Decoding the YouTube algorithm, for fun and profit
On Nov 14th 2015, Dan and Lincoln from the the YouTube channel What’s Inside, cut their Silver Play button in half. The Silver Play button is a reward that YouTube sends channels that reach 100,000 subscribers. It is a prized and cherished award.
And What’s Inside sliced it in half and posted their video on YouTube. That video exploded.
Anywhere you went on YouTube their video was being recommended. Subscriber growth for their channel took off, going from a thousand a day to 20,000–40,000 subscribers a day and the What’s Inside channel went from 350,000 subscribers to 1 million in December. It happened because of hard work, and the YouTube algorithm. The Algorithm is complex but one of the guys who knows it best is Derral Eves.
Derral know YouTube
I attended a YouTuber meetup that Derral spoke at and where he told his story. Derral has been on YouTube since 2005 when he saw an ad for a new site called YouTube on Craigslist. The deal was if you signed up 100 people to join YouTube, you got an iPod. Derral ran an SEO company, and so they used a few ranking techniques to get a free iPod in Nov 2005.
But it wasn’t until Derral put up a video ad on YouTube for one of his clients, a small store in Southern Utah, and that video ranked on the first page of Google that Derral realized the power of YouTube. So he dove all in and helped clients with hundreds of videos.
So far Derral has helped 9 different channels go from under 100,000 subscribers to getting their Gold Play Buttons with 1 million subscribers. So he knows his stuff. And more importantly, he knows the YouTube Algorithm.
Of course YouTube doesn’t make the variables that factor into its algorithm public, so it is like trying to see inside a black box. You can put stuff in, and see what comes out but that is about it.
To understand the YouTube algorithm, you have to understand what Google is optimizing for…
The purpose of the algorithm is to make Google the most money. Of course Google wants viewers to have a good experience so they will come back, but in the end, Google sells ads, and they want to sell as many of those ads as possible. They do this by increasing the amount of video you watch, or by increasing your session watch time.
So we know YouTube wants to increase your watch time. How do they decide what videos to show you? There are several factors that Derral talked about.
- Video Minutes Watched
- Channel Minutes Watched (Authority)
- View Duration (Channel and Video)
- Session Duration
- Session Starts
YouTube uses these factors, and weights them to determine, how to rank your video, and how often to show it. Derral went in depth about each factor.
Video Minutes Watched
This one is obvious. YouTube wants you to watch more. So the more minutes a video has been watched, the more they show it. Give the people what they want.
Channel Minutes Watched (Authority)
The strength of your channel is a key component, just as important as minutes watched. YouTube tracks how many minutes were watched on your channel in the last 28 days, last quarter, and last year. Are you trending up, YouTube will show and suggest more of your videos.
View Duration (Channel and Video)
This measures how long someone stays on the video. YouTube doesn’t really care what percentage of a video a view watches, just how long someone stays on your video. So if you have a 2 hour video, and they stay on it for 15 minutes, that is better than 30 seconds on 1 minute video.
This is an important factor, but it is hard to measure. There are no analytics, no idea for video creator on what your traffic does, but it is one of the most important elements YouTube considers. If you bring a viewer to YouTube, how long do they stay on YouTube. The longer they stay on YouTube, the more benefit the video that brought them in gets.
Related to session duration. YouTube rewards videos and channels that bring viewers onto YouTube. This used to be easy when YouTube videos could go viral on Facebook, but since Facebook has cut almost all traffic to YouTube video Fb posts, you have to find other ways.
Action Items — You have to Trigger YouTube
So we know what factors influence the algorithm, but what can creators actually do to influence those?
Quality content is a must. You can’t game the system. Creating awesome YouTube videos is hard work, and is the basis for any success on YouTube.
If you think about it, YouTube has a really hard job. It doesn’t know what is in a video, or which videos are quality. And it has to decide which of the millions of videos uploaded each week what videos to show and feature. So there are things that creators can to to give hints to YouTube, to trigger it.
When a video is first uploaded, YouTube decides “How are we going to rank this video? Is this channel growing? Do we send this video to all of their subscribers, or just some?
Then YouTube looks if there is any similar content that this channel, or others have created. YouTube will look at the title, and description and tags. It will look at the channel strength, and factors mentioned above. YouTube looks for other similar videos, compares them, and decides if your video should be suggested to others.
Once it is ranked and linked to suggested videos, YouTube starts showing your video. Depending on how the video does, YouTube starts suggesting it to other videos, and showing it to more viewers. If it continues to do well, it suggests it to more and more viewers, until it hits a certain level, and your video starts getting suggested to everyone in the browse feature.
When YouTube starts really promoting your video, that is known as a video ‘popping’.
Derral stressed that if you want to grow a channel on YouTube, you have to have a video that does really well, or pops.
