For YouTubers
April 23, 2021

Your Complete YouTube SEO Guide

By Josh Edwards 17 min read

Highlights

  • Get everything you need to know about YouTube SEO. Learn what it is, why it’s important and the main things you need to consider
  • Learn and understand the key factors that will improve your YouTube SEO, including keywords and phrases, titling, thumbnails and more
  • By following this guide, you could improve your ranking not just on YouTube search results but Google too

You’ve heard it all by now. YouTube is the 2nd most-used search engine behind its parent company, Google. 500 hours of video are uploaded to the site every single minute. There are 2 billion monthly active users. In many ways, YouTube is the new TV. So, why aren’t you optimizing your videos accordingly?

For many, SEO has always meant optimizing your website links and written-word articles on Google rankings. However, SEO is equally, if not more important, when it comes to YouTube videos. Nowadays, even if you conduct your search on Google, YouTube videos will appear in the search results. 

With the levels of saturation and noise out there these days, it can be tough to get eyeballs on your video. Below, we’ve put together the complete YouTube SEO guide so that you can learn how to rank YouTube videos properly and start pulling in a larger audience.

Things to consider

When looking at how to rank YouTube videos and perform better with your YouTube SEO, there are a few main things to consider. YouTube itself has cited that audience retention (how long people watch your videos) is one of their main factors in ranking. The longer, the better. They factor in the following:

  • The average view duration for all of your videos
  • Top videos or channels listed by watch time
  • Audience retention data for specific videos, looking at different time frames
  • Audience retention for your video when compared with the average for similar videos

They’re also looking at other factors regarding engagement. We’ve talked a little bit about this in our article on how to start a YouTube Channel. These factors include:

  • Video comments
  • Subscribers (how many subscribe after watching the video)
  • Video shares
  • Click-through rate
  • The likes-to-dislikes ratio

With these factors in mind, let’s take a look at some of the various ways in which we can improve your YouTube SEO.

The magic of keywords

When it comes to learning how to optimize YouTube videos, one of the most important things (that you’ve probably heard about countless times already) is keywords. SEO keywords are quite literally that - the keywords (or phrases) within your web content that enable people to find your content using search engines such as Google and YouTube. When you utilize keywords properly in your YouTube video, it effectively ‘speaks the same language’ as those browsing YouTube and Google, making it easier for viewers to find your video.

Not sure how to come up with keywords? Don’t worry. There are some great YouTube SEO tools that you can use to identify keywords and phrases relevant to your video and competitive within the space you’re competing. 

For example, check out TubeBuddy - a free browser extension that integrates directly into YouTube. Their keyword explorer allows you to search for different keywords and find out how competitive they are. It gives you a score determined by search volume, competition and optimization strength, as well as how many results there are for the keyword. It also showcases the most used tags and other closely related keywords and phrases.

Alternatively, there’s Ahrefs Keywords Explorer. It’s another great option that allows you to filter your keyword search by search engine, including YouTube. They have a massive database of over 7 billion keywords, updated with fresh data from 171 countries every month. Using their explorer, you can find out details, including a keyword’s monthly search volume, how many clicks it’s received, related keywords and much more.

Even without all of these handy YouTube SEO tools, you can keep things simple and just start typing in a search item on YouTube. You’ll soon see how the auto-complete suggestions are showcasing some of the most popular search results. Take note. If you install Keywords Everywhere, you’ll find additional information about competition and search volume.

To add keywords to your channel, go to the YouTube Studio, click on Settings and then click on Channel. Add the keywords you want, separated by a comma. If your keyword consists of more than one word, put it in quotation marks (“”).

add keywords to youtube channel

Rename your video file

Believe it or not, if you’re looking at how to rank YouTube videos, renaming your video file to include the keyword is crucial. Remember, YouTube can’t physically watch your video to find out how relevant it is to the target keyword (imagine the workforce it would take.) What the platform can do is read the file name of your video along with all the code. It sounds silly, but trust us, it really works. 

If you’ve created a cinematic drone film in New York, name it just that: ‘Cinematic-drone-film-New-York.MOV’.

Use your keyword in the video title

Sure, this may seem like a no-brainer, right? But you’d be surprised by how many people don’t utilize this simple trick. 

