Why do most YouTubers leave YouTube forever?

YouTube Algorithm: How It Works & How To Use It For Your Subscriber Growth

Many video makers, be they professional YouTubers or brands, view the YouTube algorithm as a complete enigma - a higher power that rules over the number of views and is completely beyond their control. They believe that one simply cannot understand how the YouTube algorithm works. After all, it's one of the platform's best-kept secrets.

But what if we told you that it wasn't at all?

In a study published in 2016, a group of Google engineers outlined their plans for how videos could be played through YouTube's recommendation engine for a better user experience. While it didn't attract a lot of attention back then, it has a huge impact on YouTube today. According to the Chief Product Officer of YouTube, 70% of YouTube views today come from this recommendation engine.

Much of the discussion about generating video views on YouTube has centered on YouTube SEO, promoting through social media, and attracting subscribers. These tactics actually add to the discovery of your videos. However, this alone does not unlock the lion's share of views that you can get through YouTube's recommendation engine (through the YouTube homepage and recommended video suggestions). If you want to get more video views in the long run, you need to understand how the YouTube algorithm works in 2020.


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Table of Contents

  1. How the YouTube algorithm works
  2. Thoughts on “Clickbait” in 2020
  3. 5 Ways To Get More YouTube Views
  4. Conclusion

How the YouTube algorithm works

The study, published by Google engineers Paul Covington, Jay Adams, and Emre Sargin, breaks down signals used to rank videos for YouTube recommendations:

  1. CTR (the likelihood that someone will click on your video after seeing it)
  2. Playback time (the combined time viewers spend watching your videos)
  3. How many videos on your channel the user viewed
  4. How recently the user watched a video on the subject
  5. What the user has been looking for in the past
  6. The user's previously viewed videos
  7. Demographic information and location of the user

The first three signals are the only ones that you can directly influence. The rest depends on factors outside of your channel to personalize the recommendation accordingly. The Google engineers even state that their final ranking goal is "a simple function of the expected viewing time per impressionRanking by click rate often promotes deceptive videos that the user does not watch in full (clickbait). The playback time, on the other hand, records engagement much better.

Some might interpret this to mean that optimizing for clicks is penalized by YouTube, which is a huge misconception, however. YouTube only punishes decoy tactics that promise too much before the click and deliver disappointing content after the click. In general, however, the click-through rate is still as important as ever. After all, you can't generate a lot of playback time without getting clicks first. These priorities are even reflected in the new Analytics dashboard in YouTube Studios.

Under the "Reach" tab, you can see the following metrics, which together illustrate YouTube's new emphasis on click-through rate and watch time:

      • Impressions:The number of times your video thumbnails were shown to viewers as a recommended video, on the homepage, or in search results.
      • Types of traffic sources:Where on YouTube your video thumbnails were shown to potential viewers.
      • Click rate of impressions (CTR):The number of times users viewed a video after seeing your thumbnails (based on registered impressions).
      • Views:This measures the number of times viewers viewed your videos after discovering them on YouTube.
      • Playback time:Watch time that came from people who viewed and clicked your videos on YouTube.
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Thoughts on "Clickbait": The Relationship Between CTR and Playback Time

In the past few years you've probably seen some articles on YouTube's fight against clickbait as the platform has been flooded with misleading video thumbnails and exaggerated titles trying to outsmart the algorithm. As a result, the pendulum moved towards playback time as a key signal to ensure the quality of a video. As a result, many creatives on YouTube gave up the tactic they used to compete against hundreds of hours of video content uploaded to YouTube every minute. The problem was, that didn't work either. In a Q&A about the prioritization of signals in the YouTube algorithm, one of the same Google engineers from the above study admitted:

“It's a constant struggle because most of the time you are fighting the abuse at the same time. So if you optimize for the click rate, you get clickbait. If you optimize the playback time, you get incredibly long videos. "

If a video has a high CTR but slow playback time, then it will undoubtedly be clickbait. But if eye-catching thumbnails and titles encourage people to click and watch your videos, then that's not only fair in the eyes of YouTube, it's actually ideal. And so we come to the core of my concern: If you want to get more views through YouTube's recommendation engine, you have to optimize your channel and your videos in terms of both click-through rate and playback time.

Reading tip: Find out how to make money on YouTube.

5 Ways To Get More Views From YouTube Recommendations

1. Stick to a uniform structure or format for your YouTube channel

Most of the great YouTube channels can be summed up in five seconds:

On the other hand, many YouTube channels are struggling to assert themselves because they view their YouTube channel as the home for all of their video content rather than a cohesive series of videos.

Persistence is the foundation of success on YouTube - without it, you may be able to attract attention, but you can hardly hold it.

YouTube channels with some consistency and consistency are capable of their subscriber base and audience sustainable to enlarge. They do this because they make it easier for people to see more of their content and subscribe to their channel.

The “First We Feast” channel embodies the very kind of persistence we're talking about: celebrities enjoying new dishes - with multiple series that are essentially variations on the same basic idea.

Below you can see how this persistence pays off subscriber growth over time. Whenever a video is lucky enough to go "viral," it actually has a better chance of turning any casual viewer into a permanent subscriber. Why? Because the basic idea of ​​the video appeals and the consistency in the entire channel encourages renewed visits.

If you want to deviate from your basic idea, it is best to do so on a separate YouTube channel so as not to undermine your own efforts. First We Feast, for example, is part of Complex, which has a completely different focus and audience. Although the channels are linked under the "Featured Channels" tab, they do not otherwise overlap.

