The central question that leads to this guide is: “How do I get more views?” The short and simple answer: Optimize your videos for search engines.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is some kind of black magic that, when used correctly, makes your videos appear in the search results. It’s easy to learn but hard to master and requires constant research, adaptation and having a calendar on your mind. More on that later!
By the way: A video that ranks high does very little for you if nobody clicks on it. So make sure you’ve got a good thumbnail for your video! We already have a guide on making good thumbnails, so this won’t be discussed further here.
For small channels, having good SEO vs not having it is probably roughly equivalent to doing self-promotion on subreddits after uploading a video. In other words, you can probably expect about 10-20 views from it in the first week for a similar effort. However: Unlike self-promotion, the effects of which will completely drown within a few days, the effects of good SEO generally last for months and years.
So stop wasting time on self-promotion, use that time for better SEO instead!
Keywords are used by the YouTube Search engine as well as the Google Search engine to surface content. They generally are placed in your video metadata (title, description, tags); YouTube has a hard time making them out if they appear only in the video itself and in the thumbnail.
Let’s say you tag your video about a
cat with the keyword cat. When someone searches for
cat later they will find your video because the keywords match. When someone searches for
dog the video won’t show up because the keywords didn’t match.
Note that keywords are just as much about what people are searching for as they are about what your video is about. So if you can not only match single words, but entire phrases with what people are searching for. For example,
how to tie a knot is a thing people search for, so using the key phrase
tie a knot or even the long-tail
how to tie a knot phrase somewhere in your video is gonna be better than just the one keyword
knot as it more closely reflects what the user is searching for.
That said: Having keywords is useful if you want to be found on a keyword. Even a 1:1 match of your keywords to the search word doesn’t guarantee you’ll rank #1, for that, YouTube uses metrics that are sorta out of your control, namely watch time, user surveys and a lot of other factors.
- Even though YouTube can detect misspellings and adjusts them during a search automatically, you want to check that your keywords are spelled correctly.
- Use more than one keyword/keyphrase per video. There’s probably at least half a dozen relevant keywords for every topic.
- Do not use keywords that are completely irrelevant to your video. It can lead to strikes and/or your video getting de-ranked (source)
- Do not spam keywords. Same as above.
- Avoid being too specific with your keywords, especially if that keyword isn’t much searched for. See the Search Volume section for more info.
- Avoid being too generic with your keywords, as probably quite a lot of others will use the same
Note that titles serve a dual purpose: A title needs to both provide context for ranking the video in search engines, as well as encouraging viewers to click on your video in particular. And you only have 100 characters to do that.
- Keywords you place in the title have the strongest weighting in search, compared to keywords that only are mentioned in description and tags.
- Make your title unique. No two videos of yours should have a title that’s just a number apart (eg Minecraft Let’s Play #1 and #2).
- Clarifying brackets can increase CTR. A Study by Outbrain and Hubspot from 2014 [PDF] showed that simply adding brackets to the title can increase the CTR by up to 38%.
- Videos are less likely to be recommended to new viewers if their titles and thumbnails are:
- Deceiving or misleading: Misrepresents the content of the video.
- Shocking: Includes offensive or outrageous language.
- Disgusting: Contains gross or repulsive imagery.
- Gratuitous violence: Unnecessarily promotes violence or abuse.
- Indecent: Implies sexually suggestive or lewd conduct.
- Loud: Uses ALL CAPS or !!!!! to overemphasize titles. (source)
- You can optimize on long-tail keywords by basically including entire search terms word for word in your title. (In-depth guide)
- Titles longer than 60-ish characters may get cut off in some views (you can use thumbsup.tv to check). Make sure that, if something is getting cut off, it’s the least important bits, eg series names, branding, and other words that aren’t directly related to making your title juicy to click on.
Similar to the title, the description contains a lot of information about the video. If you give a small summary of what is happening in the video it can help the viewer understand what the video is about and within that summary usually you automatically use keywords that are relevant to the video’s topic. Instead of just placing random keywords into your description to please the mighty SEO-gods you should rather write for people not for machines, that means descriptions with full sentences are better for your ranking than bullet points.
Again: keep in mind what people are searching for to include phrases and keywords into your text.
- Even though you can fit 5000 characters into the description, it is advised to keep the most important keywords up top (“above the fold” or “ATF” meaning the first 3 lines of the description since they can be seen by the viewer without clicking “show more”)
- If you have links which are more important than SEO to you (eg donation, merch or sponsor links), you may put them above the fold instead of a keyword-rich description.
