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What’s New In YouTube SEO – @backlinko
The Agents of Change

You may think that the same SEO tactics apply to all instances, but you’d be wrong. Sure, it all starts with good keyword research. But ranking for Google is drastically different than ranking for YouTube.

Not every video is lucky enough to go viral on its own, so utilizing tips like saying the keyword in your video, concentrating on quality over quantity, being mindful of video length & good descriptions, engaging your audience, and piggybacking on the success of videos with the same keyword, just might help boost your vids and get you some amazing traffic.

Rich: Brian Dean is an internationally recognized SEO expert. After failing with his first 5 online businesses, Brian finally struck gold with a site in the personal finance space in 2012. He created his company Backlinko to teach the lessons he learned along the way.

Since launching Backlinko Brian quickly made a name for himself by publishing insanely practical strategies that marketers can use to grow their online businesses. Backlinko is now one of the most popular marketing blogs online. And he’s built this growing business while traveling to countries like Thailand, Japan, Spain and Turkey. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany. Brian, welcome back to the Agents of Change podcast.

Brian: Thanks Rich, it’s good to be back.

Rich: Last time you were on I think it was episode 72, which is back when we were called The Marketing Agents podcast, so good to have you for the first time on the Agents of Change podcast.

I found a video of yours – I subscribe to your YouTube channel – about SEO for YouTube so let me just ask a question right off the bat. Why do we need to worry about SEO for YouTube, can’t we just focus on SEO in general and the YouTube results will get pulled in?

Brian: In some ways you can in terms of ranking in Google. So for YouTube SEO there’s sort of two sides to it. One is actually ranking your videos in the YouTube search results. The reason that’s important is because YouTube is actually the world’s second largest search engine besides Google.

Tons of people search for all sorts of things in YouTube search and if your videos aren’t optimized you’re not going to rank in YouTube. On the other hand if they’re not well optimized they’re not going to rank well in Google either. That said, they’re kind of two different animals.

The Google search algorithm is completely different than the YouTube algorithm and sometimes they’ll have a video, for example, that might rank #1 for YouTube for a keyword but it won’t appear in Google’s search results. So you can say you’re just going to apply everything you know about Google SEO to my videos, and that’s better than nothing for sure. But YouTube has a ton of nuances and differences between Google’s algorithm that you need to know about if you want to do well in YouTube.

Rich: Alright, so if I want my video to rank well in both YouTube and Google then I need to kind of think about that from the outset. So what are some of these nuances or factors that YouTube looks at that Google might not look at?

Brian: So the biggest difference is that YouTube knows a lot more about how you interact with content than Google. So for example if you publish a blog post on your site about “10 Tips For Weight Loss”, Google has two factors that they use to basically evaluate how good is this page, how authoritative is this page, how good of a fit is this page for what that person just searched for, and they use signals that are mostly based on links. So the more high quality links that point to that page, the better it is.

And they have some data on, for example, if someone searches for a keyword and they click on your result and they stay on your page for a long time before hitting the back button it gives them a clue that this page is pretty good. Other than that they really have to go on things like basically links to figure out if this page is a good fit.

YouTube on the other hand, because you’re on their platform and people are interacting with your video on their home turf, they know what’s up. They know what you’re doing, they know how many people watch your video, they know how long they watch your video for, they know the click through rate and the search results if they click on a keyword and they don’t click on your video. They know how many people like, how many people comment, how many people subscribe after watching, how many people share a video.

They just have an enormous amount of data on the content which is good news for content creators because the best tends to bubble to the top as opposed to Google where if you’re a small business you’re at a big disadvantage over bigger businesses that have a bigger budget because they can get links for just being them.

On YouTube it’s definitely more open and smaller creators and smaller businesses have a chance to do well because YouTube can measure how good a video is pretty accurately. So if your video is the best you can find yourself at the top of the search results even for a competitive keyword.

Rich: Well that’s good to know running a small business that there’s an opportunity for David to take down Goliath for sure. So as we’re developing out these videos how important is keyword research and do you do it the same way or differently as you might do keyword research for Google or the rest of the search engines?

Brian: Keyword research is still super important, it’s just as important as a text-based blog post on a blog. The reason being is if you don’t have a keyword you can’t do SEO whether it’s on Google, Bing, YouTube, Amazon, it doesn’t matter. Everything revolves around the keyword, because if you don’t have that there’s really nothing to optimize.

In fact, I have a friend of mine that has a pretty big following off YouTube, he’s growing his YouTube channel now. He said one of the mistakes he made when he was starting out and one of the reasons his YouTube channel didn’t grow despite having this huge following off of YouTube is that he didn’t bother with keyword research.