When you conduct your YouTube search, what is the first thing you look at? The thumbnail (more on that later) and title. If the title isn’t compelling or long and irrelevant to the search term, people simply won’t click to watch.

Ensure that you optimize your title with the keyword included. It goes without saying that you should make sure it’s a natural fit. A winning title is one that tells the viewer exactly what the video is about in a short, concise manner (ideally no longer than 60 characters, in order to prevent it from being cut off in results pages).

Use keywords in the video tags

This one comes straight from the horse’s mouth. YouTube’s official Creator Academy has suggested using tags that A) let your audience know what the video is about but, more importantly, B) let YouTube know what your video is about. It’s no secret that the platform and its algorithms use the tags to understand the content and context of the video. Consequently, the algorithms then know how to associate your video with other similar videos. Remember, showing up in the suggested videos sidebar is a very useful and significant source of views for your channel!

When it comes to choosing your tags, lead with the keywords that you’ve selected. Also, mix in a few longer phrases. We’ve found that questions perform particularly well. For example, ‘how do I…?’ or ‘where can I…?’

Pay attention to your video description

add title and description to youtube video

Optimizing your description is another sure-fire way of helping your video to show up in the suggested videos sidebar next to videos covering similar content to yours. Furthermore, when it comes to figuring out how to rank YouTube videos on Google, it’s been confirmed that tailored video descriptions help attract views coming from Google search results. If you use the search terms in your video description that are searched on Google itself and not just YouTube, you may see some success.

It’s recommended to include your selected keywords or phrases naturally within a few sentences that sum up what the video is about. In other words, treat this as an extended version of your title. You have a bit more room to play with, but you still want to keep it short, concise and to the point. 

Keep in mind that YouTube only shows the first 2 or 3 lines of a description. After that, the viewer has to click ‘show more’ if they want to read on. Therefore, make sure those first few words or sentences have the most important part of the description. Use the rest to include key information like links back to your site, links to your other social media sites, brand information, hashtags, etc. But you don’t need to re-write the same info over and over for each new video. Use the video templates to include basic information you may want on each video. Then change each video accordingly as needed.

The number 1 MOST important thing in this article is…

The thumbnail. Pay attention to your thumbnail. Above everything else you read here today, it’s the thumbnail that matters most. That can be a strange concept to get your head around, so here’s why it matters.

thumbnails are the most important element in youtube seo

Alongside the title and keywords (which we’ve already covered above), the thumbnail is the first thing viewers see in their search results. Within 1 or 2 seconds, they have decided whether they will click and watch your video, just by looking at the thumbnail. Why? Because when someone comes to YouTube, they are in a mindset of viewing videos and visual content. They’re judging with their eyes.

While YouTube does offer you auto-generated thumbnails from the video itself, we highly recommend making a custom image. By uploading a custom thumbnail that represents your video’s content well, attracts people’s attention and heightens intrigue (a keyword or 2 can’t hurt either), you can send a clear message to the viewer about what your video is about and why they should click to watch.

We recommend checking out Canva or Snappa - both great platforms that make it very easy and straightforward to create strong and engaging custom thumbnails.

Categorizing

Another key in how to optimize YouTube videos is to categorize them. Under the ‘Advanced settings’ section when uploading a video, you’ll find that you’re able to categorize your video under things such as ‘Music’, ‘Films and animation’ or ‘People and blogs’.

Categorizing works in the same way as other aspects of optimization, helping to ensure that your YouTube video is grouped with other videos covering the same topic and similar content. When it gets suggested in the sidebar or added to a playlist, you’re bound to gain more exposure.

It’s also well worth looking at the top creators and best performing videos within each category to identify what’s working best for them. For example, you may find similarities in production quality, length of the video and format. Furthermore, there might be easily identifiable patterns emerging from the audiences of these channels.

If you can hone in on what makes top-performing channels in specific categories so successful, you can give your video a better chance of performing well within YouTube SEO.

