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October 8, 2019
Optimizing YouTube Search
YouTube, arguably the world’s favorite video platform, is the search tool with the second largest traffic volume, behind its parent Google. With 1.9 billion users generating 3 billion searches each month in 80 languages, 70 percent on mobile devices, mastering the secret and ever-changing search criteria on this highly trafficked platform can make or break a brand.
Until recently the convention wisdom among SEO experts was that 4 criteria drove search rankings on YouTube. The number of views, the video title, the content description and the user ratings were thought to be the heavily weighted factors influencing search results.
Enter Brian Dean, CEO of Backlinko. He and his colleagues studied 1.3 million YouTube videos to discern how the YouTube search engine works and how to compete effectively to ensure your brand appears high up on the first SERPs page. His findings are at odds with the conventional wisdom.
Brian’s first finding is that YouTube favors content that engages. The number of comments correlates strongly with higher rankings. The more comments per video; the higher the SERP ranking. Similarly, the number of views, likes, shares and new subscribers all affirmatively contribute to ranking success.  
Shares, an explicit endorsement from users, has a strong correlation with higher rankings. Likes, an affirmative vote for content, also correlates with higher rankings for the same reasons. The number of views, previously a dominant ranking criterion, seems to be downgraded because it’s a poor indicator or predicter of engagement.
YouTube’s commercial value increases with large numbers of engaged users measured in the number of videos viewed, time spent viewing, repeat usage and reviews, shares or comments. The takeaway is to produce videos that prompt extended viewing and user interaction. Helping row YouTube’s boat contributes to ranking success.
What is surprising is that longer videos and HD videos rank higher. The SEO pros initially counseled short and snappy productions arguing that consumers want snackable instant gratification. Yet Brian discovered that the average length of a first SERPs page result was 14 minutes and 50 seconds. Total watch time is a key ranking factor. 
In the same vein, 68.2% of high-ranking page one videos were high definition (HD). This is evidence of the maturity of the platform and the variety of engaging and available content. If they are interested in visually arresting content, they’ll watch for a quarter of an hour. This ,too, rows YouTube’s boat in terms of touting content quality, variety, affinity and engagement. 
Equally surprising are the insights about keywords, tags and descriptions as ranking criteria. The study found a very small relationship between keyword rich tags and rankings. There was zero correlation between keyword optimized descriptions and high rankings. 
Exact title keyword matches had only a slight edge over those that didn’t match exactly. 
This finding challenges the keyword orthodoxy most of us were trained on and hints that YouTube armed with countless search histories, machine learning and artificial intelligence is moving away from the obvious and mechanical toward better understanding intent, nuance, implication and user needs.
The data suggests ways to adjust video content, production values and analytic processes to optimize rankings on the world’s number two search engine. Factors that expand use and drive engagement, vital competitive elements that YouTube merchandizes to advertisers, contribute favorably to SERPs rankings. In evolving its ranking criteria, YouTube seems to be saying, “if you scratch our back; we’ll scratch yours.” 


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Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.
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