How does YouTube SEO work? What are the steps to optimize your YouTube videos for search? The answers to these questions are simpler than you might think.
While it might seem difficult to get any exposure on YouTube, you can implement certain strategies to ensure that the YouTube algorithm favors you in the search results.
In this post, we’ll go over proven YouTube SEO tips that have worked for HubSpot’s YouTube channel and that will work for you, regardless of your channel size. Let’s get started.
How to Rank Videos on YouTube
To get videos to rank on YouTube, we must first understand the YouTube algorithm and YouTube’s ranking factors.
Just like any search engine, YouTube wants to deliver content that answers the searcher’s specific query. For instance, if someone searches for “how to tie a tie,” YouTube won’t deliver a video titled “how to tie your shoelaces.” Instead, it will serve search results that answer that specific query.
So, as you try your hand at YouTube SEO, think about how you can incorporate terms and phrases that are used by your target audience.
You’ll also need to think about YouTube analytics and engagement. When it ranks videos, YouTube cares about a metric called “watch time” — in other words, how long viewers stay on your video. A long watch time means that you’re delivering valuable content; a short watch time means that your content should likely not rank.
If you want your videos to rank, try to create content that’s optimized for longer watch times. You can, for instance, prompt users to stay until the end of the video by promising a surprise or a giveaway.
Is it worth optimizing videos on YouTube?
Trying to rank videos on YouTube might seem like a lost effort. Only the most well-known influencers and content creators seem to have any luck on the platform.
However, that’s not the case. As a business, you can enjoy views, comments, and likes on your videos — so long as you find the right audience for your content. In fact, finding and targeting the right audience is even more important than creating a “beautiful” video. If you’re actively solving your prospective customers’ problems with your YouTube videos, then you’ve done 90% of the YouTube optimization work.
In addition, ranking videos on YouTube is a key element of your inbound marketing strategy, even if it might not seem that way. As recently as a decade ago, inbound video marketing was a brand new idea. Marketers were learning that they couldn’t just publish a high volume of content — it also had to be high-quality and optimized in ways that made it as discoverable as possible through search engines.
That content was once largely limited to the written word. Today, that’s no longer the case. Instead, a comprehensive content strategy includes written work like blogs and ebooks, as well as media like podcasts, visual assets, and videos. And with the rise of other content formats comes the need to optimize them for search. One increasingly important place to do that is on YouTube.
If you’re feeling lost, don’t worry. We cover the most important YouTube SEO tips and strategy below so you can effectively optimize your content for YouTube search.
YouTube SEO is a process that helps users find your video content on YouTube. It includes using keyword research to optimize playlists, descriptions, and videos.
YouTube SEO combines basic SEO practices with YouTube-specific optimization techniques. If you’re new to search engine optimization, check out this complete SEO guide.
To be successful on YouTube, you’ll need a clear strategy. This strategy has two parts. First, you need to understand how YouTube SEO works. Then, you’ll want to use that knowledge as you choose a target audience, develop a plan for your channel, and set goals for growth.
How YouTube SEO Works
YouTube is part of Google and it uses similar search algorithms to show users the videos that best match their search queries.
This algorithm uses different elements in each video post to decide how that video will rank for specific search terms. These elements include:
- Video title
- Video description
- Number of views, comments, and likes
- Watch time
The algorithm also considers the past activity of the person who is searching. This helps search results feel more personalized to that user.
When combined, these signals tell the algorithm how relevant, popular, or engaging your video post is for a user’s query.
Choose a Target Audience
For many content creators, audience growth starts with picking a topic, then optimizing YouTube videos. But with growth comes competition. It was once simple to create a YouTube channel for a broad topic like product reviews or tech, but today new YouTube channels need a more specific focus.
As you narrow your target audience, think about who you want to engage with your channel and why. Ask yourself:
- How much do you know about your target audience?
- Why do they spend time on YouTube?
- What other social media platforms does your audience prefer?
- What inspires their interest and loyalty?
