Bing.
Last, just in case it wasn’t clear: I’ll be talking about ranking YouTube videos, INSIDE of YouTube. NOT ranking videos in Google, or Bing, or Yahoo.
If you just want to jump straight to it:
Since we’re starting from scratch here, I want to make sure we’re all clear on what SEO is. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, and is the act of optimizing an element on the web, for discovery and ranking in search engines. It is most widely known for, and used for, ranking websites in search results, these days primarily in Google.
Search Engines run on a very complex algorithm – they have continually search the entire web (consisting of billions upon billions of individual web pages, images, files, and so forth), this is called spidering, and update their search results to ensure that the correct web page, which is the most relevant and high quality one compared to what was searched, show up. The search engines do this continually, to make sure that if a website is updated, or a new website comes online, the changes are reflected in the SERP’s (Search Engine Results Page).
Considering the immense amount of data that is on the web, the algorithm that search engines use (all different ones), has to be one that can figure out if one page is better than another page. Originally, this was done mostly on keywords (how many times does X show up), when later Google started being among the first to incorporate links.
SEO isn’t an exact science. The reason why, is because no search engine ever goes out and tells people, exactly what factors it uses to rank, or not rank, particular websites (or videos, or images, or whatever). There are vague releases, such as the Google Guidelines, for example, that will give you a general idea of what you should do, and shouldn’t do. But in the end, the details, the exact details, are known to only the coders that sit and work on the search algorithm.
These algorithms change on a pretty constant basis. Google have said that there are over 500 updates a year, however the major ones are usually given names. Two major ones, which come one or two times a year currently, is the Google Panda (penalty against “thin” or “low quality” content) and Google Penguin (penalty against spammy links) updates. It has become a standard joke, due to the drastic update of the SERP’s when an update comes out (for good or bad), that each time, someone will say “SEO is Dead” (which has been said for many years now).
In SEO, there is generally 2 types of people (some would argue, perhaps correctly, that it’s all the same, or that it’s more varied, but for now, let’s go with 2): Black Hat SEO’s, and White Hat SEO’s.
White Hat SEO’s tend to be people that do it the way that Google wants you to. They don’t utilize any software to build links, for instance. They focus natural areas, such as ensuring that their pages are titled correct, images include Alt-Tags, encourage social media sharing, write long and useful content, don’t pay for links, and so forth.
Black Hat SEO’s tend to be people that “cheat the system” (in Google’s eyes, at least). They tend to focus more on areas such as link building, usually using software automation tools such as GSA Search Engine Ranker, Kontent Machine, and so forth. They will often buy links, or buy social media shares en masse.
What I’ll go through in this post, regarding how you do SEO for YouTube videos, will be 100% White Hat, and shouldn’t get you in trouble with neither YouTube nor Google’s official guidelines. In contrast, Black Hat SEO techniques for YouTube usually include being several thousand “High Retention Views”, buying video comments, buying video shares, and so forth. There will be none of that in this post, and I generally do not recommend people to do it, as it comes with an incredibly high risk of having your YouTube video permanently removed.
SEO on YouTube is a little different than for websites (naturally). Much like Google, on YouTube there is a wealth of different factors, that go into determining how well a video should rank, for any given search term. I could try to mention them all, but not only would it be hundreds of points long, but it would be moot: I don’t know them all. No one does.
Instead, what I’ll do is mention the biggest 20 (in no particular order):
Video Playlist Title
Video Playlist Description
Video Playlist Notes
Viewer Interaction Ratio
Total Viewer Interaction
Video Bounce Rate
As you can see, some of these you have control over, and some of them you don’t. I go through most of these in the Rankify Course.
Viewer Retention, for instance, isn’t something you can control. Viewer Retention is how much of your video, the average viewer watches, before closing the video / leaving the page. The higher percentage they watch, the better YouTube concludes the video must be.
For all the parts that you CAN’T control, it comes down to how good your video is. Consider that on YouTube, good content is a bit like the foundation for your house. Without the foundation, the house can’t be built, and anything you try to put on top of it, will crumble down. That said, with ONLY the foundation, you don’t have an actual house either.
SEO and Good Content is a bit like that. YouTube’s “Playbook” is free, and is a very good resource for making generally engaging videos. It might seem a bit basic, but give it a read, it’s pretty good.
