How to rank your videos on YouTube - Falkon Digital Ltd

How to rank your videos on YouTube

By Falkon Digital on July 21, 2020

One of the most common questions we’re asked when talking about the YouTube platform is “how do you rank videos in YouTube search?”. Most of the advice I hear on this is either out of date… or not entirely accurate. Luke shares his top tips in his latest video for SEM Rush. 


Watch this video Falkon Digital MD Luke, produced for SEMRush in this video where he shares 10 tips that can really help you improve the visibility of your videos in search. But on top of that, I’m also going to share a key point that a lot of video marketers don’t tell you, and this could make a huge difference to how your channel performs.


When we first started out, we were really interested in search traffic,  and how videos ranked for specific key terms. This is because we assumed that organic search was probably the biggest traffic source. 


However, in reality, organic search traffic can be a comparatively small traffic source on the YouTube platform, with the biggest sources being suggested video traffic or browse features.


To put this into context, we have a video that ranks #2 and #3 for some very competitive key terms, and this has provided 100s of daily views over the last 4 years. So this video now has over 250,000 organic views in total, which is great. 

However videos on the same channel that get traffic from suggested and browse features gained over 250,000 views in just 48 hours. 

So this is the key point I alluded to earlier. Search traffic can be great, but I recommend not focusing on search traffic alone, but rather optimising videos as a whole to increase their reach and discoverability; and this includes traffic from search.

Now if you’ve seen previous videos Luke has created for the SEMrush channel, you may notice a lot of crossover in how you optimise videos, and how you get your videos to rank. So here are the tips…

#1 – Optimise for the viewer


Now this is a bit of a general tip, but it’s an important one that applies to almost all the points that follow.


The reason you need to optimise for the viewer, is because the YouTube algorithm is based primarily around User Behaviour Metrics. What this means is that you need to optimise for humans rather than the algorithm. Optimising your video in this way will also help improve it’s organic search performance.


So when creating your video content, and when crafting your thumbnail, title and description – think from the perspective of the viewer first and not the algorithm.  Optimisation is all about the viewer, and it all starts with getting them to click on your video.


#2 – Keyword research 


So like any form of SEO, you need to start with your keyword research to identify opportunities based on search volumes and the level of competition; and this should be done before you make your video. 


Where possible I would recommend focusing on a single key term per video, and focusing on a longtail variation.  These are a little bit easier to rank for, but also increase the relevance of your video to the user making them more likely to click and watch the video. Click Through Rate and Watch Time are really important metrics I will cover in more detail shortly.


Regarding discovery optimisation, Google states: “The goals of YouTube’s search and discovery system are twofold: to help viewers find the videos that they want to watch, and to maximise long-term viewer engagement and satisfaction.”


So the more specific you can be with your search term, the better. To put this into context, take this example:


Let’s say you wanted to create a video that would rank for the key term “SEO”. Not only would this be very competitive, but it is also extremely broad. The intent of the searcher could be someone looking for SEO as service, educational content around SEO, SEO news updates or even just someone wanting to find out what the term SEO actually means.


Now let’s say that you theoretically crafted your thumbnail and title in such a way that you managed to get the click for a lot of those queries, but if your content doesn’t match their search intent, the viewer will bounce off that video and it will have a very low watch time.


So overall, trying to rank for really broad terms in that way is very difficult. On the flip side, the more specific you can be with your search term, the more likely you are to have a high click through rate and a high watch time. So instead of just “SEO”, if you had a really specific term such as “SEO for ecommerce websites 2020”, you’re likely to drive far more engagement from that query and be a lot more successful.


Additionally, the best keywords are often about new or emerging topics that are high demand but low supply. If the supply of videos for these topics is low, users will have no other option than to watch your video which is great for Click Through Rate (CTR) and Watch Time, and can get your video established early.


#3 – Formatting your tags


Historically tags were really important on YouTube, and some well crafted, keyword stuffed tags could probably serve you pretty well. However in terms of search, tags really only play a small role in providing relevance and context to your video.


In fact, it’s suggested that tags are only really important within the first 24 hours after publishing your video when talking about search traffic. This is because when you publish a video, YouTube doesn’t have any contextual data about it. 


What YouTube wants to know is if it serves your video to a viewer for a specific term, do they click on it, how long do they watch it for and ultimately how satisfied is the viewer with the video.


