YouTube SEO: The Ultimate Guide

Contents

I first started making YouTube videos in 2008.

Back then, life was simple.

It was easy to get views and become known within a niche.

It was easy to get subscribers and build up an audience.

But now, things are much harder.

The YouTube algorithm has become very complex, weighing in various factors that dictate how well a video will rank on the platform.

Not to mention how much competition there is nowadays on YouTube, with many creators struggling to optimise their videos to reach their intended audiences.

Yet, YouTube is the 2nd largest search engine in the world, and there’s a lot to cover when it comes to ranking high on YouTube.

If you’d prefer to watch this YouTube SEO guide, here’s the YouTube video:

For those that love a good ol’ read, let’s begin.

Google SEO vs YouTube SEO

Many people believe that you have to apply the same SEO practices to both Google and YouTube.

This is wrong, and there are fundamental differences between the two.

YouTube VS Google

Apart from YouTube having an infinite scroll layout and being much more difficult to monitor and predict than Google, here are some key differences:

Technical elements

Google SEO is all to do with websites, which are unique and have varying levels of technical, on-page, and off-page elements.

YouTube videos, on the other hand, are all hosted on one platform, which provides an even ground for all content creators.

This means that no one video can be “technically stronger” than another, so the concept of technical SEO for YouTube videos is pretty much eliminated from the conversation.

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO is something that is way more important for Google SEO than YouTube SEO.

Reason being, I don’t think that links matter for YouTube videos as much as they do for websites.

You can build 100s of links to a YouTube video, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people will click through to the video and it’ll have lots of views.

Engagement

A  large part of YouTube SEO is about the engagement of a video – be it the likes, comments, and shares of a video.

You don’t see websites being ranked number 1 on Google because they have lots of comments on them.

YouTube takes engagement far more seriously than Google does, because engagement is what keeps users on YouTube (and that’s how they make more money).

Traffic sources

YouTube videos have far more organic reach than websites because of the different traffic sources that people can stumble across your videos from.

If we exclude the YouTube search, you can still find videos organically through browse features and suggested videos.

Considering the nature of YouTube as a platform, it identifies the content you like and will show you more of it – often leading to the discovery of different content creators.

YouTube traffic sources

Common YouTube SEO mistakes

There are many mistakes that I see YouTubers make that limit their organic growth.

Here are some common YouTube SEO mistakes from my experience that you should watch out for:

Mistake #1 – Overlooking keywords

Keywords are incredibly important on YouTube because it’s not just about how you optimise metadata – it’s also about the spoken words in the video itself.

Videos are fundamentally classified based on the keywords that they relate to, and many YouTubers overlook just how important keywords play a part in YouTube SEO.

Keywords for SEO are key on both Google and YouTube, but there are many instances whereby a YouTube video doesn’t audibly mention the keywords it is trying to rank for.

Mistake #2 – Being too broad

It’s fine if you have many different hobbies, from skateboarding and skiing to reviewing gadgets and playing video games.

What’s not fine is when your YouTube channel contains videos about all of these things.

In simple terms,  if someone is subscribing to your channel because they saw you playing a video game they like, they’re most likely only going to be interested in the video game content.

When you start uploading videos about skateboarding, the subscriber will either not watch your video (bad signal to YouTube) or unsubscribe (another bad signal to YouTube).

When you create a YouTube channel, pick one niche and stick to it.

However, some niches have different aspects to them, such as a digital marketing YouTube channel that uploads videos around SEO, PPC, content marketing, etc.

This is fine to have, as the audience might be interested in these other topics.

Mistake #3 – Avoiding CTAs

Prompts create actions, and that’s why call-to-actions are key on YouTube.

Whether they’re used to get likes on a video or a new subscriber, you should always remember to prompt your audience to perform an action.

Ideally, you’d do this once or twice (at the beginning and end of a video), but keep in mind that the best types of CTAs are audible and have some kind of visual presence on the screen.

Subscribe CTA YouTube

I tend to do this with all of my videos, and you can see from the example above that I’ll have an animation of someone clicking the subscribe button whilst I’m audibly using the CTA for people to subscribe.