Dan’s channel What’s Inside took off when they had a video pop, and the same thing happened with the sketch comedy channel Studio C, when their heroic hapless goalie Scott Stirling video popped.
So anything we as creators can do to trigger YouTube into suggesting and showing our video more can help it get more views and pop. The Triggers and actions Derral covered are:
- Upload Frequency
- Avoid Session Ends Penalty
- Watch-Time Velocity
- Viewing History and Behavior
- Last Upload
- Endscreen Elements and Cards
- Titles and Thumbnails
1. Upload Frequency
YouTube is currently rewarding channels that upload frequently. It wants to bring back viewers everyday. The channel Shonduras was doing ok, but when they went to daily uploads, they started bringing in tons of traffic. YouTube cares about getting people to come back.
Of course daily uploads are not feasible for all channels. But frequent uploads are.
Creating a playlist also counts as a type of upload, so you can also trigger YouTube into promoting your videos by creating playlists in between your video uploads.
Playlist are one of the most underutilized asset.
Do not create playlists when you are uploading a video.
Do it before you upload or after the video upload to trigger YouTube that you are uploading frequently.
2. Avoid Session Ends Penalty
If you send someone away from YouTube, it ends their session on YouTube. YouTube doesn’t like that, and they give penalties to videos and channels who do this.
And example of this that Derral told involved two music channels. Lindsey Stirling and the Piano Guys were nearly identical channels. They both had the same subscribers, types of content, upload frequencies etc. They did a collaboration video and the PianoGuys got 60,000 subscribers, and Lindsey got 61,000 subscribers.
But then they made a decision that caused their paths to diverge. The PianoGuys started to push all their traffic from their emails, and social to their website, instead of YouTube. They wanted to sell their music and it worked great. Lindsey continued pushing traffic to YouTube. The PianoGuys got more Session End penalties and those added up over time. The PianoGuys did just fine, but now Lindsey has 8.8 million subs, while the PianoGuys have 5.5 million.
The takeaway? Try to avoid session ending penalties. So maybe don’t put social links on every video, and don’t sell something on each video. Spread it out, do it for only a few of your videos. Have a great reason to do it.
One of the reasons live streaming gamers The reason gamers send their viewers to ‘raid’ someone else’s channel (start watching a friends channel) when they are done streaming, is to get the credit for extending a session, and to get the ending penalty on someone else’s channel.
3. Watch-Time Velocity
YouTube cares about how much watch time is being accrued on a video in the first 60 minutes and 48 hours. Both of these numbers are shown in channel analytics so YouTube cares about those numbers. So getting as many views in those windows are key to having a video pop.
For viral campaigns, it is key to get lots of people early on.
But warning, do not spend any money for video views. If you put 1 dollar of ad spend to a video, it kills the organic reach. On Facebook same thing, and it kills the viral growth. The reason is if you are willing to pay, YouTube wants you to pay.
So instead pay for influencers to send traffic etc.
4. Viewing History and Behavior (Piggy backing)
This one is a bit of mystery. YouTube cares about where your viewers come from, and where they go. But they don’t give you any data on viewing history, except for source. You can see what videos are sending viewers to you.
You can then piggyback off this content. Either reach out directly to the channel if it matches your niche for a collaboration, or just make videos that are similar in some way to some of theirs. YouTube is already sending you traffic from their videos, give YouTube more opportunities to do it.
If you see a video take off that is related to a past video you created, you can update your meta info. Add a new tag, change the first line of the description, change the title. This will signal to YouTube that something changed, and it will re-evaluate your video and might start suggesting it after the video that is taking off from another channel.
But warning, don’t change your meta info when your video is doing well. This triggers the re-evaluation and can kill your videos momentum.
Videos that are doing well, do not touch.
5. Last Upload
If your last upload did well, your current upload will be promoted to more of your subscribers. If it did poorly, your current upload will be shown to less of your subscribers. This helps to ensure that channels continue to post content that resonates with their subscribers.
So try to follow up very popular videos with another strong video. For example What’s Inside’s last upload before the Play button was their Giant Wasp Nest video, which did amazing for them at the time. By following up a great video with another great video, they triggered YouTube to start recommending their channel to a wider audience.
6. End screen elements and Cards
Cards are underutilized. You can prompt your viewers on other videos to watch and they work on all platforms.
Derral has seen a 12% increase in views just from using cards well. Some channels get 40% of their views of cards.
End Screen Elements are super important. On every video, 1 of your options should be the ‘latest video’ element. That alone will solve some of your problems on view velocity.
Derral was helping a channel that had a lot of views, but their videos would always start slow. They added the latest video end element and started having big first 24 hours video launches. The only change was the end screen, and they would get 100k views per video in the first day.