- Are there other YouTube channels or creators that you should partner with to connect with this audience?
Develop a Plan
Creating a content plan can seem simple if your YouTube channel centers on a topic you love. But most of the time, the challenge isn’t in coming up with ideas, it’s about making them happen.
If you want to optimize YouTube for SEO, content planning isn’t just about what videos you’re making and when to post them. It’s a process to figure out what resources you need to improve traffic, conversion, and engagement with your video content.
For example, you may have a great idea for a video about surfing, but where are you getting your footage? If you’re not recording yourself or your local community, it may be tough to find high-quality source material for your videos.
Building professional skills or a team with expertise in editing, sound, and animation can also boost the quality of your videos. But if those resources aren’t readily available to you, you may need a plan to create great videos without them.
This free content planning template can help you create a solid plan for your YouTube strategy.
Featured Resource: Content Planning Templates
Set Goals for Growth
YouTube offers many helpful metrics that can help you assess whether your team is meeting your strategic goals. Broad metrics can be helpful to track consistency and big shifts in performance, like algorithm changes.
But it’s also a good idea to choose focused metrics that align with your goals. For example, if you want to increase your audience, track your subscriber count, impressions, and audience retention. If engagement is your goal, look at likes, comments, shares, and watch time. Driving web traffic? Add links to your video descriptions and annotations, then track those sources on your website.
Tracking the metrics that align with your goals will help you learn how you’re growing your audience. You can use that knowledge to create more effective videos for your users and SEO. And that effort will help you keep growing your YouTube channel.
YouTube SEO Tips
- Rename your video file using a target keyword.
- Insert your keyword naturally in the video title.
- Optimize your video description.
- Tag your video with popular keywords that relate to your topic.
- Categorize your video.
- Upload a custom thumbnail image for your video’s result link.
- Use an SRT File to add subtitles & closed captions.
- Add Cards and End Screens to increase your YouTube channel’s viewership.
- Add hashtags to increase reach.
- Create a playlist about your video’s general topic.
- Experiment with video length.
- Use YouTube’s autocomplete feature.
- Try timestamps.
- Add a call-to-action (CTA) in your video and video description.
- Review YouTube search analytics.
- Optional: Leave a pinned comment on your own video.
1. Rename your video file using a target keyword.
Just like you would when optimizing written content, you’ll use an SEO tool to first identify keywords you’d like your video to focus on (you can browse popular YouTube SEO tools later in this post, or just click this link).
With a keyword identified, the first place to put it is your video file — before you even upload it to YouTube. Why? YouTube can’t actually “watch” your video to see how relevant it is to your target keyword, and as you’ll learn in the tips below, there are only so many places you can safely insert this keyword on your video’s viewing page once it’s published. But, YouTube can read your video’s file name and all the code that comes with it when it’s uploaded.
With that in mind, replace the “business_ad_003FINAL.mov” file name (don’t be embarrassed — we’ve all been there during post-production) with your desired keyword. If your keyword is “house painting tips,” for example, your video’s file name should be “house-painting-tips” followed by your preferred video file type (MOV, MP4, and WMV are some of the most common that are compatible with YouTube).
2. Insert your keyword naturally in the video title.
When you search for videos, one of the first things that your eyes are drawn to is the title. That’s often what decides whether you’ll click to watch your video, so the title should not only be compelling, but also clear and concise.
Although your keyword plays a big part in your video title, it also helps if the title closely matches what the viewer is searching for.
It’s a good idea to optimize your title for keywords so long as the keyword fits naturally into a title that tells viewers exactly what they’re about to see.
Lastly, make sure to keep your title fairly short — HubSpot campaigns manager Alicia Collins recommends limiting it to 60 characters to help keep it from getting cut off in results pages.
3. Optimize your video description.
First things first: According to Google, the official character limit for YouTube video descriptions is 1,000 characters. And while it’s okay to use all that space, remember that your viewer most likely came here to watch a video, not to read an essay.
