If you believe in free will, we have terrible news — well, at least when it comes to YouTube. Because YouTube’s algorithm for recommendations drives 70% of what people watch on the platform.
Seventy percent! That is some seriously staggering influence. Youtube’s 2.5 billion users watch 694,000 minutes of video each minute. And the platform’s recommendation system is responsible for the majority of those views.
So it’s no surprise that marketers, influencers, and creators are obsessed with unlocking the secret of the Youtube algorithm. Getting recommended to the right viewers at the right time is the ticket to YouTube stardom, but how does it work? What makes it tick? And, most importantly, how can we take advantage of this mysterious formula?
Well, ponder no more, my ‘Tube curious friends because in this blog post, we’ll cover everything about the Youtube algorithm that you’ve been dying to know.
- What the algorithm is (and isn’t)
- The most recent changes to the Youtube algorithm
- Pro tips for getting YouTube’s search and discovery systems to work for you
Bonus: Download the free 30-day plan to grow your YouTube following fast, a daily workbook of challenges that will help you kickstart your Youtube channel growth and track your success. Get real results after one month.
What is the YouTube algorithm? To answer that question, let’s do a quick overview of how YouTube’s Algorithm has changed over the years. And how it works today.
According to founder Jawed Karim (a.k.a. the star of Me at the Zoo), YouTube was created in 2005 in order to crowdsource video of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s notorious Superbowl performance. So it makes sense that YouTube’s algorithm started off by recommending videos that attracted the most views or clicks.
Alas, this led to an increase in misleading titles and thumbnails (a.k.a. clickbait). User experience plummeted as videos left people feeling tricked, unsatisfied, or plain old annoyed.
In 2012, YouTube adjusted its recommendation system to support time spent watching each video. It also included time spent on the platform overall. When people find videos valuable and interesting, they watch them for longer. Or so the theory goes.
This shift to reward watch time was a game changer. According to Mark Bergan, author of Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to World Domination,“[Watch time] had an immediate impact. Early YouTubers were basically making TikTok videos…but watch time created gaming, beauty vlogging, alt-right podcasts… all these verticals we now associate with YouTube.”
Accounts that were big performers previously (like videos from eHow, or MysteryGuitarMan) dropped off almost immediately.
YouTube’s algorithm change led some creators to try to make their videos shorter in order to make it more likely viewers would watch to completion. Others made their videos longer in order to increase watch time overall. YouTube didn’t comment on either of these tactics and maintained the party line: make videos your audience wants to watch, and the algorithm will reward you.
That said, as anyone who has ever spent any time on the internet knows, time spent is not necessarily equivalent to quality time spent. YouTube changed tack again.
In 2015, YouTube began measuring viewer satisfaction directly with user surveys. It also prioritized direct response metrics like Shares, Likes, and Dislikes (and, of course, the especially brutal “not interested” button).
In 2016, YouTube released a whitepaper describing some of the inner workings of its AI: Deep Neural Networks for YouTube Recommendations.
In short, the algorithm had gotten way more personal. The goal was to find the video each particular viewer wants to watch, not just the video that lots of other people have perhaps watched in the past.
As a result, in 2018, YouTube’s Chief product officer mentioned on a panel that 70% of watch time on YouTube is spent watching videos the algorithm recommends.
Over the years, YouTube’s size and popularity have resulted in an increasing number of content moderation issues. And what the algorithm recommends has become a serious topic not just for creators and advertisers but for journalists and the government as well.
YouTube has said it is serious about its responsibility to support a diverse range of opinions while reducing the spread of harmful misinformation. Algorithm changes enacted in early 2019, for example, have reduced consumption of borderline content by 70%. (YouTube defines borderline content as content that doesn’t quite violate community guidelines but is harmful or misleading. Violative content, on the other hand, is immediately removed.)
This issue affects creators, who fear accidentally running afoul of ever-changing community guidelines. Or being punished with strikes, demonetization, or worse.
(Former CEO Susan Wojcicki said one of YouTube’s priorities in 2021 was increasing transparency for community guidelines for creators).
It also affects brands and advertisers, who don’t want their name and logo running alongside white supremacists.
Meanwhile, American politicians are increasingly concerned with the societal role of social media algorithms. YouTube (and other platforms) have been summoned to account for their algorithms at Senate hearings. And in early 2021 Democrats introduced a ”Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act.”
Next, let’s talk about what we know about how this dangerous beast works.
Currently, the YouTube algorithm delivers distinct recommendations to each user. These recommendations are tailored to users’ interests and watch history and weighted based on factors like the videos’ performance and quality.
When deciding what to recommend to each user, the YouTube algorithm takes into account the following:
- What videos have they enjoyed in the past? If you’ve watched a 40-minute video essay about the flags of the world or gave it a like or comment, it’s probably safe to say you found it interesting. Expect more flag content coming your way.
