Video subtitles are essential, not just an optional extra

We all know how video is taking over the Internet, and this is opening up lots of exciting possibilities. But sadly, closed captions (or subtitles) are often thought of as an optional extra, if they are thought of at all. The truth is very different. Unless your video makes perfect sense without sound, you really must add subtitles. In this post, I’ll show you two easy ways to create subtitles that can be used on YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere.

Think of a deaf person, or someone without a working soundcard, or someone looking at their phone on a noisy bus. Adding captions instantly makes your videos more accessible to more people. And those people will thank you for it. In fact, if you work in the public sector, it is illegal to make services online inaccessible to disabled users.

Beware YouTube’s automatic captions

If you upload a video to YouTube, but you don’t add your own captions to it, YouTube will automatically generate them for you. YouTube has smart software that “listens” to the audio and this will make a pretty good attempt at adding captions to your video. But these automatic captions are rarely 100% accurate. Not only is this a problem for people who rely on captions, but inaccurate subtitles will also make you look unprofessional, or even a little foolish. For example, take a look at this example from Nestlé on YouTube:

You may choose to use YouTube’s automatic captions as a starting point, but never assume they will be right.

How to add subtitles on YouTube and Facebook

The good news is that there is a standard format for subtitles: a SubRip file, also known as an SRT file. Once you have an SRT file for your video’s subtitles, you can use this file to display captions in a number of places, including both YouTube and Facebook.

By the way, you are publishing videos directly to Facebook as well as YouTube, aren’t you? in fact, I’m now publishing most videos to Facebook and Twitter, and only occasionally use YouTube.

Unfortunately, Twitter still doesn’t support video subtitles. So if you are publishing videos to Twitter, you are best off adding permanent text captions to your video files. These are known as ‘hard subtitles’, and they will then appear on your video wherever it is shown. The drawbacks of hard subtitles are that they can’t be turned off, resized or translated by the viewer.

So, for maximum accessibility and flexibility I recommend creating ‘soft subtitles’ by using an SRT file. There are two fairly easy ways to make an SRT file, neither of which require any specialist software. You can add captions in YouTube and then download them as an SRT file, or you can use a basic text editor to type the contents of your SRT file.

Method 1: Make an SRT file in YouTube

After uploading a video to YouTube, there are several ways to add subtitles in the Video Manager, including uploading an existing SRT file, typing them in while you watch, uploading a transcript (which YouTube will attempt to sync to the audio) or editing the automatic captions. Whichever method you use, once you are satisfied with your YouTube subtitles, you can download an SRT file of those captions from the video manager.

After downloading your SRT file from YouTube, rename it according to Facebook’s SRT file naming convention (filename.en_GB.srt if your captions are British English) and you can then upload your SRT file to your Facebook video.

If you’re doing this on a Mac, you may have to change the file type so it is recognised as an SRT file. When you download the file from YouTube, it might open as an html webpage. You then just need to “save as” and change the file type from .css to .eng_GB.srt for it to be recognised as an SRT file by Facebook. Thanks to Kelly Quigley-Hicks for this tip.

Method 2: Make an SRT file in a text editor

This method is a little fiddly, but satisfying when you get it right, and will help you understand how captions files work. Using a simple syntax, you can make an SRT file using a text editor like Notepad on a PC or TextPad on a Mac. You can then upload this SRT file to YouTube and Facebook, and it will synchronise perfectly with your video.

Method 3: use Facebook’s captions generator

Since I first wrote this article, Facebook has improved its support for captions. After uploading a video you should now see a prompt to add captions.

Facebook’s captions generator works similarly to the YouTube captions tool. One difference is that you can’t download an SRT file after making your captions. So this option is only worth doing if you are not planning to use your captions elsewhere too.

If you miss the prompt to add captions, or ever want to edit captions on other videos, you can access the captions generator from your Facebook Page video library.

Facebook has also announced support for captions on live videos. While this may sound like witchery, it is a brilliant move.

Facebook captions will automatically show on mobile

Generally, whether watching TV or watching videos online, subtitles don’t display unless you explicitly turn them on.

However, going back to our friend sitting on a noisy bus, Facebook has clearly given this person some thought. If you are using Facebook’s mobile app and a video pops up in your newsfeed, its subtitles will display automatically (if subtitles have been provided for that video). That’s a simple, yet smart move by Facebook.

Are your Facebook captions not displaying?

Sometimes you might find that your video’s subtitles don’t show up at all on Facebook. It took a while for me to work out what causes this problem. It is to do with the default language setting in the Facebook video editor. You don’t have to specify a default language, but if you set this to the same as the language of your SRT file, you should find this avoids the missing subtitles problem.

In summary, video subtitles are not just something to add if you have time. You should make, and allow, time for this important step when publishing videos online.

If you have anything to add to what I’ve said, please leave a comment below, or talk to me on Twitter.

This is an updated version of a post I originally shared on Wordpress in 2015.

[Update, 11 June 2017: I’ve added details of Facebook’s captions generator]