If you do choose to write a longer description, keep in mind that YouTube only displays the first two or three lines of text — that amounts to about 100 characters. After that point, viewers have to click “show more” to see the full description. That’s why we suggest front-loading the description with the most important information, like CTAs or crucial links.
As for optimizing the video itself, it’s smart to add a transcript of the video, especially for those who have to watch it without volume.
An optimized description can also help you show up in the suggested videos sidebar, which can be a great source of views.
If you need a high-performing video description, try one of these proven YouTube description templates.
4. Tag your video with popular keywords that relate to your topic.
YouTube suggests using tags to let viewers know what your video is about. But you’re not just informing your viewers — you’re also informing YouTube itself. YouTube uses tags to understand the content and context of your video.
That way, YouTube figures out how to associate your video with similar videos, which can broaden your content’s reach. But choose your tags wisely. Don’t use an irrelevant tag because you think it’ll get you more views — in fact, Google might penalize you for that. And like your description, lead with the most important keywords, including a good mix of those that are common and more long-tail (as in, those that answer a question like “how do I?”).
Use these simple instructions to add and make the most of tags in your YouTube videos.
5. Categorize your video.
Once you upload a video, you can categorize it under “Advanced settings.” Choosing a category is another way to group your video with similar content on YouTube so it winds up in different playlists and gains exposure to more viewers who identify with your audience.
It might not be as simple as it looks. In fact, it’s important to go through a comprehensive process to find which category each video belongs in. Answer questions like:
- Who are the top creators within the category? What are they known for and what do they do well?
- Are there any patterns between the audiences of similar channels within a given category?
- Do the videos within a similar category share qualities like production value, length, or format?
6. Upload a custom thumbnail image for your video’s result link.
Your video thumbnail is the main image viewers see when scrolling through a list of video results. Along with the video’s title, that thumbnail sends a signal to the viewer about the video’s content, so it can impact the number of clicks and views your video receives.
While you can always pick one of the thumbnail options auto-generated by YouTube, we highly recommend uploading a custom thumbnail. YouTube recommends using images that are 1280×720 pixels — representing a 16:9 ratio — that are saved as 2MB or smaller .jpg, .gif, .bmp, or .png files. If you follow those parameters, it can help to confirm that your thumbnail appears with equally high quality across multiple viewing platforms.
It’s important to note that your YouTube account has to be verified to upload a custom thumbnail image. To do that, visit youtube.com/verify and follow the instructions listed there.
7. Use an SRT File to add subtitles & closed captions.
Like much of the other text we’ve discussed here, subtitles and closed captions can boost YouTube search optimization by highlighting important keywords.
To add subtitles or closed captions to your video, you’ll have to upload a supported text transcript or timed subtitles file. For the former, you can also directly enter transcript text for a video so that it auto-syncs with the video.
Adding subtitles follows a similar process, but you can limit the amount of text you want displayed. For either, head to your video manager then click on “Videos” under “Video Manager.” Find the video you want to add subtitles or closed captioning to, and click the drop-down arrow next to the edit button. Then, choose “Subtitles/CC.” You can then choose how you’d like to add subtitles or closed captioning.
Find out how to add closed captions to your YouTube video in the video below.
8. Add Cards and End Screens to increase your YouTube channel’s viewership.
When you’re watching a video, have you ever seen a small white, circular icon with an “i” in the center appear in the corner, or a translucent bar of text asking you to subscribe? Those are Cards, which YouTube describes as “preformatted notifications that appear on desktop and mobile which you can set up to promote your brand and other videos on your channel.”
You can add up to five cards to a single video, and there are six types:
- Channel cards that direct viewers to another channel.
- Donation cards to encourage fundraising on behalf of U.S. nonprofit organizations.
- Fan funding to ask your viewers to help support the creation of your video content.
- Link cards, which direct viewers to an external site, approved crowdfunding platform, or an approved merchandise selling platform.
- Poll cards, which pose a question to viewers and allow them to vote for a response.
