YouTube Logo on Tablet

With more than 1.9 billion monthly active users and over 5 billion videos watched per day, YouTube can be an attractive content platform to many people and businesses. On the flip side though, there are roughly 300 hours of videos uploaded every minute and 5+ billion total videos and counting. It can be hard to stand out from the crowd. That’s where YouTube SEO comes in.

YouTube SEO is a different beast and only vaguely resembles the classic SEO most people think of. Instead of ranking factors like backlinks and localization, YouTube looks at things like the number of comments, likes, and views. This white paper is broken up into two parts, how to optimize a video for YouTube Search after it’s been published and some steps you can take to set up your future videos for success. I’ll walk you through the same process I used to see a 1000% increase in views on one of my videos in just a few months.

To make a long story short, I typically write about Google Ads, but last year I created a YouTube channel to document one of my hobbies. My channel is small and most of my videos don’t get very many views, but last April I posted a video that was different (although I didn’t know it at the time). Like most of my videos, it got a handful of views during the first few weeks and then petered off.  By 30 days I had 27 views and after 90 days I still only had 36 views. By this point in time I had moved on and basically forgotten all about this video, but about 6 months after publishing it something strange happened. It broke 100 views and was getting more and more views each day. This caught my attention so I did what any marketer would do and took a long hard look at the data.

After digging into YouTube’s video analytics, I learned that my video was ranked 6th for a particular query and that’s where a lot of my views were coming from. I started learning all I could about YouTube’s ranking factors and then implemented them into my video. Most of what I read made it clear that there’s only so much you can do to help a video rank once it’s published, but I did what I could and the results were very exciting. Take a look at this graph and see if you can tell when I started optimizing this video.

YouTube Video Performance Over Time


After changing a few small things, my video went from getting a couple of views per week to 80+ views per day. I’ll be the first to admit that 80 views per day isn’t necessarily impressive, but it gets more views every week and there’s no sign of slowing. Better yet, I’m reaching people that aren’t even subscribed to my channel who I probably wouldn’t have reached otherwise. And I did all of this without a fancy camera, video editing software, or a production budget.

If I can do this, so can you.

Part 1: How to Optimize a Published Video for YouTube Search

So, how was I able to identify this top performing video and what did I do to further optimize it? I’m glad you asked! Allow me to walk you through it.

How to Find Top Performing YouTube Videos

You may not have the time to optimize all of your old videos, at least not at first. It’s important then to identify which videos will have the biggest impact on your video marketing efforts. I’m going to walk you through this using the new Studio Beta interface. You may be more familiar with Creator Studio Classic, but that will be going away sometime soon so you may as well start learning to navigate YouTube’s Studio Beta.

YouTube Studio Beta

You first need to log into your YouTube Dashboard. Find and click on the Analytics tab. Somewhere on the screen, you’ll find a section labeled Top Videos. The default date range is the last 28 days so hopefully you’ll be able to recognize any videos you’ve published in the last four weeks. You should look for any older videos that continue to get views even though you’re no longer promoting them. Click SEE MORE to get the full list of top performing videos. From this list, you should be able to identify any videos that are starting to gain traction in YouTube’s Search algorithm.

How to Find Where Your Views Are Coming From

Once we know what videos consistently bring in views we need to figure out where the views are coming from. YouTube tracks many different traffic sources including YouTube Search, browse features, suggested videos, and channel pages. I’m going to focus on YouTube Search.

To determine which traffic source you’re getting the most views from, you’ll need to click on the analytics icon next to the title of the best performing video.

See video analytics

Then you need to find the Likes (vs. dislikes) section on the page and click SEE MORE. Click on the TRAFFIC SOURCE tab and identify the best-performing traffic sources.

If your video is getting most of its traffic from YouTube Search then your next step is to identify the common themes or keywords that you’re ranking for. You can do this by clicking on the YouTube Search traffic source. One thing to keep in mind is that this data will not show all of the searches, but only the top keywords. You’ll then click on the top three results.

See Search Results in YouTube

For this next part, I want you to open in a new tab each of the top three videos of the top three searches (make sure the top video isn’t an ad). You’re not going to watch these videos yet though, first I need to make sure you understand the importance of thumbnails, titles, descriptions, and tags.

If they’re ranking in the top 3 they must be doing something right so it’s your job to figure out what they’re doing well and find ways to do it better.