His idea was that you just put the best video out there and YouTube will find ways to show it to people. To a certain extent that’s true, but they have to know what your video is about in order to do that. They need to know where to put your video in a suggested video on the sidebar, which is a huge source of traffic for most videos on YouTube. But if it’s not optimized and someone is watching a video about baking and your video is about baking but it’s not optimized around it, they’re not going to know to put that in the sidebar. So you need to kind of help them do their job, and when you do that you can do well.

In terms of how to do keyword search it’s actually really different than with Google. In fact in a lot of ways it’s the opposite of how you do keyword search in Google. So as you know when you do keyword search in Google if you can find a term that has decent search volume and it’s low competition on Google’s first page, that’s a goldmine.

Rich: Right.

Brian: On YouTube it’s actually the opposite, you want videos with keywords that are actually competitive. You want keywords where you search for the keyword and the top 10 results are full of videos that have lots of views.

Rich: Why is that? That seems backwards to me, that seems like why am I going up against the most competitive videos out there.

Brian: It’s a great question. And when I first started on YouTube I took this Google approach to YouTube and it didn’t get me very far and I wondered why. For example, I would rank #1 for a lot of the keywords I was targeting so I’d go to YouTube and search for a keyword.

So an example is one video about advanced SEO. So I found this keyword “advanced SEO” and got a decent amount of searches on YouTube, and when I searched in YouTube for that keyword the videos had a couple thousand views each. So I thought perfect, I’ll create a video about that keyword, it was the best one and I promoted it, optimized it, all that stuff, and it ranked #1 for my target keyword.

All good, except that very few views in YouTube actually come from the search engine. Or I should say a relative small amount. So when I looked at the stats for that video – which they give you on YouTube analytics – only 10% of my views were coming from search.

Rich: When you say “search” are you talking about YouTube’s internal search engine or search engines like Google and Bing?

Brian: YouTube.

Rich: Ok.

Brian: So I was ranking #1 on YouTube which is a decent amount but a tiny percentage. So only 10% were coming from search, where were the others coming from? Well 50-60% were coming from my video being a suggested video next to another video. So when you watch a video on YouTube they have that suggested video sidebar. For most channels that’s 50-70% of their views that come from just that.

So if you don’t optimize for that you’re not going to get a lot of views on YouTube. So in a lot of ways YouTube SEO isn’t really search engine optimization. You definitely want to rank #1, it’s great, but it’s not going to get you a ton of views. The real key to YouTube SEO is appearing in the sidebar next to popular videos. And that’s why you want to target keywords that have a lot of competition because then when you create a great video – even if you don’t rank #1 for that keyword – it’s fine because when people look at those other videos, you’re going to appear in the sidebar.

Rich: It almost reminds me of the mentality for antique stores where you don’t want to set up an antique store where there are no other antique stores, you want to set up where you’re surrounded by antique stores because that usually brings in the most foot traffic.

Brian: I like that, and that’s a good New England analogy Rich.

Rich: Alright, so we do some keyword research and we make sure there’s some good competition here, then we go ahead and make our video. Are there any things that we should keep in mind while making our video or any things that we should keep in mind as we’re uploading our video?

Brian: So a mistake I made when I first started out was that I really underestimated the importance of the beginning of the video. So I kind of thought that it’s important but as long as you have something that’s decent the rest of the video will speak for itself. And now I really focus on the first 15 seconds.

And the first 15 seconds isn’t an arbitrary number. YouTube has this thing called “Creator Studio” where they help mostly “pro-YouTubers” but it applies to everybody, create videos that are going to succeed on YouTube. And they really emphasize the first 15 seconds because according to their data, if you can grab someone in the first 15 seconds they’re more likely to watch the rest of your video. If they don’t then they’re gone for good. And that’s sort of that breaking point after that second 15, you either have them or you don’t.

So for example when I first created videos I’d have these long, meandering introductions like, “SEO is important because people search for your keyword and you want to appear”, and anyone who’s watching YouTube SEO knows that already. So instead I got right into it, I was like, “In this video you’re going to learn X.” And since I did that my total views have gone up, my watch time has gone up, and the interaction in my videos have gone up, because when people click the video within 5 seconds I’ve told them what the video is about, I’ve previewed a little of it, and by second 15 they’re hooked. Versus the old way of doing it where a good 20 seconds was just boring introduction that no one cared about and of course they click away to find something else.