Info cards and end screens

Info cards are a great way to engage your audience and retain their attention while helping to build brand awareness and grow your channel. In each video you upload, you can add up to 5 info cards, of which there are 6 different types:

  • A card linking to another YouTube Channel (useful for collaborations)
  • Cards that encourage fundraising
  • A link to sites like GoFundMe or Patreon that encourage your audience to support the channel
  • A link to other external sites (perhaps you’re selling some merchandise?)
  • Cards that ask a question and allow viewers to vote (great for engagement)
  • Links to other YouTube videos you’ve made or even whole playlists (more on that later)

On top of this, it’s wise to also utilize the end screen. During the last 15-20 seconds of your video, you can tie things up with a visual prompt to the viewers reminding them to subscribe to your channel or do any of the other things mentioned above with info cards.

Remember, if the audience has watched through to the end, the chances are they’ve enjoyed your content and, with YouTube viewing durations rising rapidly, it can’t hurt to encourage and prompt them to watch another one of your videos.

Playlists

Curating your own YouTube playlists is another excellent way to optimize YouTube SEO. They can help encourage what is known as the ‘snowball effect’. 

We’d take a bet that you’ve been here yourselves - you watch one YouTube video, enjoy it, see it’s part of a playlist and then continue watching through that series of videos. Creating playlists helps keep a user clicking and rolling through your related videos. Naturally, this helps increase view count on your videos, and it’s been found to improve their ranking in search results when compared with standalone videos. 

To learn more, check out our more in-depth article about how to create YouTube playlists.

Engagement

Remember the key things we highlighted at the beginning of this article? YouTube is consistently looking for engagement on your videos. Don’t be afraid to remind viewers to give the video a like and subscribe to the channel for more content. If they like what you do, they’ll be happy to support the channel and promote it this way.

Don’t forget to speak directly to them in your videos - ask them questions and encourage them to contribute to the discussion by commenting below.

Furthermore, take the time to nurture your audience and engage in the comments! If people take the time to watch AND comment on a video, take the time to reply. And don’t just spam them with a ‘prayer emoji’. Be authentic and get to know the people who are taking the time out of their day to watch something you’ve created.

Retention

If your audience is switching off 30 seconds into a 12-minute video, the YouTube algorithms will notice that. The videos with high audience retention perform drastically better in YouTube SEO. So, you have to ensure that your viewers stick around and watch as much of the video as possible. Start by hooking them in the first 3-5 seconds of the video, giving them a taste of what’s to come later on or instantly showing them that this video is exactly what they thought it would be when they read your title and saw your thumbnail. (Have you ever noticed that movie trailers often start with a few seconds of the best action before they start the main trailer? Now you know why.)

YouTube analysts Colin and Samir have spoken in great length about this subject on their podcast episode How Mr. Beast Turns $Millions into Billions. It’s well worth a listen!

Adding SRTs and captions 

We’ve included a whole article covering how to add subtitles on YouTube. But why do it? It all comes back to those magical keywords.

Using subtitles and closed captions in your videos can boost YouTube SEO results because the important keywords have been highlighted.

To do this, you’ll need to upload a supported text transcript or timed subtitles file (or you can directly enter the transcript text for a video so that it’s auto-synced). We highly recommend using a site like Rev who can take care of all your subtitle and transcript needs for a very reasonable price and super-quick turnaround.

Share, share, share.

Call us crazy, but even linking your video or channel in your email signature can be an effective traffic driver. You never know who will click through and watch and what they will then do with the video and your channel.

It’s great practice to link your latest video or channel everywhere you can (without spamming your network, of course). This means sharing the link in your Instagram and Twitter bios, linking it in your email signature, or even embedding videos to the blog on your website. This last point actually creates another link between your website and the video - something for Googlebot to consider and analyze when you’re looking at how to rank YouTube videos on Google.

Wrapping up

So, that’s our comprehensive guide covering everything on how to optimize YouTube SEO. It can seem like a pretty daunting exercise at first but don’t let it dissuade you. Using various YouTube SEO tools and the tips we’ve provided here, you can make huge progress with your channel and videos. It’s well worth the time and effort.

For further reading on this subject, check out our article covering the 3 myths about Video SEO or get a better grip on your YouTube marketing strategy. Other interesting reads include the lowdown on YouTube upload quality and how to monetize YouTube videos.

 

About Josh

Josh Edwards is an accomplished filmmaker, industry writing veteran, storyteller based in Indonesia (by way of the UK), and industry writer in the Blade Ronner Media Writing Collective. He's passionate about travel and documents adventures and stories through his films.

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