Optimizing for the YouTube Search Engine

If you ask 10 people what YouTube is, you’re likely to get 10 different answers, common among them:

  • A user-generated content site.
  • A video-sharing site.
  • An online video repository.

But most people don’t think about YouTube as what it truly is: a search engine. When you think of search engines, you think Google, Yahoo, Bing, even Ask.com. But do you think of YouTube, the number two search engine in the world?

So it got me thinking about SEO (define) for video search engines, and I want to know: does your SEO strategy include YouTube?

If you have any decent video assets, then it definitely should. Even if you can’t immediately think of a video asset, you probably have at least one you can leverage. A product demonstration, a client testimonial, a clip from an event or seminar you hosted, an interview you conducted with an industry expert — all of these would be good potential fodder.

YouTube isn’t all cuddly animals and music videos. People also use YouTube to get more serious information and education. And whenever people look for information, marketers have an opportunity to make sure their relevant brand/product/service is front and center.

Having a presence on YouTube can also help prevent your audience from finding inaccurate or unfavorable information about your company or brand. By making sure your video is among the first they see when searching for your brand or product, you reduce the probability they’ll find someone else’s video that may contain undesirable content.

OK, you’re convinced you need to optimize your YouTube videos. How do you go about doing that?

YouTube works similar to a typical search engine in terms of how it presents and ranks its results. Organic results are listed in the main area, with sponsored links from Google at the top and the right-hand side. Check out this screenshot of the SERP (define) for the term “search engine optimization.”

youtube SERP for search engine optimization
click to enlarge

Just by looking at this page, you can probably pick out the common elements of the top three videos (e.g., keyword is contained in video title, the video has a relatively high number of views, it has a relatively high ranking, it has been posted one year or more, etc.). The key to ranking high on your desired keywords is understanding what factors the YouTube engine takes into account and make sure you apply best practices as it relates to them.

Like other engines, the YouTube search engine can’t actually read the content inside of a video, so the engine uses a variety of different factors to learn about, categorize, and rank your video. The algorithm seems to employ what could be considered a version of typical on-page and off-page SEO factors.

For on-page, optimize your videos in a similar way to how you would typically optimize your page content and meta data for specific keywords. But instead of meta data and body copy, ensure your desired keywords appear in the title, description, and tags.

However, you also have to consider the off-page SEO factors, many of which are similar to those in traditional SEO. Chief among these are inbound links. As with any content, you want to make sure your YouTube video has external links with keyword-rich anchor text pointing to it for it to receive authority in YouTube’s eyes.

In addition to links and the video post’s age, YouTube also weights your video’s authority based on the number of views, ratings, comments, and so forth. So before you have a chance at achieving SEO success in YouTube, you must make sure that your video content is interesting, engaging, and compelling enough to make people watch it, rate it, and comment on it.

All things being equal, the more activity your video has, the higher it will rise through the ranks. No amount of optimization or tagging will help a video that is about as exciting as watching grass grow.

And the more engagement you foster with your video, the more likely people are to link to it as well, further enhancing your SEO efforts.

In a nutshell, do all you can to make sure that your video content is set up for ranking success within the YouTube engine, just like you would with your regular content and the Google engine.

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