YouTube and Facebook: Discovering new videos

It’s great when you know what you’re looking for, but in most cases, you don’t. And that’s why content discovery matters. The idea is that the video content you’d enjoy and consume makes its way to you, without you searching for it, because you didn’t even know it existed in the first place.

In this case, Facebook and YouTube follow two completely different schools of thought, and that’s due to the fact that they are two completely different platforms.

Discovering new videos on YouTube

YouTube has always focused on the player — immersing viewers in a page dedicated to a video, with the option of making it take up the entire width — essentially marginalizing everything else — in addition to encouraging full-screen display. This is partly why the YouTube die-hards are obnoxious about the argument that their beloved platform is made for content consumption and nothing else. No bells, no whistles. Just top notch videos to consume.

When it comes to content discovery on YouTube, it’s gets more complicated. There’s the homepage, the sidebar, and then the recommended videos inside the player at the end of any video. You can argue that there are other sources of discovery, such as the “Trending” link in the left sidebar on the homepage, but those are insignificant, really, and they require the kind of effort that deems this as discovery. That’s more like browsing.

YouTube landing page suggesting videos to watch
The YouTube landing page

You only see the landing page when you visit YouTube directly. And chances are, you’ve typed youtube.com to search for a video in mind, not to discover new ones. But even if we were to assume that visits to the landing page are for discovering new content, the options here are weak at best. First of all, it’s tied to your Google account. And people tend to have a few of those. Between the personal Gmail, the work emails, and your side-projects’ emails, you’re always logged into one, and chances are it’s not the one that bests represents you. And if you’re not logged in, the page is as random as the world wide web.

Out of the 15–20 videos on the screen, a quarter of them are wasted in videos YouTube recommends I should re-watch, completely eliminating the element of discovery (and surprise). And then the recommendations are actually random, and in my case, are a mixture of music videos, interviews and shows. There’s no way I’d be excited about all those (even though we’re all always hungry for content).

Then it recommends channels which is useful for those who like to subscribe to channels and follow the new releases.

Then there’s the sidebar, as well as the thumbnails that appear at the end of a given video:

YouTube's suggested videos in the sidebar when watching a video
Suggested videos on the side of the main player

The video “up next” is usually sponsored, but it would be interesting to see how relevant it is, or how many choose to watch it. And this is where it gets interesting; when playing songs, the auto-play feature is very useful because it’s like your personal DJ taking you from one musical experience to the other (although I’ve noticed it always goes in the exact same order. So whenever I start playing one of my favorite songs, the songs that come after are always exactly the same, in one order that doesn’t change). With shows, it’s probably far less successful.

Then you move down the sidebar, and the videos tend to come from the same channel. But I don’t care about the channel. We watch videos because of the content they offer, not the people behind it who also happen to offer other videos. And it also traps you inside a loop whereby you don’t travel across new channels and discover new things. And as soon as it’s done, it jumps to recommendations from the landing page. If I didn’t watch it on the landing page, what make YouTube think I might just click to watch it here, especially since the video in this case is completely unrelated?

What’s worse, are the thumbnails in the player.

Thumbnails of recommended content that appear at the end of any video on YouTube
Thumbnails of recommended videos — seem familiar?

Shockingly enough, those are exactly the same videos YouTube offers in the sidebar. Again, if I didn’t click on a video in the sidebar, and finished the video to the end (and in this case, disabled auto-play), why would I ever click on one of the thumbnails? Not to mention that you only get any relevant information about the video when you hover, and it’s not even clear then. This is a complete failure.

Having said that, when you’re up at night with a killer curiosity about one of ‘those topics’, like evolution, or tribes of the Amazon, the sidebar tends to offer cool videos to latch on to as you’re skipping through content to comfortably consume.

Discovering new videos on Facebook

Facebook is a completely different ball game. All you do, is open the website or app, and keep swiping through. That is all of the effort that is required from you. And there are more than one and half billion people who are happy to do this on an almost daily basis. Facebook established the feed, or timeline, as the platform from which users seek rich content from their loved ones. Then, embedded inside it, are video commercials from brands trying to reach you.

Facebook video thumbnail appearing as sponsored post on your timeline
The videos sit comfortably within the natural flow of your Facebook feed

This is where the targeting kicks on. By allowing advertisers to reach exactly the demographic they’re after, chances are the sponsored video you end up watching is relevant to you. At least in theory.

In reality, those creating videos and boosting them to reach you are the ones with the most money to spend, which in turn means they’re the ones seeking returns the most. So it’s not the people who are creating the most interesting content for you to consume, it’s the people selling products they want you to buy — and chances are you never would’ve thought of buying the said products had you never seen any ads for them — but that’s a discussion for another time.

Then you’re relying on the accuracy and relevance of the targeting of the advertiser. They’re usually right, but a lot of times, their targeting is too broad because they’re after some people in your demographic, and you have to pay the price by coming across a commercial for baby products when you never plan to become a father. Or high-end products that you’ll never afford.

Moreover, sometimes you’re exposed to commercials that really slit the wrists of your relaxed flow through your timeline. Commercials are obnoxious and discomforting, and well thought out content is always more engaging, but those behind the cash are here to make you buy a product, not enjoy a video. And you can see that all over.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Facebook autoplays the video on mute. Three seconds of that, and you’ve just viewed the video. More on the calculations of views between Facebook and YouTube here. This is disastrous, obviously, and the content creators are working their way around it — more on this in a later post.

But the fact remains; the videos that appear on your timeline, especially those shared by more than one friend, are much more likely to grab your attention and relay to you the message, than any other way of discovering new videos. In that sense, Facebook is outside of YouTube’s league.

That’s why viral videos go viral on Facebook, not YouTube. They pop up out of nowhere, spread like wildfire through people’s accounts and timelines, and rack up those views within the first 48 hours, before dying for good.

When it comes to discovering new video content, YouTube has fallen way behind and needs to completely reshuffle to stand a chance against Facebook’s superior algorithm and setup.

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