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How The YouTube Algorithm Works (+ Tips to Improve Your Reach)

how the youtube algorithm works

Many video creators, whether professional YouTubers or brands on YouTube, regard the YouTube algorithm as a complete mystery—a higher power that rules over their view counts, completely outside of their control.

They believe there’s no understanding how the YouTube algorithm works. It’s one of the platform’s most carefully guarded secrets, after all.

Except it isn’t.

In a research paper published back in 2016, a group of Google engineers shared their plans for how videos could be surfaced through YouTube’s recommendation engine for a better user experience.

In addition, one of YouTube’s product managers for the recommendation system created a YouTube video sharing that, since 2015, YouTube’s algorithm goals have purely been to help viewers find the kinds of content they want to watch to increase long-term satisfaction.

Much of the discussion about getting views on YouTube focuses on YouTube SEO, social media promotion, and getting subscribers. While these contribute to the discovery of your videos, alone they don’t unlock the lion’s share of views you stand to gain from YouTube’s recommendation engine (via YouTube’s homepage and “recommended for you” suggestions).

What is the YouTube algorithm?

The YouTube algorithm is a set of computer instructions designed to process videos and associated content such as comments, description, engagements etc in order to rank and recommend videos based on relevance and viewer satisfaction.

How does the YouTube algorithm work in 2022

YouTube’s algorithm is all about helping its users find the most relevant content as easily as possible. YouTube’s entire goal is to increase customer retention and keep its users watching videos for as long as they can.

When YouTube first started working on its algorithm, it was initially based on what videos people were clicking through. However, this led to clickbait-y headlines that didn’t always leave the viewer satisfied with the actual video content.

Then, in 2012, it moved more to watch time. Video recommendations were shown based on how much time people spent watching certain videos or channels. And it stayed that way for about three years, until YouTube identified an even better option.

YouTube algorithm timeline
Source: YouTube

Since 2015, YouTube has optimized for viewer satisfaction. This is done by actually surveying users as they watch content, to see how they’re really feeling about it, helping the algorithm recommend the most satisfactory content.

But how does YouTube determine satisfaction?

  • It sends out millions of surveys each month—though users likely see just two to three—asking for feedback on a specific video.
  • It pays attention to when users are clicking the “Not interested” option on videos.
  • It looks at likes, dislikes, and shares on a video.

This research paper, published by Google engineers Paul Covington, Jay Adams, and Emre Sargin, breaks down additional signals YouTube uses to rank videos for recommendations:

  1. Click-through rate (the likelihood of someone clicking on your video after seeing it)
  2. Watch time (the combined amount of time viewers spend watching your videos)
  3. How many videos the user has watched from your channel
  4. How recently the user watched a video about the same topic
  5. What the user has searched for in the past
  6. The user’s previously watched videos
  7. The user’s demographic information and location

The first three signals are the only ones you can influence directly. The rest depend on factors outside of your channel in order to personalize the recommendation. 

These Google engineers even state that their final ranking objective is “generally a simple function of expected watch time per impression. Ranking by click-through rate often promotes deceptive videos that the user does not complete (‘clickbait’) whereas watch time better captures engagement.”

Some might interpret this to mean that optimizing for click-throughs will get you penalized by YouTube, but that’s a huge misunderstanding.

YouTube is only penalizing bait-and-switch tactics—overpromising before the click and delivering disappointing content after it. Click-through rate is still as important as ever. You can’t generate a lot of watch time for YouTube without getting clicks first, after all.

You can even see these priorities reflected in YouTube Studio by checking out your YouTube analytics dashboard.

youtube algorithm and views
Source: YouTube

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

  • Impressions: How many times your video thumbnails were shown to viewers as a recommended video, on the homepage, or in search results.
  • Traffic sources for impressions: Where on YouTube your video thumbnails were shown to potential viewers.
  • Impressions click-through rate (CTR): How often users watched a video after seeing your thumbnails (based on logged-in impressions).
  • Views from impressions: How often viewers watched your videos after seeing them on YouTube.
  • Watch time from impressions: Watch time that originated from people who saw your videos and clicked them on YouTube.

How YouTube determines the algorithm

There are two main places that YouTube users will see suggested videos: on the homepage and while watching other videos. These recommendations are made using YouTube’s algorithm, but the algorithm works differently for each of these spaces.

Let’s walk through why certain videos show up on each of these two places.

Homepage

When you head to the YouTube website or open the mobile app, you immediately land on the homepage. Here, YouTube aims to provide the most relevant and personalized video suggestions for each user, pulling them in and trying to keep them on the app for as long as possible.

Homepage videos are based on two criteria:

  • Video performance: How well similar viewers seemed to enjoy the video
  • Personalization: Your specific viewing habits and watch history

At this point in the process, YouTube doesn’t have information on a viewer’s intent for heading to the video platform. So it has to rely on what it does know, which is based on the types of videos a viewer has enjoyed in the past.

