YouTube SEO 101

Based on Alexa traffic rankings, YouTube is the second most visited site on the web, right after Google. Unfortunately, a lot of digital marketers still treat it like any other social media site. But success on YouTube isn’t about posting content, it’s about optimizing your content — just like your website.

It’s easy to find videos with millions of views and videos with almost none that are basically the same. The difference between success and failure often boils down to a few elements.

When it comes to YouTube SEO, a lot of the optimization work can be encapsulated into a process that you can apply to all your old videos and then to each video as you publish it. And you’re about to learn that process.

Here’s what you need to know if you want your content to rank number one on YouTube for the keywords you care about.

The basics

This section contains the essential background information you’ll need to understand before you dive into YouTube optimization tactics.

Start with keyword research

Given that YouTube is a video search engine, you should approach content creation in a strategic way, as you would when optimizing your website. This means conducting keyword research to find out what your audience is interested in and how they talk about it online.

It’s easy to start your YouTube keyword brainstorming. Simply go to YouTube and start typing a keyword in the search box. As you type, you will get popular searches suggested to you by YouTube Suggest, which is the autocomplete feature built into the search box on YouTube. You can take this to another level using the free Ubersuggest tool, which will iterate through the alphabet for the first letter of the next word of your search phrase. Remember to select “YouTube” instead of the default “Web.”

Keyword brainstorming is one thing, but you probably need to be able to compare keywords to each other to see which ones are searched on more frequently. There’s a tool for that, and it’s completely free, provided to us by Google: Google Trends. It’s surprising how many SEO practitioners don’t realize Google Trends has a “YouTube search” option underneath the “Web search” option, which will give you YouTube-specific search volume data. This tool doesn’t give you actual numbers, unfortunately (everything is in percentages), but nonetheless, it is quite handy for comparing keywords to each other.

Track your YouTube search rankings

You probably track your positions in the Google search results for a range of your favorite keywords, but are you doing this with YouTube? If not, you should be! There are many tools for this, both free and paid, so find one that you feel comfortable with so that you can track your progress as you optimize your videos.

Content is king, but consistency is queen

Obviously, to compete with all the other creators in the fast-paced, aggressive world of YouTube, you need great content that stands out from the crowd. While achieving a viral hit is great, remember that YouTube isn’t just about views: You’re looking to build a subscriber base and form long-term relationships with viewers.

How can you accomplish this? By producing quality content and publishing it on a regular schedule. Posting irregularly will only hurt you and result in lost subscribers. If you commit to posting every day, make sure you post every day. If you post once a week at 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, never skip a week or post a late video (even if it is only a few hours or the next day).

Short is not sweet

Beware of agencies and production houses that tell you people only watch short, one- to two-minute videos on YouTube. Remember, YouTube’s ultimate goal is to compete with television so they can charge TV-like advertising rates. What they’re looking for is high-quality, long-form content that will allow them to run more ads and keep users on the site for longer. Videos that are at least five minutes in length tend to perform better and have a higher chance of ranking in Google searches.

A key metric to keep an eye on is watch time — not just for each video, but for your channel overall. Ideally, you should be seeing monthly increases in watch time as your channel grows.

The power of playlists

Playlists are an underrated promotional tool on YouTube. While most businesses create playlists around dates, content genres, products and other broad categories, to really take advantage of this feature, you need to go deeper.

Use your keyword research to figure out what people are searching for in your niche, and create playlists based on those topics. If you don’t have much content, you can even create playlists using other people’s videos to drive viewers to your YouTube channel page.

First 48 hours are critical

YouTube’s algorithms are notoriously unforgiving. When you upload a new video, make sure you have all your optimizations ready to go (see below). Come out of the gate strong, or not at all. Don’t publish a video with the intention of optimizing it sometime later. If YouTube can’t get a clear picture of what your video is about, or if you aren’t getting any traction from viewers (in terms of watch time and other engagement metrics), you’ll suffer in the rankings — and it will be hard to recover that lost ground.

While it is possible to go back and fix poorly optimized videos by revising the titles, description, tags, thumbnail, transcript and so on (which I do encourage), much of the damage will have already been done after the first 48 hours have passed. It is incredibly hard to come back from being buried once the algorithm has judged your content as unworthy (please forgive the Thor reference).

How to optimize your videos

Now that you understand the basics, it’s time to get down to business. Here’s how you can optimize your videos for success on YouTube.

The title

The video title should be punchy and should grab the user. It shouldn’t be too wordy — instead, it should concisely convey why the user should bother watching your video. Hit them with the good stuff!

Before you decide on your title, do your keyword research (as described above), and then take a look at your competitors for those keywords. These are the videos you’ll be going up against, so you want your title to be as good as theirs, if not better.

Titles play a large part in the ranking of your video, so make sure they are at least five words long and include the keyword that you want to rank for.

The thumbnail

A video’s thumbnail image is actually more important than the title in terms of attracting the click from the YouTube searcher. You could do every other thing right for your SEO, but if you have an unappealing thumbnail, no one is going to click on your video.

Think about it: The thumbnail is the only image that gives people a sense of what they’re about to invest their time in watching. If it looks unprofessional or boring, people aren’t going to consider it a good use of time.

For the best results, go with a “custom thumbnail” (you will need to be verified by YouTube in order to do this) and have that thumbnail image include graphical text.


  • Customize your thumbnail image with titles/fun graphics.
  • Have professional shots taken with the thumbnail in mind. (Note: You don’t have to use a frame from the video as the basis for the thumbnail.)
  • Make it intriguing.
  • Ensure it is well-lit.