- Avoid spamming keywords in your description, eg a block like “
minecraft, minecraft smp, minecraft minigames, [...], minecraft best bedwars plays, minecraft i troll my friends”. This is a bad practice which doesn’t only downrank your video in the search results but can actually get your channel terminated (source).
- Below the fold, you can put all sorts of useful stuff in: Links to your social media, your merch, maybe a short description what your channel is about, your timestamps for your chapters (see next section), and maybe another extra paragraph with some more info (and keywords) about your video that didn’t fit above the fold.
- You can
@mentionother channels (that have >1k subscribers) in the description. Very useful for collabs.
- If you add affiliate links or otherwise paid links into your description, mark them as such. Depending on your local laws, there may be strict requirements on how to mark them.
YouTube Chapters are a relatively new feature since they were released in late 2020 to the public and not many people make use of them yet. Coming from the description keywords, chapters are basically keywords with a timestamp. They look clean, help the user navigate your video and not only get shown on the YouTube search results but on Google, too.
An example for their use in a gaming content environment:If you have solved a specific puzzle in “Breath of the Wild” or looted a specific grave in “Tomb Raider” putting a timestamp into the video at those strategic points will get you more reach. For example:
0:00 find the entrance to XYZ
1:23 legendary item ABC hidden in XYZ
or something similar to that.
- For chapters to show up you have to have at least 3 of them, each must be at least 10 seconds long (make them 15sec to be sure) and the first one needs to start at
- Keep in mind to have strong search terms for your chapters as they also show up in google search and not only in the YouTube search
Cross promotion of your own videos
Showing the YouTube algorithm you are not a one hit wonder and you actually produce more decent content than just one video improves your ranking. Videos uploaded by the same channel that are linked in the description are more likely to be recommended in the sidebar as well since they are seen as related to the video.
- Only link 5 of your videos that are related to the videos topic
- Repeat the titles of the videos you have linked
- Don’t use link shorteners (eg bitly) whenever avoidable
- Link to videos that a viewer of the current video would probably also like to see.
Tags / Hashtags
Let’s make quick and painless: You can basically forget about tags, they are just useful if you already are in YPP to categorize your video for possible advertisers. Hashtags on the other hand just got a reworked landing page so this might be something you should keep an eye on.
- Only 3 hashtags in description get placed above the title, every additional hashtag is hidden.
- Go to the hashtag page to see how often a particular hashtag is being used. Make sure the hashtag is at least somewhat used by other people, so there’s a chance someone will click onto the hashtag on other videos
- If you use Tubebuddy or similar tools, using tags for possible search queries can be helpful to see how high you rank for these terms at a glance.
- if your video has more than 15 hashtags, they will be completely ignored in search. [Source]
When you search for a video on YouTube, only 4 videos are shown on desktop and 2 videos are shown on mobile until you need to scroll down. Obviously you want to rank as high as possible so potential viewers don’t need to scroll to even get to your thumbnail.
Competition is tied to individual keywords, not your video itself. Even if you are on the second page of results for one keyword, it’s possible you rank quite highly for another one.
- Look at the age of your competition. If it’s several years old, chances are that things changed since then, and that you’ll be able to outrank it.
- Think about what value-add your video has compared to everyone else’s. For example, unless you have found a shoelace-tying technique that allows people to do it with one hand, upside down, backwards and in reverse, there’s little reason for YouTube to rank your video over the thousands of other shoelace-tying tutorials.
- Look at how good the videos of your competition are. If they’re kinda meh, chances are people only watch these videos because there’s no better alternative and that their stats (especially viewer retention) is pretty low. If you can do better than that, you’re likely to rank higher than them very quickly.
- Look at how popular the competition is. It’s easier to outrank someone with 20 subscribers and 2000 views than it is to outrank someone with millions of subs and views.
Search volume describes how many people actually search for the keywords you are using in the title and description.
To get more information and inspiration you can use https://trends.google.com as a good and free tool to find out if and how many people are searching for a specific term and it will even show you similar keywords you might have not considered when constructing your metadata (title and description).
- You can use VidIQ or TubeBuddy to identify search volume / competition more easily
- Search volume changes over time, for example, cookies are most searched for around Christmas. You can use this seasonality to your advantage.
While SEO is very important for a video to have, not all videos will rank well. YouTube’s main metric for ranking is user happiness, ie how happy viewers are with the videos they’re watching, and the way you optimize for that is to make good videos that people enjoy watching. And to do that, you gotta have good ideas and good execution, all of which comes with practice.
What I want to say with all this is that there’s a limit to how useful SEOing any particular video is. It’s a bit like fishing: Putting bait on a hook is better than having no bait at all, but better still is having 2 hooks with bait. Or 3. Or even more. So instead of obsessing over a single video, go and make a new one instead.