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A Guide to How the YouTube Algorithm Works

Are you a YouTube creator? If you’re part of the YouTube Partner Program, you have the opportunity to make your living through the platform. With two million members, the YPP is a competitive space. Creators are engaged in a battle for attention in thousands of content niches. With the right strategy, you could amass millions…

Are you a YouTube creator? If you’re part of the YouTube Partner Program, you have the opportunity to make your living through the platform. With two million members, the YPP is a competitive space. Creators are engaged in a battle for attention in thousands of content niches.

With the right strategy, you could amass millions of subscribers and get millions of views on your content. You never know. You could be the next superstar creator. You need to understand how to game the YouTube algorithm to get results that propel your content to the stratosphere of success.

What is the YouTube algorithm? And how does it relate to your career on the platform? This post unlocks the secrets you need to know to take your channel and content to the next level.

The YouTube Algorithm – a Short History

So, what is the YouTube algorithm? More importantly, why do you need to know how it works and why it’s beneficial to your channel to unpack its inner workings?

The algorithm is a mathematical code governing the processes and procedures of ranking and suggesting content on the site. Let’s start by giving you a brief history of the algorithm’s evolution over the last decade.

The Early Years – 2005 to 2011

During the early years of YouTube, the algorithm promoted content on the site generating the most clicks. Unfortunately, this practice led to creators posting thumbnails with clickbait titles. As a result, users were left with a frustrating experience for users on the platform, and YouTube saw its watch hours decline.  

2012 to 2015 Optimizing the User Experience

YouTube doctored the algorithm in 2012 to support watch time on videos and viewer retention time on the platform. The algorithm started promoting videos where viewers watched the content to the end. Some users adopted the strategy of creating shorter videos to receive viewer completion, while others preferred a longer format to increase total watch time.

With creators continually trying to game the system, YouTube adjusted the algorithm to measure viewer satisfaction with user surveys and prioritizing engagement metrics like likes, comments, and shares. It also implemented the “Not Interested” button to give the audience a voice in what content and creators they wanted the algorithm to suggest.

YouTube released its whitepaper “AI: Deep Neural Networks for YouTube Recommendations” in 2016. This document gave creators insights into the algorithm’s inner workings and criteria for promoting suggested content on the site.

The update aimed to personalize content suggestions for viewers, giving them the content they wanted to see, not just what was trending on the platform.

2016 Onwards – Adpocalypse, Censorship, and Demonetization

The “Adpocalypse” event in 2016 changed the monetization rules for creators. YouTube altered the algorithm to control the type of content published on the site. It started taking an active role in censoring videos discussing controversial topics and removing copyrighted content on the site.

The YouTube team introduced ‘demonetization’ for accounts it felt violated its internal policies. While many creators saw this as outright censorship, the YouTube team thought it was necessary to make an advertiser-friendly model. Algorithm changes instituted in 2019 reduced borderline content consumption by as much as 70%.

Borderline content describes controversial niches that YouTube often demonetizes but doesn’t ban. This issue affected controversial creators in several niches, such as politics and gun channels. The algorithm would suppress views of pro-gun channels and right-wing political ideals.

The changes made it harder for channels publishing borderline content to grow their audience and make AdSense advertising revenue from their videos. The moral of the story? Don’t start a channel publishing borderline content unless you’re willing to experience demonetization and reduced exposure on the site.

What Is the YouTube Algorithm?

The YouTube algorithm has two priorities. The first is recommending content that increases watch time and viewer retention. The second is to remind videos the viewer wants to watch.

The algorithm covers three different sections involving the management of the site.

  • One segment of the code selects videos for the YouTube Home page.
  • Another element ranks videos for search results.
  • The final piece of the code chooses suggested videos for users.

According to YouTube management, homepage content and suggested videos are creator channels’ top sources of traffic.

How Does the YouTube Algorithm Work?

The algorithm handles the ranking of content on the site. When you type something into the search bar, the algorithm uses a mix of the following metrics to decide which videos to serve you in the search results.

  • Performance (videos with the highest view counts).
  • Personalization (videos related to your past watch history).
  • External factors (videos watched by the overall user base in that niche).

Understanding the YouTube Homepage Algorithm

When you open the YouTube app or website, the algorithm serves you a diverse range of videos it thinks you might find interesting. It selects these videos based on two primary ranking signals, personalization, and performance. Let’s unpack these metrics in detail.

Personalization

The algorithm uses the personalization metric to suggest videos on the home page it thinks you’ll find interesting based on your past watch history. If you watch videos of puppies all day, the algorithm will eventually shift to suggesting only videos with puppies.

No one solely watches one type of content alone, so the algorithm detects what you like, serving you content based on your personal preferences. The algorithm is sensitive to changes in your viewing behavior over time as your interests rise and fade.

Performance

YouTube serves content using metrics like average view duration, click-through rates, average length percentage viewed, likes and dislikes, and surveys. When creators upload a video, the platform serves it to the homepage, watching how the audience responds to the content.

If the video gets likes, comments, and high video completion rates, the algorithm considers it worthy of suggesting to viewers. The more engagement the video receives through comments and shares, the more likely the algorithm will recommend it on the home page.

How the YouTube Suggested Video Algorithm Works

The YouTube algorithm uses different parameters when suggesting videos viewers might like to watch next (suggested videos). The algorithm looks at what the viewer is consuming in that session. If they decide to watch surfing videos all morning, the algorithm is more likely to suggest content with a surfing theme.