This buttercream frosting video thumbnail draws the eye with its well-balanced, bright colors that aren’t overwhelming, the very visual title and the nicely set up photo.


  • Have an intrusive logo.
  • Use clashing colors.
  • Have a random, unprofessional-looking still.
  • Make your thumbnail all text.

This cupcake decorating video thumbnail isn’t effective because it’s confusing. The woman is looking at some off-screen person, the moment looks unpolished, and we aren’t sure what’s going on.


Many people make the mistake of only writing a few sentences for the description. This is your chance to expand on the information in the video with links, calls to action and performer bios. If you want people to click on a link to your website, include it “above the fold,” before the “Show more” prompt. Also, include some sort of enticing hook in that first sentence that will get people to click “Show More” to see the rest of your video’s description.

Take a look at this description of an HGTV video above and below the fold when one hits “Show More” or “Show Less.” You’ll want a long description so users can get more insight into the video; don’t be afraid to include lots of information. This also gives you another shot at including relevant keywords.


The video transcript (i.e., captions) serves as additional copy that is considered in YouTube’s rankings algorithm. Don’t rely on YouTube’s automated transcription process — there are going to be errors in that transcript, guaranteed. Either proofread and edit that automated transcript or use a transcription service or a VA (Virtual Assistant) to create a transcript of the video. If you do the latter, remember that it needs to be time-stamped to match the audio track.


Did you know that you can provide foreign language translations of your video in the same time-stamped format of your transcript? It’s a great way to globalize your content without having to reshoot your videos. It allows foreign language viewers to watch your video with subtitles (closed captioning), and it allows your video to rank for keywords in that foreign language. For example, you could translate your video into Spanish and upload the translated transcription.

YouTube gives you the ability to include various metadata in multiple languages, such as the title, tags and descriptions, in addition to the closed captioning.


Tagging isn’t rocket science. Make sure you use phrases as well as single keywords; for example, if your video is about surfing at Malibu Beach, tag it with “surfing,” “Malibu Beach” and “surfing at Malibu Beach.” Tags aren’t visible on YouTube by default, but you can view the tags on YouTube videos using the free vidIQ Chrome extension. Have fun mining your competitor’s content for the best tags!


Make sure you are linking in the description to everywhere that you want your potential fan base to go: all of your social channels, your site, other videos of yours (to boost the overall viewership and get more subscribers) and wherever else you might want to send viewers, like to a squeeze page. Choose your most important link to display above the fold in the description. You can also promote some of these destinations with YouTube cards, which is a perfect segue to my next point.

Call to action

The end of your video should practically subscribe for the user. Give them a one-click option to subscribe, and then tell them why they should. Life coach and motivational speaker Marie Forleo is fantastic at this. At the end of her videos, she gives a neat little outro like “If you like this video and found its tips helpful, subscribe!” She even has a little arrow pointing to the subscribe button just in case viewers don’t get the hint. You need to be that obvious.

Hovering over or clicking on the picture of Forleo’s face gives users an easy way to subscribe to her YouTube channel.

Subscriptions send a big signal to Google: If people subscribe because of this video, there must be something worthwhile about it. Forleo also has videos playing in boxes at the very end of the video — in what is called the “end screen” — that send you to other videos of hers. This is a great way to get views to accumulate for your other videos, and it gives you that extra chance of landing a subscriber.


Once you’ve optimized and uploaded your videos, you’ll want to be able to monitor and analyze their performance.

YouTube Analytics

YouTube Analytics is available at YouTube Analytics is great for learning more about who is watching your videos. Some examples of the data you can find are traffic sources, demographics and what percentage of your watchers are subscribers. This lets you know where to focus your energies and resources. Are a large number of your viewers subscribers that follow you closely? Perhaps create some content that caters specifically to them.

You’ll also want to combine YouTube Analytics with your Google Analytics, which gives you access to more features. To see activity on your channel page in Google Analytics, simply add your Google Analytics embed code.

Subscriber conversion is key

There are plenty of metrics to keep an eye on in YouTube, but one key metric to watch is your subscriber conversion. If your goal is to build your audience, then you’ll want to know which videos are so compelling that they convince a viewer to hit “subscribe.” Thankfully, YouTube Analytics will now show you exactly which video a subscriber came from. Use this insight to give your audience more of what they want.

Third-party analytics tools

You may find yourself in need of more data than YouTube Analytics and Google Analytics can provide. There are a variety of tools out there, both free and paid, which can provide deeper insights into YouTube performance metrics, such as rankings, view count, comments, likes, dislikes, video replies and favorites. This kind of data can help you better optimize your video content, as well as inform content creation and distribution strategies. (For instance, perhaps you find that the highest view rates are happening on the weekends, so you decide to post the next video on the weekends to get more viewers.)

Your marching orders

First, spruce up all the existing YouTube videos on your channel. Even if they’ve been up for years, put in the time to clean up their appearance, make use of a few of YouTube’s tools, as well as a few third-party ones, and provide for a better viewer experience. You can still see improvements in your channel’s performance.

Then, develop a new workflow for new videos that you’re going to publish, including all these tools and tips.

If you’re serious about getting more YouTube views, subscribers and rankings, it’s essential to invest time in video optimization. The best part, undoubtedly, is the low barrier to entry to being a YouTube SEO practitioner. Just start ticking all of YouTube’s boxes, and you’re well on your way!

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