Video Thumbnail

Title, description, and tags are what most people think of when you mention YouTube SEO, but if you don’t give your video thumbnail the attention it deserves, your video will never reach its potential. Your video’s thumbnail won’t directly affect your position in YouTube Search, but it will dramatically affect your clickthrough rate. More clicks obviously lead to more views which can affect your ranking.

The default thumbnail is a screenshot from your video, but this usually isn’t what will perform best. Custom thumbnails almost always outperform default thumbnails. When you’re creating your thumbnail, keep in mind that YouTube recommends a minimum resolution of 1280×720 with a maximum file size of 2MB. Many advertisers prefer a resolution of 1920×1080 because they feel it results in a sharper image. Your custom thumbnail should be a .jpg, .gif, .bmp. or .png file.

Take a look at the two, very different video thumbnails below. The first one is clearly the best, the didgeridoo is extending towards the camera and as an added bonus he’s replicating the image on his shirt. In contrast, the second thumbnail does nothing to catch your eye and is probably the default thumbnail selected by YouTube. Which would you rather click on?

How to play the didgeridoo YouTube search

Your thumbnail, title, and description should all persuade people to watch your video.

Video Titles

Before I begin, I need to get this out of the way — DO NOT SOUND SPAMMY! DO NOT TRY TO “GAME” THE SYSTEM! This applies to titles, descriptions, and tags. YouTube SEO cannot be gamed so don’t even try.

If your title doesn’t sound natural people won’t click on your video. DO NOT stuff as many of your keywords as you possibly can into your title. It will backfire. Your title should tell them what the video is about, but don’t be afraid to make it fun. If possible and if it makes sense, try to include your main keyword as early in your title as possible. You should know what searches you want to rank for when writing your title. Here are some examples of effective titles.

How to build an igloo YouTube search

All three of these titles do a great job of telling you what the video is (how to build an igloo) and why you should watch their video (“by yourself”, “build a REAL igloo”, and “easy step by step guide”).

Video Description

Along with your thumbnail and title, searchers will be able to see part of your description in the YouTube search results. Much like with organic search and paid search, their search terms will be in bold. YouTube will cut off your description after about 100 characters so use those first few sentences wisely. The current character limit for a description is 5,000, but don’t forget people are there to watch a video not read an essay. Explain what your video is about, use your target keywords as often as makes sense while at the same time still sounding natural, and frontload your description with the most important calls to action.

To wrap up the importance of thumbnails, titles, and descriptions, consider the three videos below.

How to crack an egg one handed YouTube search

The first video has a title that directly references my query and a high-resolution photo, but the description is weak. They used the word “hand”, but nothing else from my query shows up.

The second video has a decent title, but that’s it. The thumbnail isn’t great and the description does nothing to persuade me to watch the video.

The third video has, in my opinion, the best thumbnail. They’ve created a custom, high-resolution thumbnail with additional text that matches my search. I particularly love how they included the word “simple” in a different font and made it red so it stands out. This video may not be ranked first, but I would wager they get more clicks than the second video because of their thumbnail alone. The title is decent, but the description is ineffective.

Video Tags

Unlike a video’s title and descriptions, tags require a bit of work to see. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is by using the Google Chrome browser and installing the “Tags for YouTube™” Chrome extension.

Otherwise, follow these instructions:
1. Go to the video page using Chrome or Firefox
2. Right-click the page, and select View Source (Ctrl + U on a PC or ⌘ + U on a Mac)
3. Hit Ctrl + F (or ⌘ + F on a Mac) and search for keywords in the source code
4. This should take you to a list of the tags the video creator added to that video

If any of the nine videos you watched are using relevant tags that you haven’t included, add them. As long as they’re relevant, adding extra tags can only help your videos. I occasionally see people using tags that have absolutely nothing to do with their videos. It’s obvious to me that they’re trying to ride the wave of a popular trend, but not only will it not help them it will make them look foolish to everyone who knows how to view tags.

In summary, I was able to make a few changes to my thumbnail, title, description, and tags to drastically increase my video’s performance month over month. I went from 190 views in November to 2,183 views in March. I don’t know about you, but I’d call a 1000%+ increase in views in just a few months decent.