The suggested video content appears on the right hand of the screen in the desktop client and below the video in the mobile version. In addition to personalization and performance, the algorithm uses the following metrics to find suggested content.

  • Videos that are often watched together.
  • Topic-related videos.
  • Videos watched by users in the past.

Creators that want to leverage these analytics can use them to analyze other videos your audience watch. This strategy lets you uncover related or broader topics your audience finds interesting, adding these topics to your content strategy.

It’s a good idea for creators to publish sequels to previously successful videos. If you experience success with one video, creating a sequel is a great way to leverage your past success, giving you a better chance of going viral with millions of views.

How the YouTube Search Algorithm Works

YouTube is the second-largest search engine online after Google (its parent company). Understanding how to utilize Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategies can help you rank better in video suggestions in the platform’s search function.

Metrics to Ranking Your YouTube Channel

Keywords

Understanding how keywords affect search results is critical to your success as a YouTube creator. The keyword metadata helps the algorithm identify your video topic and its relevance in search results. For instance, if you publish a video unboxing the latest iPhone, you must include iPhone-related keywords in the title and video description.

When the algorithm categorizes your video, it serves it to viewers and monitors their response. The algorithm looks at performance metrics like watch time, click-through rate, likes, comments, and survey feedback to classify the video as a post people want to watch.

Engagement

If the video gets good engagement performance, the algorithm is likely to send it up the search rankings for your keywords. It’s important to note there’s no human team analyzing these metrics, the algorithm handles everything. So, you’ll need to create content that satisfies the parameters suggested by the algorithmic guidelines.

The algorithm follows audience interaction and engagement. Your content should encourage viewers to like, comment, and subscribe to your channel. By asking your viewers to take this action, there’s a better chance of them doing it than just clicking on the next video. Learn to leverage the para-social relationship you create with your audience.

Metadata and Thumbnails

Implementing metadata like keywords in your video descriptions and titles can revolutionize your performance. Use tools like SEM Rush and Google AdWords to identify top-performing keywords related to your content and add them to your videos.

Before you start lacing your keywords anywhere you can, don’t use them in the video tags. Video tags play a minimal role in discovery. Avoid using clickbait titles, and leverage the video tags to describe your niche or misspell your channel name if you find viewers frequently misspell it.

Keep the visual style consistent across your thumbnails. For instance, MrBeast and Mr. Ballen, two hugely successful channels on the platform, are masters at producing thumbnail consistency to attract new viewers.

Use Video Features and CTAs

After you capture a viewer, make it easier for them to click on more of your content. Use the following video features to increase viewer retention time on your channel.

Playlists – Similar videos in your content archive.

Cards – Present viewers with related videos they might want to watch at the end of your video.

End screens – Use the end screen as a call-to-action (CTA) to get the viewer to watch more of your content.

Don’t forget to use your voice to emphasize these CTAs at the end of these videos. Ask your viewers to watch your other videos and engage with your content.

Attract Viewers from other Platforms

Getting viewers on the platform to watch more of your content is critical to imporve your reach and results. The more interest you can cultivate from your existing audience on the site, the better, but it’s not the only strategy in your toolbox. You can think of your YouTube channel as a blog. One of the secrets to blogging success is drawing traffic from other sites.

For instance, drawing viewers from social media is a great way to build your audience and notify subscribers of new uploads. Dropping links on your blog or partner authority sites is another fantastic strategy for building your viewership and watch time on your channel.

The algorithm doesn’t punish you for drawing viewers from off-site sources, so use this strategy to your advantage. According to YouTube, the algorithm is only interested in what the viewer does on the site. It’s concerned with how they measure up to the metrics discussed in this post.

A video performing well on the YouTube homepage is served to more viewers, regardless of what the metrics from blog click-throughs and views look like. Embedding YouTube videos in your website or blog is a great strategy for your view count on your YouTube channel and the SEO performance of your blog.

Engage with the Comments

Engagement is everything when it comes to any social media platform. The more your fans engage with your content, the better., We’ve already discussed how critical it is to ask your viewers to hit the like button, subscribe to your channel, and leave a comment on your video.

Engagement is great, but you can use the engagement features in your creator suite to gain more interest from your audience. If people are commenting on your video, like and love their comments. Reply to their comments to strengthen the para-social relationship created through your engagement.

Give People What They Want and Leverage the YouTube Algorithm

With 30,000 hours of content uploaded every hour and 720,000 hours uploaded daily, it’s not surprising to hear some creators complaining that they can’t get traction on their videos. To make it as a YouTube creator, you must produce top-quality content people want to watch.

Take the time to analyze your content strategy. Are you producing interesting videos? Are you using CTAs in your videos to entice viewer engagement? Are you using metadata in your titles and descriptions to assist the algorithm with ranking your videos?

Find your content niche and lean into it. If you’re publishing borderline content, you will have a harder time building your channel than going with a category that’s commercially viable, non-intrusive, and non-offensive.

Use your analytics dashboard to find out the details of your top-performing videos. Take your content’s best elements and replicate them in your video strategy. Look at your thumbnails, titles, descriptions, and publishing schedule.

Wrapping Up – Understanding the YouTube Algorithm

The YouTube algorithm is a complex mathematical system that you’ll never understand from a technical perspective unless you have a degree in computer science. The good news is you don’t need a background in systems engineering to game the algorithm to your advantage. By understanding the metrics involved in identifying top-performing content in your niche, you’ll find it’s easier to get your video in front of your audience. Use the tips in this post to give you the edge you need to be successful as a YouTube creator.