- Video or playlist cards, which link to other YouTube content of this kind.
For detailed steps on adding a card to your video, follow these official steps from Google, or check out the video below.
End screens display similar information as cards, but as you may have guessed, they don’t display until a video is over and are a bit more visually detailed in nature. A good example is the overlay with a book image and a visual link to view more on the video below:
There are a number of detailed instructions for adding end screens depending on what kind of platform you want to design them for, as well as different types of content allowed for them by YouTube. Google outlines the details for how to optimize for those considerations here.
It’s important to note that YouTube is always testing end screens to try to optimize the viewer experience, so there are times when “your end screen, as designated by you, may not appear.” Take these factors into account as you decide between using either cards or end screens.
These factors may seem a bit complicated and time-consuming, but remember: The time people spend watching YouTube on their TV has more than doubled year over year. There’s an audience to be discovered there, and when you optimize for YouTube, your chances of being discovered increase.
9. Add hashtags to increase reach.
Hashtags are a part of the YouTube user interface that allow you to add related terms to your content, just as you would on LinkedIn or Instagram. Hashtags show up right above your video title for easy clicking and discoverability. You can use your company name, as HubSpot does below, or include related keywords.
We also recommend using hashtags in your YouTube description, but don’t go overboard; the YouTube algorithm constantly checks for spam. Overly hashtagging may get you inadvertently flagged. Instead of using every hashtag you can think of, choose 2-3 that you feel most accurately describe your video.
10. Create a playlist about your video’s general topic.
As you add more and more videos to your content library, group them in keyword-optimized playlists. This won’t only signal to YouTube what your videos are about, but it will also keep viewers clicking from video to video, increasing your view count and, by extension, your rankings.
For example, Yoga with Kassandra grouped all of its short yoga classes in a playlist titled “5-15 min Yoga Classes.” Not only is the title short and descriptive, but the playlist description includes related keywords such as “10 minute yoga classes,” “10 minute morning yoga stretches,” and “bedtime yoga classes.”
11. Experiment with video length.
The more time viewers spend watching videos on your channel, the better it is for your SEO. But not every person on YouTube will stick around for 10 minutes or more.
For example, over 70% of watch time on YouTube happens on mobile devices. While some people can watch an hour-long video on a small screen, this figure shows how important it is to know your audience.
To find the right watch time for your audience, try creating videos of varying lengths. Then, do a quick analysis of the watch time, average view duration, and audience retention for each video and adjust your strategy.
12. Use YouTube’s autocomplete feature.
This feature makes it simple to find the most popular search terms for your video topic. Just start typing a keyword phrase and see what other keywords and phrases come up. Then, add the most relevant terms to your title, descriptions, and tags.
You can also use this tool to discover top YouTube trends or to figure out which keywords your competitors are targeting. These insights can help you pivot your YouTube SEO strategy for better results.
Check out this post for more useful YouTube features.
13. Try timestamps.
Timestamps mark different sections of your videos. They make it easy for your audience to find the content they’re looking for within each video.
Adding a timestamp can improve retention and user experience because it sets expectations. Timestamps give watchers an easy way to jump to what they want to see in a video or a reason to wait for that section to appear on-screen.
Timestamps also improve SEO because they make it easier for YouTube’s algorithm to understand your video content. This helps your video appear for search terms within your video, not just the overall theme of your video.
For example, if your video is about baking a cake, your video might include sections on baking equipment or cake trends like geode cakes. If you add timestamps to mark these sections, a user might not find your video when searching for “how to make a cake” because of competition for this keyword, but they could find it searching for “how to make a geode cake.”
You can manually add a timestamp or add and edit automatic video chapters with YouTube Studio.
14. Add a call-to-action (CTA) in your video and video description.
Calls-to-action are a powerful way to foster engagement. A CTA that offers value not only encourages likes, subscribes, and shares, it can also improve viewer engagement metrics. This can boost your video’s visibility in search results and suggested video features.
