How does the YouTube algorithm work? Understanding this for both long content and YouTube Shorts can be the difference between succeeding as a YouTube creator and giving up.
As a creator making a living from YouTube, you have to know the platform inside out to get your videos noticed, reach the most viewers, and continue growing your account. This can be challenging when you think you’ve mastered the algorithm and go viral one day, only for the algorithm to change and cause a steep drop in engagement the next.
Nowadays, it’s not just the standard YouTube algorithm you have to think about either—there’s also the YouTube Shorts algorithm.
That’s why we’re here to help with our guide to the current YouTube algorithms and how they all work so you can get the best results for your business. Let’s dive straight in.
YouTube algorithm explained: What is it?
At its most basic level, the YouTube algorithm is a list of computer instructions that are designed to organize and rank videos according to relevance and user interest. The team at YouTube call it “a recommendation system” with the aim to “find an audience” for every video.
If the algorithm can deliver content that a user likes and believes to be valuable, the user is more likely to engage with similar content and stay on the platform for longer. From YouTube’s point of view, the longer a user stays on the platform, the more money they can make for their advertising partners.
How does the YouTube algorithm work?
YouTube’s recommendation system uses 80 billion signals every day to put the most appropriate videos in front of a particular user. During the upload process, YouTube collects data about the video frame by frame. They also take into account the information you’ve provided, such as the thumbnail, title, and description.
How many YouTube algorithms are there?
It’s important to realize that there’s not just one YouTube algorithm. YouTube uses a complex system of algorithms and these come into play across a few different areas of the website.
Let’s talk about the ones that you’ll want to optimize your videos for.
- Homepage: YouTube’s homepage shows you videos that you may be interested in based on your search and watch history. This now includes traditional YouTube videos and YouTube Shorts. For example, the suggestions on the below homepage indicate that the user has previously watched videos relating to Taylor Swift, The Body Coach TV, and YouTube tips.
- Search: When a user searches for a video, they give information on what they want to see. YouTube then provides the best match. As Renee Teeley explains in this video for @TubeBuddy: “If YouTube recommends your video for a specific search term and people respond well to it, YouTube will continue to recommend that video for the specific query.”
- Suggested: Renee says: “For Suggested, YouTube is trying to determine what video someone is most likely to watch after the video they’re currently watching.” This will include videos in a series, with related topics, and/or based on watch history.
YouTube comment algorithm
It’s worth mentioning YouTube’s comments. Some YouTubers have wondered whether there’s an independent algorithm for comments, which may affect how individual videos are ranking. The truth is, comments don’t affect the YouTube algorithm because they’re often irrelevant. Plus, they can be turned off by each channel’s owner.
YouTube algorithm signals you need to know
There are five key signals that indicate what a user may or may not find satisfying: clicks, watchtime, survey responses, likes, and dislikes.
Let’s face it, if you click on a video, you’re probably interested in its content and will find it satisfying. You wouldn’t click on a video you don’t want to watch.
Watchtime encompasses the types of videos you watched and how long for. It informs the recommendation system about other videos that you’ll most likely want to watch.
3. Survey responses
“Valued watchtime” is also measured alongside watchtime. This refers to the time spent watching a video that is considered valuable by the user, and it’s measured through surveys. Users are asked to rate a video they’ve just seen from one to five stars, which implies how satisfying they found the content.
If a user is satisfied with a video, they’re more likely to like or share it with others. YouTube’s recommendation system interprets this information to predict the likelihood that the user will like or share further videos.
If a user isn’t satisfied with a video, they can dislike it. This is a sign that the user didn’t enjoy its content and therefore YouTube will refrain from showing the user similar videos.
YouTube algorithm Reddit insights
Reddit is often the best place to find hidden gems of information, so we spent time compiling some of the best Reddit insights for you about the YouTube algorithm.
Youtube SEO best practices
The author of this Reddit thread, RishabJain12, brings up a good point about how YouTube SEO (Search Engine Optimization) can impact your video rankings.
By prioritizing YouTube SEO, he explains, you can get evergreen consistent views that continue forever, earning you passive income.
But how does YouTube SEO work? How can you crack it to get consistent views and earn passive income?
Find your search term
Devise a search term based on what a user would enter into the search box to be matched with your video (otherwise known as a keyword). RishabJain12 reminds us that “keywords are not tags nor are they spamming paragraphs of tags in the description.”
To devise your search term, use Google Trends and sort by last week. You can also go to YouTube’s homepage and type out the beginning of a search term. YouTube will autocomplete what users commonly search for.
Align your video title
“The #1 most important thing for YouTube SEO is your video title,” claims RishabJain12. “From my experience, YouTube ranks primarily based on your title. If you don't have the search term in your title then your video won't rank. It's as simple as that.”
What about where to place the search term in your title? “The closer it is to the start of the title, the better.”
Align your video content to its title
Align the video topic and content so that it appeals to the search term.
“Typically, answering questions works best for search-based views,” RishabJain12 clarifies. “So, if you play a game on your YouTube, consider making videos about answering questions/guides/tutorials related to that.”