- What topics or channels have they watched previously? If you subscribe to the Food Network’s YouTube channel, the algorithm will likely show you more cooking content.
- What videos are typically watched together? If you watch “How to change a monster truck tire,” and most people who watch that also watch “Monster truck repair 101,” YouTube might recommend that as followup viewing.
That’s why a Millennial comedy-fan design-writer mom has a home page that looks like this:
Of course, YouTube wants to recommend relevant, quality videos to each of its precious users. It’s not exactly a positive experience to follow a suggestion to watch “The World’s 36 Most Stylish Cats” and find it boring, low-quality or weirdly racist.
So how does YouTube evaluate if a video is worthy of recommendation?
First: it’s not about the content. The actual content of your video is not evaluated by the YouTube algorithm at all. Videos about how great YouTube is aren’t more likely to go viral than a video about how to knit a beret for your hamster.
“Our algorithm doesn’t pay attention to videos; it pays attention to viewers. So, rather than trying to make videos that’ll make an algorithm happy, focus on making videos that make your viewers happy,” says YouTube.
Instead, YouTube looks at the following metrics for its recommendation algorithm:
- Do people actually watch it? When a video is recommended, do people actually watch it, ignore it, or click “not interested”?
- How long do people watch it? The YouTube algorithm looks at both the view duration and the average percentage viewed to inform the ranking.
- Did viewers like it? Likes and dislikes are evaluated, as are engagement rates and post-watch survey results.
- What is your regional context? The time of day and the language you speak also influence the YouTube algorithm.
More than 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every single minute. The search system would be absolute chaos without the YouTube algorithm trying to help you find the most relevant content.
That’s right: the goal isn’t to bring you the most popular or the most recent video on your search term. It’s to bring you the video that you specifically will find the most useful.
That’s why two different users searching for the same term may see a totally different list of results.
YouTube’s search algorithm prioritizes the following elements:
- Relevance: The YouTube algorithm tries to match factors like title, tags, content, and description to your search query.
- Engagement: Signals include watch time and watch percentage, as well as likes, comments, and shares.
- Quality: To evaluate quality, the algorithm looks at signals to determine the channel’s authority and trustworthiness on a given topic.
- User search and watch history: What have you enjoyed or viewed in the past? This will impact which search results the YouTube algorithm will assume will be helpful.
That being said: these factors are combined in slightly different ways, depending on where on YouTube you are receiving recommendations.
YouTube recommends videos in three different places on the platform.
This is what you see when you open up the YouTube app or visit the YouTube website. It’s personalized to each viewer. The recommendation engine selects videos for the Home screen based on…
- Performance of the video
- Watch and search history of the user
These are the videos recommended alongside the video you’re already watching: the list of vids that appear under ‘Up Next.” The algorithm suggests videos here based on…
- The topic of the current video
- The viewer’s watch history
The keyword obviously plays a role here. But each user’s search results will be slightly different thanks to the personalized signals the algorithm takes into account. These signals include:
- The relevance of the title, description, and video content to the search term
- Performance and engagement of video
YouTube Shorts are short, vertical videos created using a smartphone and uploaded directly to YouTube from the YouTube app, like Stories. Millions of YouTube viewers are watching Shorts daily… so don’t sleep on this new format.
YouTube’s VP of Product Management described Shorts as “a new short-form video experience for creators and artists who want to shoot short, catchy videos using nothing but their mobile phones,” and goes on to say, “Shorts is a new way to express yourself in 15 seconds or less”.
But how do you get your Shorts discovered?
Bonus: Download the free 30-day plan to grow your YouTube following fast, a daily workbook of challenges that will help you kickstart your Youtube channel growth and track your success. Get real results after one month.
YouTube users can find and watch Shorts on the YouTube homepage or via the Shorts tab on the website or app. Shorts are subject to the same recommendation signals as “long” YouTube videos. (YouTube Classic?)
Here’s what the YouTube Shorts algorithm takes into account:
- Relevance: Do the title, tags, content, and description match the search term?
- Engagement: Do other people like and comment on this video?
- User watch history: What have you enjoyed or viewed in the past?
- Similar content: What other Shorts do similar audiences like to watch?
- Watch time: Less important than for classic videos. But if someone can’t even sit through a 15-second video, that’s probably not a good sign.
Hot tip: you can schedule your YouTube, uh, Longs via the Hootsuite Dashboard so you have time to focus on more spontaneous YouTube Shorts on the go.
Paige Cooper is the Hootsuite Inbound YouTube Lead. She runs Hootsuite Labs, our Youtube channel and she sees Shorts as an opportunity ripe for the taking.
“The rise of vertical video hasn’t changed the main algorithm per se, but YouTube Shorts are creating a big new opportunity for creators,” she says. “If you’re already running an Instagram Reels or TikTok strategy, publishing on YouTube Shorts seems to be an easy win.”