Whilst it’s important not to forget about CTAs, don’t use too many in your video – it will alienate your audience and they’ll end up not taking you seriously!

Mistake #4 – Forgetting to add custom thumbnails

Custom thumbnails get more clicks than the randomly selected three options you have from the video you upload.

Click-through-rate (CTR) is an important YouTube SEO metric, yet many people will either forget to add a custom thumbnail, or simply create one that looks terrible.

Bad YouTube thumbnail Example

No offence to whoever created the above thumbnail, but I personally wouldn’t use it!

How to find your audience on YouTube

A question that often comes up from new YouTubers is “how do I find my audience?”

Luckily, there are some steps you can take to identify your audience on YouTube.

Find My Audience

If you want a quick overview, you can check out the Find My Audience feature that YouTube offers.

Find My Audience YouTube

Here, you can select whether you’re looking to target in-market or affinity audiences, as well as the overarching category of your videos.

Once you make a selection, you’re given a few different audience types to consider targeting.

Find My Audience YouTube Results

This will get you a head-start into figuring out the types of people you want to target with your videos.

The 3-step approach to identifying your YouTube audience

Another way you can identify your audience on YouTube is by taking this 3-step approach:

Step 1: Know who you’re targeting

The first step is all about the who.

When you pick a niche, it’s worth coming up with personas of who your ideal audience member is.

You should also ask yourself “will this person actively look for my videos on YouTube?”

Step 2: Know what they’re searching for

Once you know who it is you’re targeting, you need to gather information about what videos are currently out there.

Find out what current videos exist, but also how well these videos perform.

Take a look into their engagement, seeing the amount of likes and comments, as well as taking note of the video view count as a percentage of the channel’s subscriber count.

This approach will help you identify any gaps in the content that you can fill with a video that better matches the viewer’s intent.

Step 3: Create and optimise videos accordingly

The final step is to produce your own content that is better than what is currently out there.

You should optimise it correctly so that you capture the maximum amount of relevant viewers.

But how do you optimise YouTube videos?

Well, first we need to understand a bit about keyword research and its role within YouTube SEO.

YouTube keyword research

If you’ve done Google SEO in the past for websites, then you know the importance of keyword research at the start of an SEO strategy.

The only problem with YouTube is that it’s currently impossible to get an accurate monthly search volume for YouTube keywords.

Some SEO tools will claim to have these figures, but they’re either using clickstream data or simply display the Google search volumes (which are often very different).

So, how do you perform YouTube keyword research?

There are two things that I look into when it comes to YouTube keyword research: YouTube search predictions and Google Trends.

YouTube search predictions

When you start typing into the YouTube search box, you’ll get some autocomplete suggestions that relate to whatever it is you’re typing.

These predictions are accurate and generally up-to-date, which provides you with a good direction towards targeting particular keywords.

You can also check for more keywords with the underscore _ key.

YouTube search predictions

Try to use a variation of keywords within the YouTube search box, and this will help you identify if there’s a need for the video you plan to make.

It can also give you ideas of new videos that you haven’t thought of yet.

Google Trends

Google Trends is a free tool that lets you find trending topics.

You can filter it by the country and time period, as well as comparing different topics.

The niftiest feature in Google Trends is that you can filter these results for YouTube search.

YouTube SEO interest Google Trends

From this data I can gather that lots of people are looking more into YouTube SEO (which is good news!)

When performing your keyword research for YouTube SEO, consider using the keywords you’ve identified within the YouTube search predictions along with Google Trends for the overarching topic.

Optimising YouTube metadata

There are lots of different metadata that can be optimised on YouTube, both on the channel and individual videos.

Let’s take a look at each specific metadata on YouTube and how exactly to optimise it.

Channel keywords

You can choose the keywords that relate to your entire YouTube channel by going into the YouTube Studio –> Settings –> Channel.

YouTube channel keywords

This is important to set up when you start out because it will signal to YouTube that your content will relate to these topic areas.

It can also imply that people who watch videos related to your channel keywords will find you via YouTube search, suggested videos, or browse features.

