YouTube SEO: 31 Steps to Rank Your Videos in 2021
There are 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. How do you avoid getting lost in this massive sea of videos? The key is to (1) consistently create great videos and (2) take a multifaceted approach to optimization of your YouTube content.
YouTube SEO helps your business to reach a wider audience, drive more video views, increase engagement, and grow organically in the Google search results.
If you’re skeptical of how YouTube videos can drive business growth, take a look at Slack. The software company’s series of customer videos showcases how Slack helps a wide range of customers (from Cole Haan to Charity:Water to HubSpot) to improve team communications and performance. The series has generated over 117,000 views to date. Overall, Slack’s videos garnered more than 6.28 million views over the past year alone.
Another example of the power of video marketing is Blendtec. The blender company was founded in 1975 and for several decades was essentially an unknown brand. Then, with a budget of $50, CEO Tom Dickson started a YouTube Channel called Will It Blend to demonstrate how his blender could blend literally anything; golf balls, iPads, and even diamonds. Blendtec quickly became a social media phenomenon with over 23,000 YouTube views after releasing the first video. Today, Blendtec has nearly 50 million video views and 1 million YouTube subscribers. The Will It Blend videos increased sales by over 700% within the first four years of launching the viral campaign.
We all want to create amazing videos like Slack and Blendtec that our audience will love. The challenge we face today is how to differentiate our content against the vast competition that exists on YouTube.
That’s where YouTube SEO comes in. Executing a solid YouTube SEO strategy helps you to cut through all the noise. You get more traffic to your YouTube channel, achieve increased video views, and ultimately acquire more subscribers. The more people who like your YouTube content, the more online sharing of your content you’ll see. And all of this leads to more customers for your business.
How YouTube’s Search Engine Algorithm Works
The YouTube SEO algorithm is relentless. If you publish a video and there is a mistake with the file name or you want to re-take the video, going back to edit is an uphill battle. If you’re going to publish a video, make sure all of your initial optimization work is completed.
It is possible to go back and edit poorly optimized videos, but it will be challenging to recover from the lost ground. This is because the first 48 hours after publishing a video are critical for YouTube rankings.
The key is to plan your content ahead of time and be prepared for each step in the process of video publishing. Video title, tags, description, and file names should be well thought-out and prepared long before you even think about posting your video.
Here are the 31 steps to optimizing your YouTube videos to help you rank ahead of the competition and generate more views.
1. Research Topics and Keywords
Before you create new videos, do the research to find out what your audience is talking about and how they are talking about it. Use Google to search for different keywords being searched within your niche and see if those keywords bring up any videos. Use search volume along with search intent to prioritize the keywords you’ll target.
There are many different tools you can use to determine search volume for specific keywords:
Use YouTube’s search suggest feature by typing something into the search box within YouTube itself. You will see a list of suggested topics appear for that search term. The suggested topics are populated based on high search volume related to your keyword.
In YouTube, do related searches and review the top 10 videos that are appearing in the search results. You may just come across related keywords among the video titles and descriptions that trigger an idea for your own keywords.
Check out the latest search trends in Google Trends. In the tool, there’s a YouTube search option to show interest over time as well as related queries.
YouTube Studio’s Search Data
The “Reach” tab within YouTube Studio offers you a report for YouTube Search with traffic statistics from search terms within YouTube that brought viewers to your videos.
YT Cockpit provides organic and paid YouTube search information and suggests additional potential keywords for you. The tool relies on data from YouTube Suggest, Google Ads, Google Suggest, and Google Related Searches.
vidIQ provides a robust look at both keywords and the broader search audience. The tool claims to “increase your library of tags by 10X in less than 10 minutes” and to help you discover new content opportunities.
Tubics gives you data-driven ideas for YouTube videos. Every video idea includes competitor insights, questions to cover in the video, suggested tags, and recommended keywords.
Keywords Everywhere displays the tags for a YouTube video, along with monthly search volume, CPC, competition score, along with 12-month trend data for every search on YouTube.