Rich: And we’re doing this because user engagement is one of the factors when it comes to YouTube SEO, correct?

Brian: Exactly. It’s by far the #1 factor because it doesn’t really make sense for them to rely on links. They have tons of data of how people interact with content, they don’t really need links or other off-site signals as much as Google. So it’s basically the merit of your video and how do they know your video is good. Well, people watch it. It’s not rocket science and it actually makes a lot of sense. If people watch a lot of your video that’s a sign that your video is good, if they don’t it’s probably a sign that it’s not good, and they’re going to rank it accordingly.

Rich: Ok. Anything else that we should keep in mind while we’re creating our video or should we just jump into what to do when we’re uploading it?

Brian: There’s two other things that I would definitely keep in mind because these are mistakes that I made while I was starting out and now that I don’t make them it’s helped my videos do a lot better. 

One is to make sure to say your keyword in the video. I have videos that have all the right signals, when you upload them optimizing is important and I did that right and the user engagement signals will be there. But it won’t rank for my keyword and it won’t show up next to other related videos because I never say that term in my video. Which kind of makes sense. If you don’t say the word once in your video, how likely is it that your video is about that topic. It looks like you’re trying to jerry rig a topic into a video that’s not about that.

Rich: Makes sense.

Brian: So if they can hear your video and listen they automatically transcribe it. It’s not perfect, it’s like 95% on point for transcribing what you say into text and then understanding it that way. So if you say your keyword in a video, I’ve found that makes a huge difference in how it performs.

The only other thing I’d recommend is to create longer videos on YouTube.

Rich: Longer, ok.

Brian: So the reason is that the #1 factor they use is not necessarily the percentage that people watch of your video, it’s the total watch time that that video accrues over time.

Rich: This feels like a reversal of what I had heard 5 or 6 years ago where they told you to take long videos and cut them into 2 or 3 so people would actually get through them and it would look to YouTube like people were watching your entire video. But what you’re saying is actually the opposite – and similarly in the same way we’re hearing about blog posts – that longer form content performs better, at least from an SEO standpoint.

Brian: Exactly. So 5 or 6 years ago that might have been good advice because YouTube’s algorithm was very different. Back then it was based a lot on total views and the percentage that people watched. Those are the two big factors. So if you had a video that was 10 minutes, a lot of people just won’t watch it and would never click on your result in the sidebar or the search results and you wouldn’t get that many views and you wouldn’t rank. Today it’s much more sophisticated and it’s based on this total watch time.

I’m not sure if you saw Rich, but earlier this year we did a YouTube ranking factor study. We analyzed a million YouTube search results and we found that longer videos tended to perform better. And the top 3 results in YouTube, the average length was 10 minutes.  So back then it was good advice to split them up, but today it’s not. Which kind of makes sense because from YouTube’s point of view they want people on their platform. If you have a 10 minute video and you can keep someone for 7 minutes of it, that’s great from YouTube’s point of view, versus a 1 minute video where you keep someone 100%. They would take the video that has the lower percentage of watch time but the higher total amount of watch time any day of the week.

And, also from a user point of view. If you want to learn how to bake cookies you don’t want to watch 3 different videos, you just want one that covers it all. You’d rather just have the steps in one video than three short ones. So from a user’s point of view in a lot of cases it makes sense for them to display those longer videos for the users.

Rich: Ok. And I assume, by the way, those YouTube SEO tactics or ranking factors are in a blog post that you created?

Brian: Yes, exactly.

Rich: We’ll link to those in the show notes then. Alright, so we’ve got our video, we put it together and we’re uploading it. What are some of the things that we should keep in mind?

Brian: So when you upload this I would say there is less about that optimization that matters than it used to. So in the study that I mentioned earlier we analyzed 1.3 million YouTube search results and we found some surprising things that went against the conventional wisdom in terms of what’s important for YouTube optimization.

So a lot of people talk about things like your title, and your description, and your tags, and yes that stuff of course plays a role. But it wasn’t as important of a factor as we thought. From doing YouTube SEO for a while now I also make sure to include my keyword and my title tag in my description in my tags. We found there’s some correlation there but not as much as you might think, and it’s mostly because YouTube is pretty smart now.

Just like with Google their hummingbird algorithm basically looks at a page to understand it, not that different than you or I would understand it. So instead of looking at how many times your keyword appears on the page they can look at it and really understand at a high level the topic of the page. And it’s the same with the metadata for your video. They can listen to your video, understand all the context, they can understand what’s in the title and description, and rank it not just for the target keyword but for synonyms as well, something they weren’t able to do just 2 or 3 years ago.