Part 2: How to Incorporate YouTube SEO Into Your Video Planning

We’ve now gone over many things you can change to optimize a video that you’ve already published, but how can you use what you’ve learned to help your next video? Believe it or not, what you do before you turn the camera on effects the likelihood of a video’s success more than anything you can do once it’s published on YouTube. I am not a videographer so I’m not going to go into camera settings, storyboard techniques, video editing, or anything like that. Instead, I’m going to focus on keyword research, having a main objective for your video, the importance of practice, and why you should care about audience retention and video length.

Keyword Research

You could make the most interesting, well-produced video the world has ever seen, but if no one is looking for it you’ll never gain traction through YouTube Search. Keyword research is important because if you want someone to be able to find your video you need to know what they’re looking for.

I’m primarily a PPC guy and am a big believer in keyword research, which is why I was surprised it had never crossed my mind to do keyword research on the topics of my videos before I filmed them. To be fair, my channel is just for fun and I get nothing out of it, but if I overlooked keyword research (which is a big part of my job), how many other video creators are forgetting this crucial first step?

I’ve researched dozens of different keyword research tools and although they all do the same thing, some are far better than others. A good keyword research tool should not only tell you how many searches any particular keyword gets on average per month, but also give you a list of similar keywords with their search volumes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of two of my favorite tools.

Honestly, you can’t go wrong with either Twinword or Ubersuggest, but Ubersuggest does give you more for less (Twinword makes you create a free account if you do more than a few searches in a day).

Once you have an idea for a video, create a list of keyword ideas and enter the main keyword into one of these tools (or any other) and make sure it has decent search volume. You should take these numbers with a grain of salt though, all of the tools I tested reported the exact same number for a test search I did so I assume they’re all pulling from the same source.

Another way to find what people are actually looking for is to use YouTube’s search prediction feature. Start typing something into YouTube’s search bar and see what comes up.

YouTube Search Suggestions

The best thing about this method is that these are real searches and they’re searched often enough YouTube is fairly confident this is what you’re looking for.

While you’re doing your keyword research you should also be thinking about what keywords you want to include in your title, descriptions, and tags. As we discussed in the first section, these can have a fairly significant impact on rankings.

Decide What You Want Your Video to Accomplish

Now that you’ve decided on a topic and established other people are actively searching for it, you need to figure out what you want your video to do. What should someone do after watching your video? Do you want them to visit your website? Maybe watch related videos? Fill out a form? All three of these could be beneficial, but which one is most important to you? Once you decide that you can tailor your video to match your objective. Include this main call to action both in your script and your description. A video without a purpose is a waste of time and resources, so plan your videos carefully.

Although you should have one main call to action, you should also find a natural way to ask for likes, comments, and subscriptions. All of these engagement signals have a strong correlation with ranking and the higher you rank the more views you’re likely to get. Many YouTubers do this towards the end of their video as a way of signing off.


Hopefully, this doesn’t come as a surprise, but practice is very important, especially if you’re not yet confident in front of a camera. Even live streams can be partially rehearsed ahead of time. You may not be able to practice answering questions or responding to comments, but you can practice saying your intro, outro, and the main points you want to cover. Because YouTube automatically transcribes your videos (and is usually pretty accurate) make sure you practice saying your main keywords several times throughout your rehearsal.

Audience Retention

Another major ranking factor is how long people watch your video so think of ways to keep them engaged. It’s fine to have a quick intro to your video, but if it’s 30 seconds long people are probably going to abandon ship. One technique that works for many channels is telling people up front what they’re going to learn from your video, even before your intro. Many people will appreciate you getting straight to the point and, assuming what you say matches what they’re looking for, continue watching your video. Keep your video interesting and you shouldn’t have to worry about retention too much.

Video Length

There is a significant correlation between success in ranking on the first page of YouTube’s search results and video length.  According to Brian Dean of Backlinko, the average length of a video on YouTube’s first page is 14 minutes and 50 seconds. YouTube makes money when people watch videos so they heavily favor videos that keep people watching. More watch time equals more revenue for Youtube. Don’t worry if don’t think you can produce a high quality 15 minute video, the video that started me down this YouTube SEO rabbit hole is only 2 minutes and 20 seconds long and it’s doing just fine.


We’ve covered a lot, but the secret to ranking on YouTube can probably be summarized like this: create videos that people want to watch. All the tips and tricks from all of the gurus won’t help a video that people aren’t interested in. Focusing on what people want, keeping what I’ve covered in mind, and having fun with it help will you create successful videos and grow your channel and sphere of influence.