Rival IQ is a competitive intelligence tool that provides you with a profile of your competitors’ YouTube presence. View a general outline of their growth, see what’s working, and uncover the tags they are using.
2. Strategically Target Related Keywords, As Well
Let’s say you’ve selected your primary target keyword for your next video. The next step you should take is to research related keywords.
But here’s the thing. Don’t rely solely on the research you’ve already done. Instead, be more targeted and strategic.
First, take the top-ranking video on the keyword in YouTube, and then confirm other keywords for which it’s ranking. You can do this by taking a YouTube SEO tool such as VidIQ and plugging in the top-ranking video URL. VidIQ lists the ranking of each tag, so that you can see other key phrases for which the video is ranking #1, #2, #3, etc. in YouTube. You can do this for not only the top-ranking video, but also for any video that’s appearing towards the top of the YouTube rankings, to help you identify 3-5 additional keywords to target secondarily in your video.
3. Optimize Your Video Title
YouTube titles can be up to 100 characters, but ideally should be kept within 70 characters to avert truncation when the video is listed in the YouTube sidebar or in search results.
Include your primary keyword in the video title. And if natural, place the keyword as close to the front of the title as possible. Use compelling language to encourage a click: “how-to,” “advice,” “tip,” or numbered lists can help.
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4. Optimize Your YouTube Tags
Include up to four or five YouTube tags. Try not to list more than five tags in total for any one video, as it dilutes the message being sent to YouTube as to what the video is about. Always add tags in order of importance. The narrower the focus of the tags, the more likely the video will rank high in YouTube search results for relevant searches.
See the tools I listed above to help you identify the most effective tags for your videos.
5. Write Searchable YouTube Descriptions
YouTube allows descriptions of up to 5,000 characters. Write as long a description as possible. This enables YouTube to understand what the video is about and when it should be included in YouTube search results.
Consider adding a transcription of your video in the description. If your transcription is too long, you can add a shorter, curated version.
Search engines will crawl the description to determine what your video is about and whether it is optimized. Since your video is likely to mention the keyword multiple times, the transcript will offer several uses of the keyword, further fueling your SEO. The description should always include the keyword (multiple times if natural sounding).
Timestamps are also a useful tactic for boosting video SEO. Timestamps allow viewers to jump to different sections of your video. This is especially helpful for longer videos and can help increase engagement, and it could help your visibility on targeted keywords when they are included in relevant timestamps.
6. Edit Your File Name to Improve YouTube SEO
Yes, even the filename of your video should include the keyword. The YouTube algorithm doesn’t actually “watch” your video to determine if it’s optimized, but it reads the file name. This is a small ranking factor but it’s still important for YouTube SEO.
7. Say Your Target Keyword in Your Video
If your target keyword is mentioned in the title, file name, and description but is not mentioned in the video, your rankings may suffer. Google can detect what you are saying in the video through a Cloud Video Intelligence API. In fact, Google can identify objects within the video.
Saying your primary keyword multiple times in your video will only strengthen your YouTube visibility. For an added boost, try to include your keyword in the first 10 or 15 seconds of your video.
Your YouTube videos must have consistent messaging within the actual content you’re producing. The content you create should coincide with the title, tags, description, and file name.
8. Create an Eye-Catching Thumbnail
Your video thumbnail isn’t a ranking factor that YouTube uses directly, but it still has an impact on your SEO.
As your thumbnail image will directly impact the click-through rate for your videos, it helps increase your views. This, in turn, influences YouTube to show your video in search results as well as the sidebar.
Choose a thumbnail that stands out from competing videos and clearly depicts what your video is all about. The thumbnail is usually the first thing your viewers notice, so it’s important to make it interesting enough that viewers will want to click on it. Custom-made thumbnails have proven able to boost discovery and improve engagement for your video. According to YouTube, 90% of the best-performing videos on YouTube use custom thumbnails.