So that said, what should you do? You have a keyword, you have a video, what should you do? Well even though I said all that stuff you should still optimize it the same way because all this will do to help you rank for that target keyword, help you in the suggested videos for related videos, and also help you rank for other terms. YouTube can understand what your video is about and rank you for your target keyword and also for whenever someone searches for something related they’ll show you there, and when someone watches a video related they’ll show you there.

So what I do is I just take my target keyword I put it in the title tag, I put it in the description, and then there are the tags which we can talk about and break it down because that’s a little bit more nuanced and complicated.

Rich: Alright let’s do that. Tell me a little bit more about the tags then.

Brian: Ok so with tags you just want to put your target keyword in the tag. The first tag can just be your target keyword. If it’s baking cookies, it should be “baking cookies”. And then from there you want to actually look at videos that are popular around that topic. So if there are other baking cookie related videos that are doing well you want to look at what they’re optimized around. In their title and the description you can actually see their tags.

So YouTube doesn’t show the tags publicly but if you look at the source code of the page, the old school keywords tag, which I’m sure you remember.

Rich: Oh yes. I’m that old, I remember.

Brian: You’re not that old, I remember it too, man. YouTube still uses them. That’s what the tags are in terms of YouTube’s code. So you look at the source code of the page it says “keywords=”, those are all the tags that the uploader created. There’s also tons of tools like vidIQ that are free that you can add to Chrome or Firefox and see this stuff. But that’s the idea. Your key isn’t necessarily to rank for your keyword.

Like I said, that’s nice, but for people that do really well on YouTube what they do is they kind of steal the views from their competitor’s. So the closer you can optimize your video around theirs the more likely you are to be in the suggested videos and the more views you’re going to get.

Rich: Alright so what I’m hearing from you is that what’s new in YouTube SEO – or at least over the last couple of years – is you still want to do best practices with title tags and keywords and all that kind of stuff, but really you want to focus on riding some competitors coattails. That you want to go after more competitive keywords and you want to make sure that you are using tags and optimizing your page for what are already popular so you can appear in that side column of suggested videos. Correct?

Brian: Exactly.

Rich: Alright, good to know. This is definitely a shift and I’m going to change my approach to YouTube videos based on it. Once our video is up there you mentioned that engagement is pretty big. What should we be focusing on in terms of increasing engagement and that are the specific things that we could do that would get more engagement for our videos?

Brian: Ok so in terms of what to focus on, in my experience there’s a correlation between the better the video the more engagement it gets. So that’s generic advice, I kind of hate that, but in this case it’s important because if your video is great you’re going to get more engagement no matter what you do. Even if you mess up everything else you’re going to get more engagement.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend just putting up a good video and not encouraging engagement because it can make a big difference. In fact, in this ranking factor study that I mentioned, we found a correlation between the number of comments and how high a video ranked.

Now again, this is a correlation study, correlation is not causation, etc, but it makes sense that YouTube would use this as a ranking factor because it does indicate that people are engaged with a video, it’s also very difficult to gain. So views is something that’s very easy to gain. You can use bots, you can pay people, but to get comments from real accounts en masse is actually really hard and usually not worth the effort for most spammers so they don’t do it.

But if your video can get a lot of legitimate comments then it can be one way for you to stand out. And in terms of engagement I do two things that help. One is the video has to be worthy of someone taking time out of their day to leave a comment, to like it, or to subscribe. Those are the big three.

The comment in my opinion – and the data shows – are the biggest one. Even more than people subscribing after they watch your video, which is aldo a big one. So to get people to comment the basic thing I do at the end of every video I ask them to comment. But I don’t just say, “leave a comment”, I give them something specific to comment on. Because there are two sides to this.

Rich: Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about?

Brian: No problem. So I’ll say, for example, “I covered 7 techniques in this video, which one are you going to use first?” And I don’t just end there, I also give them 2 examples because they probably forgot 5 out of 7. So I’ll give it to them and say, “Are you going to use A or B?” That helps a lot and I notice people tend to use those two the most even though I technically say you can use all of them.

And the reason for that is simple, people love giving their opinion but they hate thinking. So what you do is you take that thinking out of the equation and all you have to do is make it basically an “A or B” and you’re going to get a lot more comments.

Rich: Interesting, ok. And then do you use annotations or YouTube cards, and do you have a preference over the other?

Brian: Well I used to use annotations but they’re discontinuing them.

Rich: Oh, they’re discontinuing them? So we shouldn’t even be focused on them and just focus on the YouTube cards?