Once it’s collected enough data on your video, your tags will largely be disregarded. But it’s rare that you would focus on search traffic alone when talking about YouTube, we consider optimising videos as a whole, and there other roles that tags can be very useful for.


Now when talking about creating our tags, we have 500 characters to play with. I used to try and make sure that I used all the available characters, but if you stick only to relevant keywords and variations without stuffing or spamming, then in most cases you’ll probably use around 300-400 of those characters.


So coming back to our previous example of “SEO for eCommerce websites 2020”, our video-specific tags might look something like:


  • SEO for ecommerce websites 2020
  • SEO for ecommerce websites
  • SEO ecommerce websites
  • Ecommerce SEO
  • Ecommerce SEO 2020
  • Ecommerce website SEO
  • Ecommerce website SEO 2020


This makes up approximately 150 characters, but in addition to video-specific keywords, I would also include what we call topic-specific keywords and channel wide keywords. This is less to do with search and more to do with optimisation as whole, but this might include an additional 150-250 characters; so we’re on track for 300-400 characters in total.


#4 – Descriptions


So similar to tags, from a search perspective, the description plays a relatively small role when it comes to ranking your video but there are some important considerations.  Additionally when it comes to trying to rank your videos for competitive terms, I like to make sure that I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity available – so essentially making sure you’ve ticked every available box.


So first is that the opening paragraph of your description provides the most relevance, so if you can include your key terms within it that’s great. More importantly however, the first 200 characters of your description are pulled through to the search results. This provides an opportunity to further entice a potential viewer to click on your video.


So again, focus on the user first, and think about what you can say in that paragraph to encourage the click through. Don’t put broad content here, or more commonly what see, is the title just being repeated. Think of this content as something to support the title and thumbnail to convince the viewer that this is the video they need.


Now within your description you can include up to 3 hashtags; these will automatically get pulled through to just above your video title. Now whether or not you chose to use hashtags is up to you, but here are some arguments for and against.


So arguments for using hashtags are that it’s another method of discovery, it’s another opportunity in which someone can find your video, and it uses a system that’s different to normal organic search which may have some additional value. It’s also a relatively new feature, at least contextually, which means potentially a lot less competition for those hashtags.


Arguments against hashtags, are that hashtags are simply another exit point for your video. We know that watch time is the most important ranking factor on the YouTube platform, and if a viewer sees a hashtag that piques their curiosity they could end up watching your video for a much shorter amount of time. 


Additionally if you only have one video using that hashtag, the user won’t find another one of your videos by clicking it. So the caveat to using hashtags in my opinion, would be to use a unique hashtag that shows mostly only your results.


Either way you need to make a judgment call on what’s best for you, probably on a video by video basis.


#5 – Optimise your thumbnails


So if you’ve seen my previous videos, you’ll know that this is something I talk about a lot, but the right thumbnail can have a huge impact on overall video performance. Now looking at some of my videos that rank really well for competitive terms, all of them have a CTR of at least 5%.


Now when it comes to CTR, a good percentage will be different for every channel and every topic. So as a general rule, just try to improve your CTR with every new video you publish. So if your last video has a CTR of 3%, see if you can improve this to 3.1 or 3.2% in your next video – or of course much higher if you can.


Now if your CTR is low, then it’s very unlikely that YouTube will continue to serve your content for that search term; it will prioritise videos that have a higher CTR and good Average View Durations.


Now thumbnail optimisation is a huge topic, so if you want me to cover this in more detail then comment below and we can make a dedicated video on this. But while thinking about CTR, you have to make sure that your content matches the expectations set by your thumbnail.


What this means, is that your thumbnail needs to be enticing and clickable, but also your content needs to deliver on the promises made by the thumbnail. If not, then your watch time on that video will be low as viewers will likely feel tricked and just bounce straight off the video.


In order to rank, your video needs to deliver both a good CTR and good watch time. More on this in just a moment…


#6 – Optimise your titles


So when it comes to writing titles, the focus shouldn’t be on SEO, but making sure you get the viewer to click. This means if you can include your key terms in your titles, then great, but don’t do it at the expense of writing a good title.


It’s important to make sure your titles are user centric, this means the first part of the title is for the user and designed to create interest or pique their curiosity. The second part of the title can be more for the machine, as in, the YouTube algorithm.