For maximum effectiveness, vary your CTAs. On one video you might do a verbal CTA asking viewers to like, subscribe, or share. For another video, ask your audience to bookmark your video or click shared links in your description.
You’ll also want to ask your viewers to share comments and feedback. These actions aren’t just valuable for user experience. They also give signals to YouTube that your video is engaging and offering value to your viewers. Check out these call-to-action examples for inspiration.
15. Review YouTube search analytics.
While analytics are useful for tracking progress toward your goals, you can also actively use this data to improve your YouTube SEO.
Say you’re trying to figure out why traffic suddenly jumped up for one of your videos. It might be that your video is ranking for a popular keyword. Or a popular website recently added your video.
You can dig into the video-specific data and see why that jump happened. Then you can figure out how to optimize other videos with the same tactics.
YouTube analytics can also help you anticipate keywords that are increasing in popularity. Optimizing your videos for those keywords early on gives you a better chance of ranking higher in those search results.
Finally, your analytics can help you better understand your audience. It’s not unusual to start a YouTube channel with an intended audience and then see those demographics shift over time. Analyzing the age, location, and interests of your real-time audience can help you make smart changes.
16. Optional: Leave a pinned comment on your own video.
Leaving a comment on your video might seem over the top, but it’s a smart strategy. Not only do more comments improve your video’s rankability, but they can generate high levels of audience engagement. A pinned comment may result in hundreds of replies, like it did for Matt D’Avelia below:
Be sure to leave an engaging comment that furthers the conversation or offers more value for readers. Here at HubSpot, for example, we leave a resource pinned so that viewers can further their knowledge on the topic. Check out this post for more on YouTube comment management.
YouTube SEO Checklist
- Choose a target keyword for your video.
- Include the target keyword in the file name.
- Include the target keyword in the title.
- Include the keyword, as well as keyword variations, in the video description.
- Add related tags to your video.
- Add your video category.
- Upload a custom video thumbnail.
- Add subtitles and closed captions.
- Add cards and end screens that tie into the topic of your video.
- Add hashtags to your video.
- Create a playlist about your overarching topic.
- Optional: Leave a pinned comment to generate engagement or provide more value.
1. Choose a target keyword for your video. This can be a topic, a question, or a highly specific query. If you’re not sure of the right target keyword, use a keyword research tool, or simply explore YouTube’s existing content library for inspiration.
2. Include the target keyword in the file name. Don’t use spaces between each word, but rather dashes (-) or underscores (_).
3. Include the target keyword in the title. Next up, work the target keyword into the title of your video, but be creative, and be sure to do it naturally. You don’t want the title to simply be “.” The title is the first thing users will see, so try to create intrigue and interest while promising to help the viewer in some way.
4. Include the keyword, as well as keyword variations, in the video description. The video description is the lifeblood of your YouTube SEO strategy. Write a natural description with 1-2 mentions of your target keyword, as well as variations of this keyword.
5. Add related tags to your video. While most users don’t use tags to find videos, they can help the YouTube algorithm categorize your video and serve it to the appropriate audience. Add around 5-8 industry tags, being sure to not overdo it so that you’re not flagged as spam.
6. Add your video category. While not as specific as tags, categories help users find your video and help the YouTube algorithm understand what your video is about. Categories come into play on the home page, the explore page, and the sidebar menu.
7. Upload a custom video thumbnail. Create a thumbnail that includes either a variation of your keyword or a short phrase that could generate clicks (like “1,000 organic followers, fast!”). As mentioned, you’ll need to verify your YouTube channel to get access to custom thumbnail uploads.
8. Add subtitles and closed captions. Subtitles and closed captions are a much-needed accessibility component of your videos. They also indirectly help you optimize for YouTube search by giving YouTube a text version of your video content.
9. Add cards and end screens that tie into the topic of your video. Cards are equivalent to internal and external linking, and end screens allow you to engage viewers during those critical last few seconds when a viewer might be tempted to click to another piece of content.
10. Add hashtags to your video. Hashtags are different from tags. They show up above your video title and help you increase reach and authority by further signaling what your video is about.