Brian: Exactly. So they continue to support old videos that use them but you can’t add them to newer videos. I’m not sure when this podcast is going to come out, but basically I wouldn’t use annotations anymore.

Rich: Ok.

Brian: I actually prefer annotations but it doesn’t matter what I think, obviously. So definitely you’ve got to go with cards for now on. Annotations used to be one of my best tricks for getting more likes. On my video I used to add annotations halfway through that said, “are you liking this video, give it a “like” right now”, and I’d get so many more likes from putting that in the middle. Because by the time they get to the end there’s also the comment call to action to get them to subscribe and a lot of times they forget to like it. And in the middle it gives them something to do, but unfortunately you can’t do that anymore.

Rich: I guess we’ll just have to create little buttons that don’t actually click and come up before we upload those videos just so at least we keep on reminding people to take those kind of actions.

Brian: That’s a good idea.

Rich: Feel free to steal that one. Alright so talk to me for a minute about “channel authority”, what it is and how we increase it.

Brian: So there’s basically not much to channel authority, it’s more or less the number of subscribers that you have. So a lot of people say it’s the number of videos you upload or how often you upload, but I’ve recently ran a test that shows that 100% isn’t true.

My YouTube channel has 14 total videos and I was able to double the views to 50,000 in December to over 100,000 in February with 3 videos. That’s like one a month, basically. And last month and the month before I didn’t push any videos and I had my best month ever in terms of views.

So yes of course if you publish tons of videos you’re probably going to get more views, but the problem is once you stop your views are going to go back to almost nothing. Versus publishing great videos and then people are going to want to watch them and YouTube will show them to people and you can get a lot more views and people will subscribe to your channel because they’re actually impressed with your video.

YouTube obviously has a preference for newer content so they’re going to show that on the homepage, they’re going to show that more on the sidebar when it’s new and you’re going to get some more views. The problem is if the video is only getting traction when it’s new, you’re not going to get a lot of subscribers and you’re not going to get much channel authority because they’ll see it and think it’ pretty good, but that’s not going to convince someone to subscribe.

To get someone to actually subscribe your video has to blow them away, no doubt about it. People are picky about what they’ll subscribe to so your video really has to bring it. So to establish channel authority what I recommend is the quality over quantity approach.

Rich: And I know from following you for years that that’s been your approach and you will often spend a lot more time on creating, and polishing, and researching one piece of content rather than just cranking out as much as you can and I’ve also seen you have incredible success with that tactic. So one of the things I like about your stuff, Brian, is you actually go out and you try it out first before you start reporting back to people.

Brian: Well thanks, Rich. Actually when I first started on YouTube I assumed that that approach wouldn’t work on YouTube. Because with Google and blogging I found that quality over quantity approach works – at least for me – but on YouTube it’s different. And everyone is saying the best way to grow your channel is to publish every week on the same day of the week and publish lots of videos and you have to be consistent. And I believed then because I didn’t know what I was doing on YouTube. And that’s what I did when I first started out I published very consistently, the videos were good but not great, and of course it didn’t go well.

Then I decided to apply this blogging and Google approach to YouTube and I published 2 videos in 6 months, but I worked really hard on them. I made the script super tight, I made transitions, I hired a professional editor, I went to a nicer studio. I put a lot of effort into these 2 videos and they skyrocketed my views.

Because it takes a while to script more videos it took me another 6 months to get in the studio. But by the time I did that the views still increased all that time even though I hadn’t published anything, and that’s when I realized that YouTube – even more so probably than Google in a lot of ways – it’s definitely a quantity over quality game.

Rich: This has been awesome, Brian. Even though I’d read the blog post and watched the video I still learned a ton of new stuff, in part because I think it continues to change and that’s why people should follow you online. So speaking of which, where can we find you online?

Brian: Based on our conversation, the best place to head would be my YouTube channel. If you go to YouTube and search for “backlinko” or go to Google and search “backlinko youtube”, it’s the first result.

Rich: Awesome. Brian, thank you so much for coming on the show again, it’s great to have you back.

Brian: No problem Rich, thanks for having me.

Show Notes:

Check out Brian’s YouTube channel for amazing and useful tactics on ranking high in video search and increasing your YouTube traffic. And be sure to follow him on Twitter and mention you heard him on this podcast.  He also wrote a great blog post (mentioned in this podcast) he calls his “Definitive Guide to Video SEO.”

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, creator of the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference, and author of a new book, The Lead Machine. He loves helping businesses fine tune their strategies for digital marketing in the areas of search, social and mobile.