Other parts you can control, such as your title, tags and description. It is those that I’ll be focusing on in this post.
A key thing to point out, is that while YouTube share many of the same features that Google do, the search algorithm for YouTube seems to be considerably more “slow”. That means that you really have to wonk it over the head with what your video is about. So generally speaking, your keyword density can be at least twice as high, as it should tend to be on a well optimized Google page.
Another important thing to know, which I mentioned briefly in the beginning of this post, is that unlike in Google, backlinks have zero influence when ranking a video inside YouTube. Now, backlinks are a major ranking when, if you’re trying to rank a YouTube video in GOOGLE, but inside of YouTube, it doesn’t matter (it seems, for now).
A very overlooked point, is often simply setting up your YouTube channel correctly. It’s the very first thing you do, and many people overlook it, especially if they’re new to YouTube.
First off, make sure that you have connected your YouTube channel to the correct Google+ Page. If you have set it up connected to the wrong G+ page, you can go and change it here. With Googles continued focus on brands, individual authors, and “authority” in general, it’s very important that you make sure everything is connected in Google correctly.
Next up, would be making sure that you have actually chosen a channel name, and preferably one that makes sense. If you don’t choose a channel name yourself, you will be given a very long and nasty URL. For instance, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_rdFzxdtONPk3tu-r8BJbg is the page URL that I was given from YouTube for my Philip Zeplin YouTube account, but I (quickly) later changed that to: https://www.youtube.com/user/PhilipZeplin
After that, make sure that you have phone verified your YouTube account. It takes a very short time, and opens up a ton of new features to you. Just remember that you can only use the same phone number twice per year, to verify accounts (if you, like me, often need to verify client accounts and so forth). After you’ve done that, you can now also verify and connect your YouTube channel to your website. This is absolutely huge, as it allows to create external annotations (“Associated Website Annotation”), linking a page from your website, in your YouTube video annotation.
Last, make sure that you properly link your social media accounts in your YouTube channel settings, so they appear correctly. Make sure that you write out a full, long, detailed and useful description of your YouTube channel, with particular word focus on the keywords most relevant to your channels content. And of course, make sure you choose a nice banner, a nice profile image, and change the default channel layout to something more appealing.
These are small things, and some of them might not even directly impact your SEO. But it gives the user a much better experience on your channel, and allows them to browse through your videos in a more pleasant way, which IS bound to affect your SEO.
Undoubtedly, the 3 biggest factors on ranking a video on YouTube, is the Title, the Description, and the Tags. That said, without some keyword research to back it up, you won’t get anywhere. So let’s start out with keyword research first.
Keyword research (more in-depth article here), is figuring out what people search for. Not just the topic, but the exact words they use to use for certain things. For instance, if you wanted to search for YouTube SEO, you might search for any of the following:
YouTube SEO, SEO on YouTube, SEO for YouTube videos, how to optimize YouTube videos for SEO, how to SEO YouTube videos, How to YouTube SEO, and so forth. In Googles eyes (though less so in recent years), all these are different searches, and the more you can make sure to include a specific search phrase in your content, the more likely it is that you will rank for it.
But it certainly goes further. Next step, is figuring out how many people search for the different phrases. For instance, 2400 people monthly search Google for “SEO for YouTube videos”, whereas only 110 search for “How to SEO YouTube videos”. So the amount of people you can potentially reach, varies greatly on the search term that you decide to aim for.
The next step, would then be manually going in and evaluating the competition. For Google, there are various tools that allow you to do that, most paid, but for YouTube there isn’t really anything. That means that you have to check out the search terms yourself, have a look at the videos there, and decide how harsh the competition for that keyword is.
The goal will always be, to find keywords that have a high search volume, but low competition.
For starters, your keyword research should begin with using a combination of the YouTube Keyword Tool, and the Google Keyword Planner. YouTube Keyword Tool is great, because it shows searches on YouTube instead of Google (which can vary greatly!), but sadly, the tool itself is pretty bad, not showing any low-search results, having very limited sorting options, and so forth. So give both a go, and use common sense.
Once you’ve done your keyword research, it’s time to think of your YouTube video title. Apart from the thumbnail, the title is probably has the highest impact on who’s going to click your video, and who isn’t. So while it’s important to optimize it for SEO (including the keywords/phrases that you found), it’s also important to make sure that it makes sense, that it’s enticing, that it sounds interesting.