Channel category

Once you have set up your channel keywords, it’s important to set your channel category.

This will better signal what type of content you intend to create, therefore, it helps YouTube to display your videos to the right people.

You can choose your channel category by going into the YouTube Studio –> Settings –> Upload defaults –> Advanced settings.

YouTube channel category

The ability to choose only one channel category further reinforces how important it is to stick to one niche, otherwise you’ll confuse your audience.

Channel ‘ABOUT’ tab

Many people forget that your YouTube channel has an about tab.

This is where you can create a description for your channel, insert some links, and add details such as your email address & country.

YouTube channel about tab

Try to be as descriptive as you can in the about tab, as the keywords that you enter here will also help validate your content topics, as well as provide your audience with a greater insight into you as a content creator.

Video title

Your YouTube video title needs to be optimised as it will capture the attention of the user, and they’ll take a split second to decide whether to watch your video or not.

Try to include your main keyword(s) in the title and keep all of your titles consistent.

You should try to use title case for professionalism (or if you want to use clickbait you can USE ALL CAPS *SHOCKING*

Online brand communities video 2020

Notice how in this title I’ve used a variety of relevant keywords, such as How to Get Customers, How to Get Customers for Your Business, and Online Brand Communities.

Online brand communities video 2021

It’s also a good idea to update your video titles if the information in them is still relevant, as you can see the year at the end of the title got updated for 2021 from 2020.

Video thumbnail

Similarly to the title, your video thumbnail will massively influence the CTR of your video.

Thumbnails should be relevant to the video (otherwise people will quickly stop watching the video) and consistent across your channel.

It’s important to use your brand colours in the thumbnails to signal to your audience that they know whose video it is that they’re about to watch.

YouTube video thumbnail consistency

To create custom thumbnails, you can use free tools like Canva or paid tools like Photoshop.

Video description

The video description is where you can add the majority of text to better describe your video and incorporate as many relevant keywords as you can.

Your main keyword(s) should be included at different parts of your video description, and it’s important to initially include them towards the start of the description.

There are other things you can do to better improve your video descriptions, such as by adding timestamps and/or adding hashtags.

YouTube video description

The timestamps that you add will help users better navigate throughout the video, and when you include hashtags in your video description (ideally at the end), the first three will show up above the video title.

Try not to add more than 15 hashtags (although I don’t see why you would).

Remember that your video description can also include more information about you, as well as links to other areas of the web e.g. website, social media profiles, etc.

Video tags

Your YouTube video tags should include relevant keywords to that video.

Tags are limited to 500 characters, so choose them wisely.

YouTube video tags

It can be difficult to find where to add your video tags, so you can access them by going into the YouTube Studio –> Content –> Your video –> Details –> Scroll down and click SHOW MORE.

If you want inspiration from your competitors, you can see which keywords they include in their videos by using the Keywords Everywhere Chrome extension or by using this nifty tool.

Video subtitles and CC

The subtitles and closed captions for your video can also provide a lot of information to YouTube about what is being said in your video.

Remember that the YouTube bot doesn’t watch your video, but it can detect what is being said.

YouTube will automatically generate subtitles for your videos, but you can add them manually by navigating to underneath where you can change the video tags.

Upload Subtitles CC YouTube

If you choose to upload a subtitle/CC file manually, check this guide on the supported files you can use.

Advanced YouTube SEO tricks

I’ve looked around the internet to see what others are saying about YouTube SEO, and frankly, there are quite a few tricks that nobody seems to have brought up.

This part of the guide will pinpoint some lesser-known and advanced YouTube SEO tricks that *might* blow your mind.

Trick #1 – Adding competitors in your video tags

This is quite a bizarre thing to do – and it is.

But, the reason you might want to add your competitors’ names in your video tags is because your video might show up on the suggested videos section if someone is watching one of your competitor’s videos.

It can also display your videos via browse features and/or YouTube search.

However, I wouldn’t go overboard with this and have all of your competitors appearing in all of your video tags, so the best way to approach this is to test it out when you upload a video that is similar (or better) than one that your competition already has uploaded.