9. Encourage Viewers to Comment on Your Video
At the end of your video, you should ask your viewers to comment on your video and subscribe to your channel. You can also end your videos with a question and ask your viewers to respond with what content they would like to see. This method benefits your visibility twofold for boosting YouTube SEO:
- Your videos will get higher engagement
- You will know more clearly what your viewers want to see in your next video
You can also start by posting comments on other popular YouTube videos, asking questions, and looking for input. The key is to be interactive and start engaging with other YouTubers within your niche.
10. Build Links to Your YouTube Channel, Not Just Your Videos
Build inbound links to your YouTube channel, not just to specific videos. This will tell YouTube that you’re an authority in your niche and ultimately improve your YouTube SEO overall. With YouTube, a rising tide lifts all ships, so the stronger your YouTube channel, the greater likelihood that an individual video will perform well.
11. Add End Cards
Cards are interactive pop-ups that appear while your video is playing. You can create cards for each video to promote videos, playlists, websites, merchandise, or other channels. Cards can be used throughout the entire video and will help direct your viewers towards more of your branded content. This indirectly helps boost SEO by driving more traffic to your videos, website, and playlists.
You can add up to five cards to a single video, and there are six types of cards to choose from:
- Channel cards that direct viewers to another channel.
- Donation cards to encourage fundraising on behalf of U.S. nonprofit organizations.
- Fan funding to ask your viewers to help support the creation of your video content.
- Link cards, which direct viewers to an external site, approved crowdfunding platform, or an approved merchandise selling platform.
- Poll cards, which pose a question to viewers and allow them to vote for a response.
- Video or playlist cards, which link to other YouTube content of this kind.
12. Create a Blog Post Targeting the Same Keyword
YouTube can help drive blog traffic and vice versa. Take a look at your current videos and determine which videos can be turned into blog posts. The benefit of writing about a topic that you have published on YouTube is that you can embed your video in the blog, giving your YouTube SEO rankings a boost.
A great additional benefit is that including videos in your blog posts will likely make your blog more engaging and valuable to readers. Plus, it will likely increase the number of online shares and backlinks for the posts.
13. Send an Email to Your List
Anytime you publish a video on YouTube, you should share it with your email list. This is a great way to provide your subscribers with great new content. In addition, you’ll be attracting more clicks and views, and hopefully more YouTube video comments and channel subscribers, all boosting your video’s chances of increasing visibility.
14. Create YouTube Playlists
Your YouTube channel should have multiple playlists to organize content by topic, product, or genre. You can even create a themed series with its own branding.
Playlists can improve user engagement and allow users to share an entire collection of content rather than just one video. Playlists make it easy to curate content and enhance the user experience. It’s then easier for your audience to find the specific videos they would be interested in, thus leading to a more satisfying experience. This makes it more likely they’ll enjoy your videos enough to subscribe to your channel.
Playlists can increase the viewer’s watch time because playlists automatically play all the videos within the playlist.
Even YouTube states that: “Great playlists can keep viewers watching longer.”
15. Improve Your YouTube Content
There are a few tricks you can use to make your YouTube content more exciting:
- Skip the long intro and get to the point quickly
- Help your audience solve problems and challenges
- Be strategic with editing (add jump cuts)
- Produce videos with good lighting and sound quality
- Tell stories
- Evoke an emotional response
- Give them information that they can act on immediately
If you closely monitor your viewer watch time and retention rate, you will quickly learn what works and what doesn’t to keep your audience engaged.
16. Embed YouTube Videos into Your Website
Instead of providing a link on your website that redirects the viewer to YouTube, embed the YouTube video into your web page or blog post. This allows the user to watch the full video while remaining on your website. As an added bonus, it also makes it likely that Google will send searchers to your site rather than directly to YouTube, where they can find both the video itself as well as everything else you offer in your site.
17. Keep Viewers Curious
Have you ever watched a YouTube video where the speaker leaves you with a cliffhanger wanting more? Perhaps the speaker ends the video by saying he or she will reveal a little-known solution in the next video. Or maybe they promise to “show you how to…” Or, alternatively, they announce that they’ll have a surprise superstar special guest. Etc.
