Everything you need to know about YouTube SEO

Young female vlogger editing her vlog on computer.

It can be argued that YouTube is the most important social media platform for video. As the second most popular website across the entire world, according to Statista, YouTube provides everyone with the opportunity to share content with a massive global audience. That’s the good news. The not-so-great news is that the competition is stiff, and only getting stiffer. Some 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute, making it difficult for even the best videos to stand out from the crowd.

The solution? YouTube search engine optimization — or SEO.

Broadly speaking, SEO is a type of digital marketing that helps a web page show up higher on a search engine’s results page. YouTube SEO, then, is focused on getting your videos to appear higher in the results of the YouTube search engine. That way, when someone searches for “cute cats,” “puppy compilation,” or “nature sounds,” your video is the first thing they see.

Whether you’re just starting your channel or you’re trying to go viral, here’s what you need to know about YouTube SEO to rocket to the top of every search results page.

Start with keyword research

Keywords are the words and phrases that people use to find content in search engines, and they are the foundation of YouTube SEO. For instance, if someone types “TikTok compilation” into the YouTube search bar, they are clearly on the hunt for a collection of clips from TikTok stitched together to form a single video.

To determine what people are searching for, do keyword research. This will tell you common words, phrases and the exact terminology people type into search bars to find that content. Uncovering common search terms and topics can help you crystallize a story you want to tell, and create a video that your audience will likely watch.

There are countless free and paid tools you can use for keyword research, including YouTube itself. Simply type a keyword into the search bar and look at the list of related searches. You can also use Google Trends to compare different keywords to each other and see which terms are used more commonly than others. Generally, you want to use the most popular terms that users are searching for most frequently, but you may uncover different keywords that are more valuable for you or your business.

Use your keyword naturally

Once you have identified your keywords, you then have to feature them in your video. By incorporating your keyword in the title and file name, as well as actually saying or otherwise using those keywords in the video itself, you signal to YouTube that your content should appear when someone types in that word or phrase.

For example, if you make a video about how to change a tire, you should title your video with some variation of “How to Change a Tire.” You should also do the same for the file name itself, such as calling it “how-to-change-tire” before saving it in your preferred video format. That way, you signal very clearly to the YouTube search engine what your video is about. This will help ensure it’s more likely to show up in the results if someone searches “how do I change a tire” or a similar key phrase.

Take care to use your keyword naturally, particularly in your title. Your video’s title will likely be the first thing users see in their search and it helps them decide if they’ll watch it. Your title shouldn’t just target your keyword. It should also inform people of what they can expect from your video and entice them to click on it.

Write a video description

Writing an optimized description for your video will also help people find it. Use this space to tell readers what your video is about. If it makes sense, you should also include your keywords in the description, but only if it helps in providing useful context for your viewers.

Keep in mind that YouTube will only show the first three lines of your description. Viewers have to click “Show More” to see anything you’ve written beyond those, so it’s best to put the most relevant or significant information (like a call-to-action or links to your other social media pages) at the beginning of your description. However, you should still write a full description so interested readers can learn more if they want to — and so you have more opportunities to include your keyword organically.

Include descriptive video tags and categories

YouTube uses video tags to group similar videos together and help users get an immediate sense of the content’s focus. For instance, if you have a video about making homemade chocolate cupcakes, you should use multiple tags — such as “cupcakes,” “baking,” and “chocolate cupcakes” — to describe your video to YouTube. Make sure your tags are directly relevant to the content of your video, as you can be penalized by the search engine for using misleading tags.

Additionally, you can categorize your content to strengthen its association with the subject, and group it with similar videos in “suggestions” and “playlists.” Be sure to pick the category that most accurately represents your video and brand. When paired together, tags and categories provide a powerful combination for increasing the reach and visibility of your video across the YouTube platform.

Make an eye-catching thumbnail

A thumbnail is a static image that represents your video in the search results. It’s one of the first ways users interact with your video, making it hugely important for SEO. In order to be able to upload a thumbnail for your video, you have to verify your account first, but it’s a simple investment that will quickly pay off.

Yes, YouTube automatically generates thumbnails. But it’s best to make a custom thumbnail for each of your videos. Think of it as your elevator pitch: you need an image to quickly convince viewers to select your piece over all the other results on the search page. Some companies use a template with their logo, so that each video thumbnail not only showcases a clear image of what the video is about, but who created it — just one more way to attract users to watch it.

There are many ways to create a thumbnail, but no matter how you do it, make it unique to your video. Include a high-quality image that displays properly on different devices, so it always looks good regardless of its size. Finally, use easy-to-read text on the image to further communicate what the video is about.

Create subtitles and translations

For an extra boost to your SEO, create subtitles or closed captions for your video. This provides yet another opportunity to target relevant keywords and create a more enriching and accessible experience for viewers.

To add subtitles, you need to upload a transcript or subtitles file (called an SRT file) to your video. You can also manually add text and sync it, so the text corresponds to the appropriate part of the video.

Additionally, you can translate your transcript, title, tags, and description into different languages, allowing you to reach as many people as possible with a single video. Simply upload the translated transcript so foreign language viewers can watch the video with the appropriate subtitles.

Include a call to action

Don’t forget to include a call to action (CTA) at the end of your video. Encourage users to like the video, leave a comment, share the video, subscribe to your channel, or follow you on other social media platforms. Include links to these other pages so it’s easy for users to take these actions.

When editing your video, consider using cards or end screens to display your CTA. Cards display over the video while it’s playing, and end screens will appear when your video’s core content concludes. You can add multiple cards to a video, and there are several different kinds of cards you can display, depending on your CTA.

You should use both cards and end screens to maximize the promotional space you have available. But beware: You don’t want to become so promotional that you take away from the content of your video or alienate your viewers.

Monitor video performance

Once you’ve created and posted your video, you need to monitor how successful it is.

Typically, the first two days after posting a video are the most critical for building viewer momentum. During this time, if you get a lot of views and subscriptions, your video has a much greater chance of successfully ranking in the long-term. Make sure you have all of your materials ready before posting the video so it has the best possible chance for success from the start. Meaning, you want your cards, end screens, and subtitles all complete and part of the final project before you upload and set the video live.

YouTube Analytics is a great place to start when assessing your video’s performance. It allows you to view and track crucial metrics, including:

With this information, you gain greater insight into what content your viewers respond to and how they respond to it. You can then learn if your SEO efforts were effective, and try to glean what worked, what didn’t, and what you need to do differently next time.

For deeper information about your videos, you may want to link your YouTube Analytics to a free Google Analytics account. There are other tools you can use as well, both paid and free, to learn even more about your video, channel, and audience.

Create more content

For most creators, YouTube stardom doesn’t happen overnight. You must continually create and optimize new content for your channel. This will allow you to grow your brand and capture new viewers, giving you more opportunities to rank high in YouTube’s search engine.

Although consistent content creation is important, you should never sacrifice video quality for quantity. It doesn’t matter how many videos you have — if they’re low-quality, viewers won’t watch them. If viewers don’t watch your videos or subscribe to your channel, you will never be able to rank high.

Ultimately, YouTube SEO isn’t about checking off items on a to-do list or gaming the ranking algorithm. It’s about providing YouTube searchers with something worthwhile to watch. As long as you treat viewers like real people and focus on giving them a valuable experience, you’re sure to attract attention, and show up higher in search results.