Trick #2 – Optimising the video and thumbnail file name

It’s not helpful if you’re uploading a video about marketing with the rendered video file being output1242.mp4 and the thumbnail file being IMG0024.jpg

This may seem obvious, but lots of people don’t optimise the file name for their videos and thumbnails.

Whilst there are limitations in terms of using special characters, the file name should include the main keyword(s) that you’re trying to rank for.

Most likely, this will be the title of the video that you’re uploading.

Custom thumbnail file name

Trick #3 – Commenting on your competitor’s videos

This trick is definitely underused by many YouTubers, primarily because they don’t want to give their competitors more views.

However, commenting on your competitor’s videos can actually be beneficial to your own channel.

Reason being, their audience is most likely going to be interested in your content, so why not get your name out there and reel in some of their viewers to your channel?

The best way to approach this is to comment things that are actually relevant to the video that you’re watching – making it apparent that you’re adding value.

Doing so will probably get you more likes than other comments, which will further boost your comment to the top and get more people to see your brand.

I commented on an SEO video from a YouTuber with over 2,500 subscribers, adding value to what was already said in the video.

New subscriber after commenting on videos

This creator found my comment helpful, and we had a nice conversation about the topic.

As a result, he even subscribed to me (which was awesome!)

Now, for those reading this that want to avoid appearing extremely deceitful, commenting on other people’s videos does act as support because you’re giving them engagement – so let’s all be nice to one another, ok?

Trick #4 – Using cards and end screens correctly

Cards and end screens aren’t novel, but their use cases are oftentimes misunderstood.

Many YouTubers will implement very generic end screens at the end of a video, but these don’t entice viewers to click through to watch another one of their videos.

Believe it or not, this acts as a bad signal to YouTube.

Your end screens should have relevant content to the video that it is being displayed on, and in turn, this should drive more engagement and better watch time for a channel.

Since watch time is one of the most important metrics for YouTube SEO, it’s a no-brainer that you should implement them effectively.

YouTube end screen

Consider creating an outro image/video within the last ~20 seconds of your video whereby you can display your end screen elements.

With cards, a lot of people don’t even use them, but whenever you make reference to another video of yours, use cards to prompt viewers to watch the referenced video.

It’ll get you more views, engagement, and generally provides a strong signal to YouTube that your content is great.

Trick #5 – Setting the video’s location

For any local businesses creating YouTube videos, you can set the location of your videos to match where you’re based.

This can help viewers who live nearby to access your videos and/or potentially come in and make a purchase.

YouTube recording location

You can find this setting by going into the YouTube Studio –> Content –> Your video –> Details –> Scroll down and click SHOW MORE.

However, if you’re creating content to a worldwide audience and don’t rely on bringing users in from any particular area, it’s perfectly fine to leave the video location as ‘None’.

Trick #6 – Going live on YouTube

Live videos get increased exposure from YouTube than regular uploaded videos.

It’s also far easier to get engagement during live videos with the live chat enabled.

The best part about live videos is that the views get combined from viewers that watched the live stream and those that watched the replay.

If you’re looking to get higher visibility in a relatively easy way, live videos are the way to go.

Of course, make sure that your live videos achieve a purpose and you can keep your viewers engaged throughout.

Trick #7 – Posting in the ‘COMMUNITY’ tab

You unlock the community tab on YouTube when you reach 1,000 subscribers, and this lets you create posts that can engage your audience (even non-subscribed users).

You can essentially reach your viewers without having to create a video!

With community posts, you can share your latest video, create a poll, or ask questions to your audience.

YouTube community posts

YouTube tends to show community posts prominently, and not many content creators bother making these posts, so once you reach 1,000 subscribers, start creating regular community posts to increase your visibility on YouTube.

YouTube’s own policy for ranking videos

YouTube is transparent when it comes to publicly stating how videos are ranked on the platform.

The TL;DR is the following quote:

“We prioritise three main elements to provide the best search results: relevance, engagement and quality.”

Let’s break this down a bit to get a better understanding of the metrics that YouTube values in a video for it to rank well.