B2B video marketing is not only about providing accurate information. It’s also about engaging and entertaining your audience, and creating the desire for more.
Create content that builds curiosity and motivates your audience to revisit your channel. If you have 20 tips for saving money, break it into a 20-part video series (or a 4- or 5-part series, etc.) so viewers will continue coming back for more.
18. Plan Your Publishing Calendar
Create a video production, optimization, and publishing plan. You’ll have greater success with YouTube SEO and visibility if you plan ahead.
The more frequently you upload videos to YouTube, the more YouTube is going to like your videos (assuming they are great videos to begin with).
Consistency is also important. If you upload three videos every week for three months, and then the next month you don’t upload any, and then two videos in the month after that, etc., YouTube may not favor your content. It’s important to focus on a consistent and frequent schedule when uploading YouTube content.
19. Create Niche-Specific Content
It’s important to focus your content around a specific topic or industry so that YouTube knows when to recommend your videos. Create content that aligns with your channel’s niche and try to be as specific as possible with content topics.
Too often, we’ll come across businesses that try to be creative by adding videos that have absolutely nothing to do with their niche in their YouTube channel. It’s great to be creative. We’re very strong proponents of creativity and lateral thinking. However, just be aware that if that energy is directed at videos outside of your niche, you may harm your YouTube visibility.
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20. Analyze Your Audience Retention Graphs
YouTube wants to see that viewers are watching your content from beginning to end. YouTube analytics allows you to view the average time viewers spend watching your content and at what point viewers stop watching.
Videos with a higher average retention rate will rank higher. Focus on analyzing content that has a high average retention rate and try to determine the qualities that make those videos so popular. Similarly, analyze videos with a low average retention rate and try to determine how you can improve that content.
From YouTube: “Your goal is to keep audience retention as close to 100% as you can (because this means viewers are watching all of the way through your videos). And videos with consistently high audience retention and watch time have the potential to show up more frequently in Search and Suggested locations on YouTube.”
21. Improve Watch Time
A top ranking factor on YouTube is watch time. Watch time is the total amount of time a viewer spends watching your content. Watch time is different from retention rate because it reflects the amount of time spent watching a single video plus the total amount of time watching consecutive videos. (Retention reflects the time spent watching a single video.) Watch time is a critical component YouTube considers when suggesting content.
How do you improve watch time? Analyze the average time viewers spend watching your videos and monitor if there are any irregularities such as dips or spikes in your videos’ watch time. Determine which videos are performing well and continue publishing content that follows a similar structure.
22. Add Closed Captions
YouTube closed captions are crawlable by search engines and can help boost SEO. Enable closed captions for all of your content but ensure that the captions are accurate. YouTube has an automatic captioning feature but you should check all captions for mistakes to ensure accuracy.
23. Determine Optimal Video Length
Another recommendation in our list of YouTube SEO tips is to be mindful of video length. Specifically, the length of your videos may affect your YouTube search rankings. In many cases, you’ll find that longer videos outperform shorter ones. The reason for this is that the longer the video, the more monetization opportunities exist for YouTube.
For example, if you search in YouTube for:
- “Innovative ideas”: The top three videos in the search results are each over 13 minutes in length.
- “Biotech startups”: The top four videos are each over 24 minutes.
- “Neuroscience”: The top three videos are each over one hour.
Check the length of the top 5-10 videos ranking for your list of target keywords. Make a note of YouTube’s video length preferences when shooting your own to give you a better shot at being included in the mix.
24. Measure the Rate of Growth for Each Video
YouTube accounts for how quickly a video’s popularity snowballs (or doesn’t). You should have a strategic plan to promote your content immediately after it’s published on YouTube. YouTube favors viral videos and content that get exponential engagement soon after being published. Any incremental engagement you can drive is valuable and should be included in your YouTube SEO planning.