Suggested video 

The suggested videos section appears in the right-hand sidebar next to the video you’re currently watching (or below the video you’re currently watching if you’re accessing the mobile app).

These videos are based on your viewing history during this session and are recommended based on what the algorithm thinks you’re most likely to watch next. Criteria includes:

  • Videos that tend to be watched together
  • Videos on a similar topic
  • Videos that you’ve watched in the past

Because YouTube now has some understanding of why you’re accessing its platform at this time, these videos tend to be more tailored to your current session, rather than a general selection of what it thinks you might like.

7 ways to improve your reach on YouTube

1. Stick to a consistent premise or format for your YouTube channel

Most great YouTube channels or series can be summed up in five seconds:

On the flipside, many YouTube channels and content creators struggle to gain traction, because they treat their YouTube channel as a place to upload all their video content, rather than as a home for a consistent video series.

Consistency is the foundation for success on YouTube—without it, you might be able to capture attention, but you won’t be able to keep it.

YouTube creators that find their consistency are able to sustainably grow their subscriptions and viewership because it makes it easier for people to decide to watch more of their content and subscribe to their channel.

The First We Feast channel embodies the kind of consistency we’re talking about—celebrities eating food—with multiple series that are essentially variations of the same premise. 

first we feast youtube channel

Below, you can see how this consistency feeds its subscriber growth over time. Whenever a video is lucky enough to go viral, it actually has a better shot at converting each fleeting viewer into a lasting subscriber, because of the stickiness of the premise and the consistency they can find across the rest of the channel’s content.

If you want to deviate from your core premise, it’s best to do it on a separate YouTube channel to avoid undermining your own efforts. First We Feast, for example, is owned by Complex, which has a very different focus and audience. The channels are connected under the Featured Channels tab, but otherwise, they don’t really intersect.

featured channels

To make posting easier, you can find a free video editing software that uploads videos to your channel with one click. You won’t have to waste time uploading and downloading files, and can publish videos quickly and consistently. 

2. Feed the recommendation engine with other sources

Newer YouTube channels can’t rely on the recommendation engine to drive all their views. 

Recommendations, after all, are mostly based on how viewers have viewed and interacted with your videos in the past. YouTube needs data to base the recommendations on, and there’s no data without people watching your videos. So exercise all the usual efforts to promote your videos, such as:

But above all, focus on YouTube SEO and getting more subscribers, not only to garner video views over the long term, but also because what a user repeatedly consumes on-platform and what a user subscribes to are key signals that the YouTube algorithm uses to make personalized recommendations.

In the paper, the engineers note that “the most important signals are those that describe a user’s previous interaction with the item itself and other similar items. … As an example, consider the user’s past history with the channel that uploaded the video being scored—how many videos has the user watched from this channel? When was the last time the user watched a video on this topic?” 

If you can get a new user to continue watching more content after clicking through to one of your videos, you can increase the chances of your videos getting recommended to them the next time they open YouTube. 

3. Create thumbnails that get clicked

We’ve established that click-through rate is still important and that YouTube prioritizing watch time is simply a countermeasure against low-quality clickbait.

So now let’s talk about the elephant in the room—improving your click-through rate—using two great sources of inspiration for clickable thumbnails: YouTube’s trending videos tab and Netflix.

Have closeups of emotive faces or action shots

Look around YouTube and you’ll see no shortage of highly expressive faces on video thumbnails.

According to a study by Netflix about the performance of artwork on the platform, “emotions are an efficient way of conveying complex nuances. It’s well known that humans are hardwired to respond to faces—we have seen this to be consistent across all mediums. But it is important to note that faces with complex emotions outperform stoic or benign expressions.

One of the earliest trends also noted by Netflix, which is worth carrying forward to your own thumbnails, is that an image’s tendency to win against others dropped when it contained more than three people.

emotion faces in thumbnails

You can optimize your thumbnails for click-throughs by including one to three faces, wearing expressions that speak louder than words.

If you don’t have emotive faces in your videos, you can also use thumbnails that convey action to elicit an emotional response, like the Slow Mo Guys

slo mo guys thumbnails

Follow the “rule of thirds” to compose your thumbnail image 

The rule of thirds is a simplified way of achieving the “golden ratio,” which studies have shown minimizes the amount of time it takes for our brains to process an image.

This image composition guideline suggests that you position your point of interest not in the center of the image, but in the first or last third of the frame.

rules of thirds

While it’s more of a guideline than a hard-and-fast rule, designing your thumbnail in this manner lets you draw the viewer’s eye to the most important “message” in your image.

Add text to your thumbnails

According to a 2019 study by Sandvine, YouTube now accounts for 37% of all mobile traffic on the internet. That also means a fair segment of your viewers will see your videos on a mobile device.