You should usually decide on one, most 2, keywords that you are going for, and make sure that they are represented in the title of the video, but also make sure that it doesn’t just sound like a random search phrase.
This isn’t incredibly difficult, but it’s still a very important first step to get right. You can see exact examples of how I’ve done it, in an older case study here.
YouTube Video Description
Next up is your video description. Without going into too much detail, I can sum up the majority of advice for you in just one sentence: “Write out a full, long, useful description”.
In essence, consider a YouTube video description, like a 500 word blog post. It can contain 5000 characters, and you should hit that limit pretty close. Your keyword should be in the first sentence of the description, and be mentioned frequently.
Much like a quality blog post, your description should contain useful links to relevant material (a playlist, a website, other relevant videos, etc.), be well styled in different paragraphs, and so forth.
The description can take a painfully long time to make (easily taking an hour), but trust me, a well written description is one of the things that can really do wonders for your video, and considering the relative ease of it, it still amazes me, that so many YouTubers decide to ignore it, simply because it can be a little boring.
One thing that you SHOULD NOT do, is just post a ton of keywords at the end of your video description. It pains me greatly whenever I see people do this, and they think that somehow YouTube haven’t caught on to it yet. That might have worked 3 or 5 years ago, and yes, it’s probably better than just having a completely blank description. But it is in no way a substitute for writing out a good, 5000 character description.
YouTube Video Tags
Last up, are your video tags. I’ll jump straight to the most common mistake that I see people make: too many varied topics. If your video is about funny cats, don’t include a tag describing what sort of video camera you have. If your video is about bananas, don’t include a tag for your microphone. If your video is about dancing, don’t include a tag for what designer dress you’re wearing.
All your tags should be strictly relevant to your video topic, and should ALL compliment each other. Here you have 300 worth of characters to make good with, and again, you should use all of them. It’s horribly frustrating to see that a YouTube video only has 3 or 5 tags, when it could include 25 instead.
The more (relevant) tags you can fit in there, the better. Don’t repeat the same tags again, but also don’t start stuffing in tags and information, that is, in reality, completely irrelevant to your videos topic.
Final Video SEO Notes:
None of these are meant to be explain each point in detail. In the video courses I have, I explain each section in more more detail, exactly how each should be optimized, what they should include, and so forth. However, for a beginner, I feel this is plenty. In fact, if you follow up on these 4 points, and honestly spend some time on them, then you’re doing more than the VAST majority of people on YouTube.
Here are some various recommended channels, blogs, and posts that’ll be sure to get you well on your way. First off, I wrote a forum post about YouTube SEO a while back on the YTTalk forums. It covers much of the same as this post did, but you might learn some extra from reading the discussions I have with posters afterwards.
The website and YouTube channel “VidiSEO” also covers both SEO and YouTube content creation, and post some very good stuff. I suggest you check it out!
You can also check out “ReelSEO”. Now, I should add that I don’t agree with a lot of what they post, and I feel a lot of their posts on the site are very thin, and seem mostly to be created to get a visits, not really help people. That said, there is still a wealth of knowledge available here, so head over there.
While it is very much NOT an “Ultimate Guide”, Backlinko did post a very good article about YouTube SEO, that I can recommend.
Last, check out Matthew Woodwards series on YouTube. Matthew always posts some very solid stuff on his blog, that I can really recommend. Again, his YouTube series is clearly made by a guy that really knows SEO, but doesn’t really focus on YouTube (where it should really be the other way around). Nonetheless, the series is sure to provide you with some good insight. You can find Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.
YouTube has evolved to become an incredibly competitive platform, and those super easy rankings you could get 3 years ago, just aren’t possible these days. This guide is also not meant to explain everything to you. As I hope you understand by now, YouTube has a wealth of ranking factors, and the ones that I’ve gone through in this post, are just meant to get you started.
If you want a more in depth understanding of YouTube SEO, you should have a look at my Rankify YouTube video course instead.
That said, after reading this post, you should know have a better understanding of what SEO is, and how SEO works on YouTube, than the majority of random YouTube’ers out there. YouTube is still, compared to Google, an easy win. Not because there isn’t competition, but because the majority of users on YouTube still don’t realize that they should optimize their videos, and even more so, how they should optimize them.
If you just follow the small pointers that I’ve laid out for you here, you’ll already be well on your way.
Best of luck!