All that said, when it comes to working with the YouTube algorithm, remember that the algorithm follows the audience. If you already have a YouTube marketing plan in place, these tips will help you grow your channel’s views.
There’s no human being sitting at YouTube headquarters watching your video and ranking it.
Instead, the algorithm looks at your metadata as it decides what the video is about, which videos or categories it’s related to, and who might want to watch it.
When it comes to describing your video for the algorithm, you want to use accurate, concise language that people are already using when they search.
For example, if you were uploading a comedy sketch, you should probably include the words “comedy” and “funny” in the title and description and be crystal clear about the topics or subject of the vid.
Because YouTube is a search engine as much as a video platform, you can conduct your keyword research in the same way you would for a blog post or web copy: using free tools like Google Adwords or SEMrush. Read more about social SEO here!
Once you’ve identified your primary keywords, you’ll want to use them in four places:
- In the video’s file name (i.e., laparoscopic-appendectomy.mov)
- In the video’s title (using catchy natural language like “Real life step by step laparoscopic appendectomy”)
- In the YouTube video description (especially within the first two lines, above the fold)
- In the video’s script (and therefore in the video’s subtitles and closed captions—which means uploading an SRT file).
But there’s one place you don’t need to put your keywords:
- In the video’s tags. According to Youtube, tags “play a minimal role in video discovery” and are most helpful if your keyword or channel name is often misspelled. (i.e., laporoscopic, lapparascopic, appendictomy, apendectomy, etc.) Adding excessive tags to your video description could even harm your video. It’s against YouTube’s policies on spam, deceptive practices, and scams.
But without being clickbaity, obviously.
“Appeal” is the word YouTube uses to describe how a video entices a person to take a risk (albeit a minor one) and watch something new. While YouTube itself doesn’t care what your thumbnail looks like visually, it is keeping track of whether or not people actually click through.
YouTuber J.J. McCullough uses a consistent style for his thumbnails that usually feature his face, a succinct title, and intriguing imagery.
To maximize your video’s appeal:
- Upload a custom thumbnail (and keep the visual style consistent across all your thumbnails)
- Write an intriguing, catchy title—the kind you can’t not click on
- Remember the first sentence or so of the description will show up in search, so make it interesting and relevant.
Keep people watching your video, and all your videos
Once you have a viewer watching one video, make it easy for them to keep watching your content and stay within your channel’s ecosystem.
For instance, the end of Taskmaster episodes feature a card that links to more videos and a prompt to subscribe to the channel.
To this end, use:
- Cards: flag relevant other videos in your video
- End screens: end with a CTA to watch another relevant video
- Playlists: of topically similar videos
- Subscription watermarks (for more on converting viewers to subscribers, read our guide to getting more YouTube subscribers)
Pro Tip: Making a video series is a great way to capitalize on a recent spike in viewers. Using a scheduling tool like Hootsuite can make it easy to pre-plan your monthly factory tour or interview sessions in advance.
Views that don’t come from the YouTube algorithm can still inform your success with the algorithm. For instance: YouTube ads, external sites, cross-promoting on social media, and partnerships with other channels or brands can all help you earn views and subscribers, depending on your strategy.
For instance, on the Murphy Beds Canada website, the support section links to a selection of videos that open in YouTube.
The algorithm won’t punish your video for having a lot of traffic from off-site (e.g., a blog post). This is important because click-through-rates and view duration often tank when the bulk of a video’s traffic is from ads or an external site.
According to YouTube’s product team, the algorithm only pays attention to how a video performs in context. So, a video that performs well on the homepage will be surfaced to more people on the homepage, no matter what its metrics from blog views look like.
Pro Tip: Embedding a YouTube video in your blog or website is great for both your blog’s Google SEO as well as your video’s view counts on YouTube.
Engage with comments and other channels
In order for your audience to grow, you need to nurture your relationships with your viewers. For many viewers, part of YouTube’s appeal is feeling closer to creators than they do to traditional celebrities.
Relationship-building with your viewers and other creators can build bridges that will help you all the way down the line. Hootsuite’s community engagement tools are a great way to stay on top of this.
Racking up views for the sake of views is a lose-lose situation. Maybe you’ve crafted the most titillating thumbnail-title combo of all time and are capturing an outsized amount of attention… but viewers will quickly figure out you’ve tricked them and bounce.
So what did that really gain you?
Not only will you have sullied your brand reputation with a bait-and-switch, you’ll also be punished by the YouTube algorithm. Misleading or sensational There’s no chance clickbait is going to impress the recommendation engine.
Stick to accurate, quality content, and create titles and thumbnails that properly represent what viewers are going to see.
The challenge is, as YouTuber Alec Wilcock says, “to make sure your videos are actually valuable for your audience. You can’t just want them to be valuable.”