YouTube provides up to 100 characters for you to write your title, but where possible try and stay under 60 characters if you can. This means that your title is succinct, and YouTube should display your complete title in the search results.


Remember – getting the click is far more important than SEO relevance when writing your titles.

#7 – Edit your captions


Every time you upload a video, YouTube will auto-generate captions. Now to be fair, their system is pretty sophisticated, and for myself personally, I would say that the captions are generally around 90-95% accurate, which is really impressive.


Now YouTube will use these auto-generated captions to help understand the content of your video, so accuracy of your captions is really important. Now even with my 90-95% accuracy, there are things the auto-generated captions struggle with. Generally speaking this are things like names, but there have been instances when I’ve been pretty horrified as to how I’ve been interpreted.


If you’ve been incorrectly interpreted, this can be a problem and it can be harmful if it thinks you’ve said something really bad. So if you have a strong accent or you talk very quickly, then there will likely be a higher degree of error.


What I recommend is using the editor to correct the auto-generated captions rather than trying to create new ones from scratch. This can save you a lot of time!


#8 – Try to maximise watch time


So again if you’ve seen my previous videos about YouTube Optimisation on the SEMrush channel, I always talk about watch time. It’s the most important metric on the YouTube platform, and it’s the single biggest ranking factor as it’s the best measure YouTube has in understanding the quality of your content, and the most difficult to manipulate and gamify. 


YouTube even states that they optimise search & discovery for videos that increase watch time on their site. Additionally, they posted in their Creator Blog that they’ve started adjusting the ranking of videos in YouTube to reward engaging videos that keep viewers watching. Reviewing all the videos that I have that are ranked highly in search, the average view duration is at least 45%, but often they are within the 50-60% range. 


Now I’ve touched upon some of the ways you can improve your watch time in previous videos, but from a search perspective, it comes back to what I said about having a single focus for your video with a longtail keyword. 


If you use this approach, then it’s much easier to match the viewer intent with your content. The closer you can match the intent, the greater the CTR is likely to be for your video and the better watch time you are likely to have. 


If you can satisfy search intent with a high retention video, this will have a huge impact on how your video performs in the search results.


#9 – Aim for maximum session time


As well as having high watch time, overall session time and average number of views per viewer are really important metrics. What YouTube wants to know is, did you just create one good video, or have you created lots of great content that is essentially… binge worthy. 


So again this is another behaviour metric used by YouTube to try and determine both the quality of your content, and ultimately the level of satisfaction of the viewer after they’ve watched your videos.


Now ideally you would have strategically created a data relationship between all your videos, so that your own content is suggested to the viewer when they’re watching a video from your channel.


This can be complex to do, so here are some tips to help increase your session time and average views per viewer.


  1. Number 1 is to use in-video optimisations. This includes links to other relevant content or playlists as either cards or end screens.
  2. Number 2 Is to include links to other relevant content in your descriptions and pinned comments
  3. Thirdly, when you share your content, share it as a part of a playlist. This increases the likelihood that viewers will watch multiple videos from your channel in single session
  4. And finally, think long term about your content strategy. Long watch time sessions can be had by organising your content, and creating series playlists that have a connection between videos. For example, consider a series where someone creates a new PC from scratch, and each episode they add a new component such as the motherboard, then the CPU, the graphics card as something that can be followed and watched longterm.


#10 – Engagement & viewer signals


So just to be clear, in YouTube terminology, engagement primarily refers to watch time and average view duration, which as we’ve talked about are the most important metrics on the platform.


Viewer signals are what most people consider to be in engagement, and these are things like likes, dislikes, comments and viewer feedback.  Viewer signals play a part in video discovery, and YouTube states that these can help them tune their recommendations. 


But it’s not just a numbers game. Having 10 likes on your video is great, but YouTube wants to know where those likes have come from. For example, out of all the people who liked the video, what gender are they, how old are they, where are they geographically, and what videos do they normally watch and like? Based on who has liked the video, this can help the algorithm understand who else to serve or recommend the video to, which will be other users that match their profile.


Comments absolutely help in lots of ways, so encouraging comments by asking questions in your video can be very useful.  There is also some possible relevance from “comment contextualisation”; so do the comments your video has received contain keywords based around your content.


Ultimately however all these viewer signals and engagement metrics help YouTube determine viewer satisfaction, and if satisfaction of viewers appears to be high it will improve your performance in search.