This is what the homepage of YouTube looks like to them:

mobile homepage

The prominence of your thumbnail relative to the title makes it almost guaranteed that the user’s eyes will be drawn to the thumbnail of your video first. If they find the image compelling enough, will they likely read the title and click to your video. 

So why not add some text to the thumbnail to help viewers make up their minds?

The text can be the title of your video or even just a handful of words that are related to its hook. Whatever you choose, if over a third of your viewers are used to “reading” thumbnails on mobile, make sure your own thumbnails can communicate what your video’s about, even without the title.

Brand your thumbnails

If you look at the trending tab on YouTube, you’ll notice many of the trending videos have optimized their “first impression” by using the tactics we’ve outlined above.

YouTube thumbnails can be very similar, aesthetically, so making it easy for viewers to spot your videos at a glance increases the chances that they’ll be clicked on by people who are already familiar with your content.

If you have a consistent format for your YouTube channel, consider branding your thumbnails to differentiate them from other recommended videos.

4. Encourage viewers to stay after they click

Getting people to view your videos is one thing. Getting them to actually watch a video all the way through is another.

Luckily, you can improve your video completion rate (and earn more watch time) by building this objective into your video creation process:

  • Start strong and incorporate a “hook” into the introduction of your video.
  • Transcribe your videos so people can watch them muted.
  • Adjust the length of your videos according to your analytics (how far do viewers actually make it before dropping off?).
  • Don’t use the same shot for too long or you may bore the viewer (this is why jump cuts are popular on YouTube).
  • If your video is long, sprinkle in interruptive moments that refocus the viewer’s attention when it starts to wander. 
  • Ask your viewers to click the Subscribe button or check out additional videos in the end screen of each video, or even to turn on notifications for your future videos.

5. Encourage binge watching on your channel

You can also optimize for watch time at the channel level by employing strategies involving video consumption and consistency.

Beyond having a focused premise for your YouTube channel—which is arguably the most important factor—some other ways you can make it easier for viewers to watch more of your content include:

  • Using cards and end cards to manually recommend related videos 
  • Linking to videos in playlists whenever you share so that the next video the user watches is always one of your own
  • Developing a consistent format from the thumbnail to the video itself—if viewers enjoy one of your videos, they should be able to rightly assume they’ll enjoy your other videos
  • Incorporating a specific call to action or even scenes from other videos to “pitch” viewers directly to consume more content 

Cards can be used to lead viewers further down the rabbit hole of your YouTube channel. Another good idea is to turn on subtitles for all of your videos so people can continue to watch even if they can’t have their sound on.

6. Optimize your video for a focus keyword

Because YouTube is also a search engine, optimizing your videos around a focus keyword and a few secondary keywords can help your videos pop up more in YouTube search and give the algorithm a better idea of what your content is about, so they know when to recommend it.

First, you’ll want to do keyword research on the platform to figure out which keyword and video topics are popular and might resonate with your audience. Using a Chrome extension like TubeBuddy can help you pinpoint the best keywords to use.

All you’ll need to do is type your potential keyword into the search bar and check out TubeBuddy’s stats in the sidebar. Try a few other parallel keywords until you find the best one.

tubebuddy

Try to find a keyword with an overall “Very Good” or “Excellent” score. However, if your content typically ranks well on YouTube, you can tend to ignore the “Competition” option, as your channel has proven to be a good competitor in itself.

Then you’ll want to make sure you include the keyword within the video’s title, description, and tags. You can also add a couple of hashtags to the bottom of your video description that help to categorize your video content.

7. Keep an eye on your competitors on YouTube

Are any of your competitors active on YouTube? If so, keep an eye on the types of content they’re publishing. After all, the last thing you want is one of their videos to be recommended instead of yours.

Pay attention to things like:

  • Their most popular videos
  • Any playlists/series they create
  • How engaged their audience is
  • How they create their video titles/descriptions/metadata

Having a better understanding of what your competition is publishing can help to direct your own strategy and make sure that you also cover all of the same topics so your audience can better rely on your YouTube channel.

As YouTube’s algorithm changes, one thing remains the same

YouTube’s algorithm has changed a lot over the years, each time leaving creators and brands scrambling, wondering why the methods they once relied on aren’t working anymore.

But even as the YouTube algorithm evolves, keep in mind that the platform’s goal remains the same: getting more people watching and engaging with more videos on YouTube. And that goal’s not all that different from yours.


YouTube algorithm FAQ

What is YouTube’s algorithm?

The YouTube algorithm is built to help you find videos you want to watch and maximize your satisfaction. The algorithm is a real-time feedback loop that tailors videos to match your interest.

What is the YouTube algorithm used for?

The YouTube algorithm is used to find the right video for each viewer. It decides the placement of videos on your home feed, with the goal of keeping you watching.