“Viewers can see fluff or filler a mile away, so there’s no phoning it in, or you will see a drop in your watch time,” advises Cooper. “It’s a cliche at this point, but every time you say ‘algorithm’ replace that word with ‘audience.’ We aren’t making videos for robots, we’re making them for smart, discerning people who have infinite other ways to spend their time.” Ask yourself, “Would I watch this?” as much as possible.
Your YouTube channel can be a great way to hop on the bandwagon for trending topics. But it’s tough to make a clever response video or weigh in on an issue if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on.
A kids literacy charity, for instance, might want to keep an eye on other literacy trending topics or the hashtag #volunteering.
Creating compelling, relevant content is one of the best ways to impress that YouTube algorithm.
Google Trends is another great source for keeping in the loop. If you notice a problem people are looking to solve, be the one to solve that problem.
One recent video that is doing super well for Hootsuite is our video on How to share a 60-second Instagram Reel to your Instagram Story without it getting chopped up. “We did the research to find a workaround for a common problem people have, and that paid off with a 78% percent retention rate,” Cooper explains. (Of course, these kinds of videos have pretty short shelf lives because Instagram will update the app sooner rather than later. “I’m already on the hunt for our next hack,” she says.)
The only way to know what really captures an audience’s attention and gets you that precious watch time is to try, try, try. You’ll never find that secret recipe for success without a little experimentation… and probably a few failures (a.k.a. learning opps) along the way.
Mr. Beast didn’t become the world’s richest YouTuber overnight. By trial and error, he discovered that the wilder and more extravagant his stunts were, the better his views and engagement did. And now he’s, uh, curing blindness. What a time to be alive!
“It’s the little changes and course corrections that add up over time!” says Cooper. “As a small channel, obviously the dream is to create a piece of gold that goes viral. But as a small educational channel, focusing on practical, valuable videos that we know people already want is important.”
Two tactics that have paid off for Hootsuite Labs are getting more specific (a.k.a. “niching down”) with a topic (i.e., rather than “Instagram vs. TikTok” going after “Instagram vs. TikTok for business”; and 2) being the first to make a video on a topic. “But really both of those mean knowing your audience: what they care about, what they’re problems are, what they’re curious about, and what they want to know,” says Cooper.
Take courage from the fact that if an experiment really bombs, that low-performing video won’t down-rank your channel or future videos in any way. (Unless you have truly alienated your audience to the point where they don’t want to watch you anymore.) Your videos all have an equal chance to earn viewers, according to YouTube’s product team.
It’s almost impossible to wow your audience if you don’t know who they are. That’s why understanding your target audience and their behavior is so important.
Get to know your YouTube audience by digging into your analytics, either via YouTube directly or using Hootsuite’s audience insights tool.
Understanding their location, their gender, and their age can help inform your content strategy. Watching how they actually interact with your videos—engagement, watch time, and all of those important social media metrics—also will point you in the right direction.
Knowledge! Is! Power!
The YouTube algorithm doesn’t directly base its recommendations on what time or day you post. But the algorithm does take stock of a video’s popularity and engagement. And one surefire way to get more views on YouTube is to post your video when your audience is online.
Prep your videos in advance and then use a scheduling tool for maximum reach. The Hootsuite scheduler, for instance, provides custom recommendations for the best posting time for your audience. Here’s how it works:
While the YouTube algorithm rewards watch time, it’s all relative. “Our discovery system uses absolute and relative watch time as signals when deciding audience engagement, and we encourage you to do the same,” says YouTube. “Broadly speaking, relative watch time is more important for short videos and absolute watch time is more important for longer videos.”
So think less about total length when you’re creating a video and more about creating compelling content that keeps the viewer watching through to the end, no matter how long or short your video is.
If they’re dropping off 25% of the way through, that’s not great, whether your video is 6 minutes or 60 minutes.
Pro tip: Check out your audience retention metric to help understand how long your unique viewers like to watch. Then you can adjust your content accordingly.
“You’re constantly learning about your audience, and every win and every loss will tell you something about what they value (or don’t value), which you can apply to your next video,” notes Cooper.
“If you’re losing fifty percent of your audience in the first 30 seconds, try cutting that content. If your average view time is two minutes out of 10, see what happens if you make a five-minute video. Each video is evaluated on its own merits, which means that each video is a new chance to succeed… or fail. (Sorry!)”
Mastering the YouTube algorithm is just one way to get your YouTube channel the attention it deserves, of course. For more on thriving on the ‘Tube, check out our guide to building a custom YouTube marketing strategy. And, ahem, while you’re over there… maybe you’d like to give our channel a little like and subscribe?
Let Hootsuite make growing your YouTube channel easier. Get scheduling, promotion, and marketing tools all in one place for your entire team. Sign up free today.