25. Categorize Your Video
YouTube has a feature which allows users to categorize their content based on a topic area or industry. There are 15 different categories to choose from and you can only choose one category. This process is typically straightforward but you can often run into the dilemma of choosing only one category. For example, you may want to decide whether a particular video is better categorized as Science & Technology or Education. Think about who your audience is for that specific video and choose the category that more closely aligns with what you audience is searching for.
26. Evoke an Emotional Response
As mentioned earlier, evoking an emotional response is an effective way to create content that resonates. Not only that, emotions drive your audience to share your content and help you gain added visibility and views.
In a study of 355 billion videos, Karen Nelson-Field, a senior research associate at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, found that videos which elicit strong emotions from viewers are twice as likely to be shared as those that provide a weak emotional response.
Jonah Berger, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the bestselling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, also found that content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe, excitement, humor) or negative (anger, anxiety, disgust) emotions tends to be more viral in nature.
27. Ask Them to Subscribe
At the beginning or at the very end of your videos, ask them to smash the subscribe button. You can also include a channel subscription CTA in your video description. The more subscribers you have, the more you’re sending a signal to YouTube that your audience finds your content to be valuable.
There is a small correlation between the number of subscribers and YouTube rankings. So, it’s helpful to build your subscriber base for visibility purposes. But beyond that, it’s also useful to obtain more views and engagement across all of your video content, and subscriptions help with both those objectives.
28. Add Subscription Watermarks
And there are additional ways to increase your YouTube channel subscriptions, as well.
Watermarks are custom subscribe buttons visible only to non-subscribers, for example. The watermark can be a brand logo, a website URL, or a custom image. By including a YouTube watermark, you are providing a direct link for viewers to subscribe.
29. Get Featured on Another Channel
Forming partnerships with other YouTubers will lead to better search results because you will be introducing your content to an entirely new audience. The benefit of creating co-branded content leads to more views, higher engagement, and greater authority within your niche. YouTube partnerships are a win-win for both parties when it comes to SEO.
You can see how Boston Dynamics expanded its reach by partnering with Marques Brownlee in featuring BD’s incredible robots. The collaboration resulted in more than 5.2 million views:
30. Cross-Promote Your Videos
Once you have created a large library of videos in YouTube, some of your older videos may start to lose visibility over time. Cross-promotion of your videos is an effective way to generate greater views for your older videos.
I mentioned End Cards earlier in this post. You can reference a prior video in one of your newer ones, or you can add relevant links in your video description. In a blog post with a featured video, you can also add related videos to the post. All of this also helps in increasing your watch time metrics, as well.
31. Promote Your Videos Everywhere
Just publishing your videos is not enough to maximize visibility and views. Instead, you’re going to need to promote them.
As mentioned before, email marketing should be part of your video amplification efforts. Methods for promoting your videos beyond your existing mailing list can include:
- Twitter (Try pinning your video to the top of your feed!)
- YouTube Ads
- Google Ads
It’s critical that you promote your video within the first 48 hours of being published. The YouTube algorithm factors in how quickly your video receives traffic and engagement within the first 48 hours of going live.
YouTube SEO can transform your brand’s marketing effectiveness.
YouTube has 2.3 billion users. Sixty-five percent of people in the U.S. are visual learners, many of whom prefer video over text. In addition, video can support your audience throughout the customer journey and increase engagement across blog posts, landing pages, and emails. In a Wyzowl survey, 86% of video marketers say video has increased traffic to their website, 84% of video marketers say video has helped them generate leads, and 78% of video marketers say video has directly helped increase sales.
If you’re not optimizing your YouTube videos, you’re missing a sizable opportunity.
The first principle towards YouTube success is to create awesome content. The type of content that answers their questions, engages them, or entertains them, and ultimately makes them an advocate of your brand. That’s the starting line.
The second principle, though, is “findability”. Follow these YouTube SEO steps to ensure your audience can find your incredible videos on YouTube, and your YouTube channel can become an essential part of your marketing machine.
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