Leverage your video description
Position your search term/keyword in your video description for good YouTube SEO.
RishabJain12 uses “2-3 sentences front-loaded with 1-2 keywords,” meaning that the keyword is always towards the start of each sentence. He puts his keyword in bold to highlight it for both users and the YouTube ranking system.
Add video chapters
Video chapters matter, RishabJain12 adds. “YouTube has been testing out auto-chapters where their AI automatically creates chapters for your video. But, we don't really know the extent to how that will be released.”
He advises you to use chapters in your videos as “they really do get you more views.” He continues: “One of my videos has gotten 200K from Google Search and I attribute it to the chapters since my video is subpar compared to the others. Yet, it still ranks higher on Google but lower on YouTube.”
In other words, adding chapters is worth a try, right?
YouTube Shorts algorithm
How does the YouTube Shorts algorithm work?
The YouTube Shorts algorithm works similarly to the regular YouTube algorithm. It aims to match users with the most suitable videos based on what they watch and engage with (and how long for).
With YouTube Shorts being relatively new (they launched in 2020), there is some confusion on whether it would be more beneficial for video performance if you created a separate channel for Shorts.
Pierce @CreatorInsider answers common FAQs in this video. He says: “We’ve done some analysis recently where we looked at audience growth for channels that only made long-form videos and channels that made both long-form and short videos. Channels that made Shorts actually seemed to be growing faster.”
But, do the views and engagement you get on your long-form videos impact the recommendation algorithm for long-form content? The answer is actually no because people have different viewing preferences.
Pierce explains: “Viewers watching Shorts aren’t always the same viewers watching longer-form content. For this reason, we separate Shorts and long-form content from watch history. So when someone discovers a new channel via Shorts, we’re not currently using that to inform what longer videos are recommended to them outside of the Shorts experience.”
There is demand for short-term videos and they’re becoming more popular, so keep this in mind when it comes to devising your YouTube content strategy.
Tips to harness the YouTube algorithm and grow faster
Once you have a decent understanding of the YouTube algorithm and its goals, you can use this to influence your content strategy and create videos that work in tandem. Two YouTube creators gave us their top tips for putting the theory into practice to generate more views, engagement, and subscribers.
1. Create some long videos
It’s a good idea to have a mix of long and short-form content on your YouTube channel for variety. However, keep in mind that “watchtime” is one of the major signals that influences YouTube’s recommendation system.
Joey Gentile is a full-time creator and YouTuber whose channel @Joey.Gentile has 96.3K subscribers. He says: “I find that when I upload videos 20 minutes long then maybe that video won’t get the most views, but it gets more watch-time on my channel and other long-form videos will start gaining more views.”
2. Use clickable thumbnails
Joey claims that “you need a high-quality clickable thumbnail to get your CTR higher.” He tends to hire graphic designers via Fiverr to help him create something attractive that will encourage users to watch his video when it pops up somewhere on the platform. “It usually costs anywhere from $5 to $15 but can bring big rewards for your channel.”
3. Get to the point with Shorts - but convey a story
In Joey’s experience, keeping Shorts “short and fun” is useful for your video rankings: “Cut anything out that doesn’t keep the viewer engaged or interested.”
And how do you keep the viewer engaged? “Lots of text, sound effects, and good audio,” says Joey.
That being said, he advises throwing in Shorts that are “longer, shareable, and tell a story” as “those ones can go extremely viral.” In fact, his partner used this technique for one of his Shorts and it got 20 million views in a month.
4. Opt for quality over quantity
Jesse W Acosta is the Founder of The Day Trader Chatroom and has 14.6K subscribers on YouTube @hustlewithJesseW. He says: “The YouTube algorithm works in a very simple way, in my opinion, via viewer retention. If you can get people to sit and watch your video for a lengthy amount of time without leaving, you win.
Of course, there are other things [that help] but retaining your viewers is the biggest hurdle and what can really define success.”
That’s why Jesse suggests focusing on quality content. “You are better off publishing one high-quality video a week than seven poor-quality videos a week,” he says.
5. Prioritize your audience
Jesse recommends putting your audience at the forefront of your YouTube strategy. Sure, you can optimize your content for the algorithm. But at the end of the day, everything you publish and do on the platform should revolve around them, since they are the ones who watch your videos and keep you in business.
He advises to “remain consistent.” Your viewers will expect your upload once you set a time and date, so make sure you deliver. If you become unreliable, your audience will lose trust in you and may decide to unsubscribe.
Jesse also says that what you publish is a balancing act between their wants and needs, and yours. To help you with this, “think about what your viewers would like to see and find something that aligns with what you like to produce."
Joey concludes: “Above all, it’s important to have fun with your channel. Your viewers can tell if you’re doing the video for ‘views and likes’ or if you genuinely enjoy the content you’re making.”
YouTube Algorithm: The takeaway
The YouTube algorithm can feel frustrating if your videos aren’t getting the traction that you thought they would. However, taking the time to learn how it works and its goals, as well as implementing our tips for harnessing its power, can solve this problem.
Remember that the recommendation system does change regularly to keep up with the times. Be willing to adapt with it for a very bright future on the platform.
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