Reading tip: Are you encouraged? Here are 8 tips on how to get more subscribers on YouTube.

2. Feed the recommendation engine with other sources

Newer YouTube channels cannot rely on the recommendation engine to generate all of their views.

After all, recommendations are mostly based on how viewers have seen and interacted with your videos in the past. YouTube needs data on which the recommendations are based. However, without people watching your videos, there is no data. So, use the following best practices to help promote your videos:

Most of all, you should focus on YouTube SEO and get more subscribers, and not just for long-term video views. Rather, what a user repeatedly consumes on the platform and what a user subscribes to is a key signal on the basis of which the YouTube algorithm plays out personalized recommendations.


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In the study, the engineers found that “the most important signals are the ones a user's past interaction with the item itself and other similar items describe. As an example, consider the previous history of the user with the channel who uploaded the video that is being rated: How many videos of this channel has the user viewed? When was the last time the user watched a video on this topic?

If you can get a new user to see more content after clicking a video, you can increase the chances that your videos will be recommended by YouTube the next time they open them.

3. Create thumbnails that will be clicked

We found that click-through rate is still important and that YouTube's prioritization of watch time is simply a measure against poor quality clickbait content. So let's talk about the elephant in the room - improving your click-through rate - using two great sources of inspiration for great thumbnails: the trending videos tab on YouTube itself and Netflix.

Close-ups of emotional faces or action shots

Take a look around YouTube - you won't find any shortage of expressive faces on video thumbnails. According to a study by Netflix on the performance of graphical elements on the platform, “Emotions are an efficient way to convey complex nuances. It is known that people are naturally very responsive to faces. We have found this to be the case across all media. However, it should be noted that Faces with complex emotions outperform stoic or friendly expressions“.

One of the earliest trends, also noted by Netflix that can be applied to your own thumbnails, is the diminishing effectiveness of an image when it contains more than 3 people.

So you can optimize your thumbnails for clicking by including one to three faces in your thumbnails with facial expressions that speak louder than words. If you don't have emotional faces in your videos, you can also use thumbnails that convey action to evoke an emotional reaction about them. A good example of this are the videos of the SlowMo Guys.

Follow the "rule of thirds" for composing your thumbnail

The rule of thirds is a simplified method to achieve the so-called "golden section". Studies have shown that this division of images minimizes the time it takes our brain to process an image. This composition guideline suggests that the subject of the image should be positioned in the first or last third of the image, rather than in the center.

While this is more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule, designing your thumbnail this way allows you to focus the viewer's gaze on the most important "message" of your image.

Add text to your thumbnails

According to a 2019 study by Sandvine, YouTube accounts for 37% of all mobile data traffic on the internet today. This also means that a large proportion of your viewers will see your videos on a mobile device. This is what the YouTube homepage looks like to you:

By highlighting your thumbnail relative to the title, it is almost guaranteed that the viewer's eyes will be drawn to the thumbnail of your video first. And only when they find the picture convincing enough will they read the title.

So why not add some text to the thumbnail to make it easier for viewers to decide?

The text can be the title of your video or just a few words related to the video. Whatever you choose, there is one thing you should make sure of: If more than a third of your viewers are used to "reading" thumbnails on cell phones, your own thumbnails must be able to convey what your video is about, even without a title.

Use branding for your thumbnails

If you look at the “Trend” tab on Youtube, you will find that many of the videos held there have optimized their “first impression” using the tactics we have described above.

YouTube thumbnails can be very similar aesthetically. Therefore, making it easy for viewers to see your videos at a glance increases the chances that they will be clicked by people who are already familiar with your content. If you have a consistent format for your YouTube channel, you should consider branding your thumbnails to differentiate them from other recommended videos.

Anyone familiar with Great Big Story, for example, will instantly recognize its brand logo on YouTube.

4. Encourage viewers to dwell after they click

Getting people to watch your videos is one thing. Getting them to actually watch a video in its entirety is another. Fortunately, you can improve your video completion rate by incorporating this goal into your video production process:

        • Start strong and add a hook to the introduction of your video
        • Transcribe your videos so people can watch them without sound
        • Adjust the length of your videos based on your analysis (how far do viewers actually make it before they "switch off"?)
        • Don't use the same setting for too long or you could bore the viewer (this is why quick cuts are popular on YouTube)
        • If your video is long, add small interruptions that will refocus the viewer's attention

5. Encourage users to watch continuously

You can also optimize playback time at the channel level using strategies optimized for video usage and consistency. Aside from having your channel follow a certain basic idea (arguably the most important factor), there are other ways you can make it easier for viewers to see more of your content:

        • Using cards and end cards to manually recommend related videos
        • Link videos in playlists so the next video users watch is always one of your own
        • Develop a consistent format from the thumbnail to the video itself. If viewers like one of your videos, they should rightly assume that they will like your other videos too.
        • Incorporate a specific call to action or even scenes from other videos to encourage viewers to consume more content directly.

Tip:By the way, you can now also find all of our podcast episodes on our YouTube channel! Here you come to the playlist.

If the YouTube algorithm changes, one thing will stay the same

The YouTube algorithm has changed a lot over the years, which regularly causes confusion for creatives and brands. They wonder why the methods they have relied on no longer work.

But even as the YouTube algorithm evolves, keep in mind that the platform's goal remains the same: to get more people to watch more videos and interact with them more. And ultimately that hardly differs from your own goal setting.


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Posted by Hendrik Breuer: Hendrik is the editor of the German Shopify blog. Do you want to publish a guest post? Then please read this guide first.

This article originally appeared in English on the Shopify.com blog and has been translated.