Relevance

A huge part of relevance is to do with metadata – title, tags, decryption, and the video itself.

Similarly to Google, YouTube utilises keywords to better understand how relevant a video is to the search query or searching pattern of the viewer.

The more relevant a video is, the better it will be displayed to a targeted user that is looking for it.

Engagement

Let’s assume there are two videos that have the same “relevancy” for a search query.

How does YouTube identify which video is better suited for the user?

This is where engagement comes in.

Engagement can be related to the watch time of a video for its respective query, as well as the number of likes/comments/shares it receives.

Videos with better engagement metrics will perform better on YouTube.

The reason for this is that YouTube gets more money when there are more users watching videos on YouTube.

If a video gets good engagement and viewers are watching more, then they’re staying on YouTube and bringing in more money to the platform.

For this reason, as well as engagement being such a good indicator to match a user’s intent, I believe that good engagement is the ultimate recipe for success on YouTube.

Quality

YouTube hasn’t gone into a lot of detail when it comes to defining how the quality of a video is calculated.

However, YouTube claims that its systems are able to detect which channels demonstrate EAT – expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.

The takeaway here is that if you have an already defined brand or presence on the web, you might be directly providing your channel with a better quality score.

Quality can also be interpreted in other ways, such as the amount of new subscribers gained from a video – you’d think that the video is quality, right?

Maximising YouTube traffic on other platforms

When it comes to sharing YouTube videos effectively, there are plenty of methods you can use.

But first, it’s important to understand the benefits of doing this.

Increasing your video’s visibility on different platforms can provide you with new subscribers, viewers, and generally increase your brand awareness.

When it comes to finding platforms to share your content on, you must ensure that the users on the platform are actually interested in your content.

If not, it’ll be hard for you to gain traction and you’ll end up giving yourself a bad reputation on that platform.

For this reason, it’s important to initially assess the viability of the types of platforms you might choose to share your content on.

Your professional network on LinkedIn might be good if you have connections that work within your industry.

Online forums such as Reddit and Quora might be good for finding niche communities where people are more likely to be interested in your content.

When posting your content on social media, however, don’t simply place the link of your video and leave it at that.

Consider rendering bitesize clips and uploading them natively, then add a comment with the full YouTube video link.

I had to bold that entire sentence because it really is important for getting more engagement on other platforms, as opposed to pasting YouTube links that won’t get nearly as much impressions.

The final thing to note about social media sharing is that you should use relevant hashtags to further increase your impressions to the right target audience.

Final thoughts and the future of YouTube SEO

YouTube is continuing to change (as it has over the years that I’ve been creating videos on the platform).

One of the more recent changes (apart from YouTube Shorts and hashtags) has been a prompt on the YouTube home screen that asks you to rate a recently watched video.

YouTube review prompt

I’d argue that it’s a way for YouTube to generate more quantitative feedback regarding the quality of a video, which might be able to directly affect its visibility on the platform.

Plus, it’s nice to see a feature on YouTube that brings back the five stars rating that it used to have.

YouTube 5 star rating old

For video creators on YouTube nowadays, focusing on engagement is more important than ever before.

With the saturation of content across pretty much every niche, YouTubers are competing for a lot of the same audiences.

However, it is still possible to build an audience base provided that you (as a YouTuber) can create videos that people want to watch – be it educational, entertaining, or inspiring videos.

If you’re looking to get started as a YouTuber today, consider reading about how to create a video marketing strategy first.

Congrats – you’ve made it to the end of the YouTube SEO guide.

You should now be able to confidently optimise your YouTube channel and videos and get ahead of the pack when it comes to YouTube SEO.

Did you enjoy this guide? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below – oh, and don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel 😉

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I’m a London-based SEO expert with a passion for all things digital marketing.

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10 thoughts on “YouTube SEO: The Ultimate Guide”

  1. Panagiotis Kontogiannis

    Just like increased visibility in Google increases your website traffic, conversion rate, and revenue, YouTube SEO can help increase important metrics like follower count, brand awareness, website visits, and revenue. Great job Itamar 🙂

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