7. Titles and Thumbnails
Probably the most important thing. Literally the only thing many viewers will see of your video. If people are not clicking, it doesn’t matter how good your video is. Spend 3 times more time making great thumbnails and titles.
Title and Thumbnail is the most important thing. Have to grab their attention.
If there was something Derral would spend more time on, it would be thumbnails. Especially focus on mobile, the thumbnails are small and have to be very engaging.
Other bits of advice
Derral was full of tons of advice all night. Here are some other bits that didn’t quite fit above.
How to get session starts?
Harder now that Facebook is blocked. You can use Snapchat. Can use Live on Fb and just talk about your YouTube channel. Go live on Instagram, push them to a video (not your channel).
Put your most important keyword first in your title and tags. Make the first line of the description almost identical with keywords.
Do not put your Vlog # in your title. It is wasted space. Put it in the first part of your description if you have to. Never put your name in the title, YouTube knows it from your channel, you have 100 title characters don’t waste space.
Follow up videos
When you see a pop, it is critical to do a follow up, with a similar title and thumbnail.
The Beach House is a family vlog. They posted a treasure hunt video that pop big. They released a few other videos that did ok, but then they released a follow up video. In 24 hours it got 150K views which is more than any of their videos had ever gotten at launch.
Upload Frequency for different channel types
Some channels uploading everyday, or every week, is not realistic. You put 100s of hours into hero videos. So release behind the scenes stuff related to your hero videos. Or other content. Derral believes that you should never have a second channel. Do the behind the scenes stuff on the main channel.
Video Release Time
12:30pm videos can go big in Saudi Arabia, which helps it pick up speed to hit the East Coast then West Coast, then Indonesia. YouTube is global.
YouTube doesn’t have international tags. But if you have views coming from international, put some international tags in.
CPM is better than the US. Like double. Norway is the highest.
If you make any money on YouTube, like 30,000 a month. Derral strongly advises you to get all your videos closed captions, and translate your videos. Rev.com is a good service. Auto translate until your are making money.
Translations and captions don’t trigger the meta re-evaluation so you can add those at any time to your videos.
Sources of traffic
Getting verified on Instagram is hard, but if you can, swipe up to view video is great.
Starting a new channel?
It is always easier to jumpstart an existing channel than it is to create a new channel from scratch.
Send and Share Playlists
Send links to a video in the middle of a playlist.
Or share a specific point in your video, “you have to check out this moment”, by sharing a timestamped video.
Collaboration is key. Even the biggest channels are willing to collab. But a collab needs to be a true collab. Have a reason to push to the other channel. Otherwise you are just an extra in someone else’s video.
Don’t keyword stuff playlists
When you create a new playlist don’t keyword stuff like you would a title, or you can get a community strike.
YouTube is getting ready to change the layout again. Changes coming soon. So be ready to adapt.
VR is hot
VR videos are getting priority over everything else right now, so release VR videos if you can.
Community is powerful
One of Derrals clients really showed him the power of a YouTube community. That client went from 60,000 subscribers to 1.8 million subscribers in 12 months.
When you have an audience, and are willing to engage, you can have a big effect, and make money.
If you work to develop an audience, and learn how to work with that audience, people are willing to give.
You can make a lot of money with tips, thousands of dollars a night.
Community is lots better than an email list, because people have turned into an audience that cares for you, wants to see you succeed. They are your social army.
Every channel has limitations, and you might grow slower because of your limitations, but try to develop a community.
Negative Subscriber Numbers?
A negative number every few weeks, is the house cleaner coming through and deleting fake accounts.
History of the YouTube Algorithm and Changes
YouTube used to care about if you can start a session, and the views. If you could start sessions, they would promote you. In that time, a view was just a view. People were using bots to buy views. A high profile example of this is Avril Lavigne's Girlfriend video which at one time was the most popular video on YouTube because of bots.
But YouTube wants to make money. Fake views don’t make money. So they changed.
Late 2012 — Mid 2013
Now YouTube doesn’t care about the view, now they care about the watch time. How many minutes are they actually staying on the video, and watching ads.
At the same time, Facebook decided to be more ambitious on video. In 2013 Facebook IPOed, and now had shareholders and investors to report to. Facebook slowly started to shut down all the traffic to YouTube. And this changed everything. It eliminated the easy way to get session starts.
In 2014 Facebook completely shut down traffic to YouTube videos.
YouTube and Facebook are not still talking right now. Both have problems with the other.
In 2013 there were the most changes made to YouTube.
- YouTube cleaned house, deleting fake and abandoned accounts (in May they deleted millions of accounts. Some channels lots millions of subscribers)
- Tweaked Watch-Time Algorithm Big Time
- Started Validating Views so videos would still at 301 views for a while
- Changed to One Channel Design
- Added Live-Streams (and then forgot about them)
- Google+ Integration :(
- Comment Changes