11. Create a playlist about your overarching topic. One of the best ways to optimize YouTube videos is to create playlists. Finding a few related videos and putting them in a playlist will not only attract more viewers, but it will also help the YouTube algorithm understand how your video relates to others in your upload library.
12. Optional: Leave a pinned comment to generate engagement or provide more value. As a brand, you can and should comment on your own videos — not only for replies to your commenters, but to offer more value to readers.
Now, most of the SEO tips above rely on you finding a keyword and promoting your video correctly. And not all of those tips can be carried out through YouTube alone. To get the most bang for your videography buck, consider some of the tools below to optimize your video for search.
YouTube SEO Tools
- HubSpot: For Content Strategy
- Ahrefs Keyword Explorer: For Keyword Research
- Canva: For Thumbnail Creation
- VidIQ Vision: For Data Mining
- TubeBuddy: For Productivity
- Cyfe: For Analytics
Our SEO marketing software, developed here at HubSpot, allows you to find popular keywords for creating content and organizing keywords into groupings — what we call “topic clusters.” By sorting your content into topic clusters, you can oversee which pieces of content are related to one another, which types of content you have planned, and what you’ve already created.
While the keywords you discover in HubSpot reflect their popularity in a standard Google search, many of these topics will also produce videos on Google’s search engine results pages. In those cases, you can create topic clusters that have both blog and YouTube content belonging to them.
Clustering your content — and linking from videos to blog posts, and vice-versa — can give you more authority in the eyes of Google and YouTube, while giving you more ways to capture traffic from the people searching your topic.
Pro tip: HubSpot integrates with YouTube for useful dashboards and performance tracking.
Ahrefs is a comprehensive SEO platform that allows you to monitor a website’s ranking, estimate the organic traffic you’d get from each keyword, and research keywords for which you might want to create new content.
One popular feature of Ahrefs is Keywords Explorer, which allows you to look up details related to a keyword you’re interested in. And as you can see in the screenshot above, you can filter your keyword results by search engine — including YouTube.
Ahrefs Keywords Explorer gives you a keyword’s monthly search volume, how many clicks for videos ranking for that keyword, related keywords, and more.
You might know Canva as a design template for creating all kinds of cards, photos, logos, and more. It just so happens this popular product has a Thumbnail Creator just for YouTube videos.
As stated in the tips above, thumbnail images are critical to promoting your content in YouTube search results and enticing users to click on your video. Using Canva’s Thumbnail Creator, you can create the perfect preview image for your video in 1280 x 720 pixels — the thumbnail dimensions YouTube requires.
4. vidIQ Vision
This is a Chrome extension, available through Chrome’s web store in the link above, that helps you analyze how and why certain YouTube videos perform so well. This includes the tags a video has been optimized for, its average watch time, and even how quickly that video might be gaining traffic.
The vidIQ tool then gives an SEO “score” you can use to create content that performs (or outperforms) the results you already see on YouTube.
TubeBuddy is an all-in-one video platform that helps you manage the production, optimization, and promotion of your YouTube content. Its features include an automatic language translator (which helps you rank for non-English keywords), a keyword explorer, tag suggestions, a rank tracker for your published videos, and more.
Cyfe is a large software suite that offers, among other things, a YouTube analytics platform. On this platform, you can track performance on YouTube and on your site.
In addition to traffic analytics, Cyfe can show you which keywords you’re ranking for and which ones are most popular across various search engines. Sounds a lot like Google Analytics or Moz, right? That’s because Cyfe has data from both of those tools, and more, built into it.
Start Optimizing YouTube Videos
Video marketing is crucial for businesses and creators. No matter what SEO tip or tool you start with, a successful YouTube channel begins with good content. Make sure your viewers have something high-quality and relevant to watch when they find you.
Optimizing your YouTube videos can help attract more views and build community — and lead to more conversions and sales. So, start today and watch your YouTube channel grow.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March 2013 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.