From driving targeted viewers to your videos to engaging channel subscribers, YouTube SEO delivers lots of tangible benefits to grow your business.

Not sure where to start? We’ve got all the fundamentals of YouTube SEO for new SEOs, content creators, and marketers alike in this guide.

We’ll cover tools to use, how to conduct YouTube keyword research, and tips to improve your video engagement.

Why you need YouTube SEO

YouTube SEO helps rank videos higher in searches for target keywords or phrases, driving more traffic to your channel as your content reaches more viewers.

Without it, you’ll have a hard time reaching your target audience on the platform. In fact, with 30,000 hours of new content uploaded to YouTube every hour (as of Feb 2020), YouTube video SEO is an effective tactic to drive more viewers to your content.  

But you can’t crack SEO for YouTube without first understanding how the YouTube algorithm ranks videos. We’ll dive into that next.

What is YouTube SEO?

YouTube SEO is the optimization practices and process that ensure YouTube indexes your video so they can rank and your audience can find your content.

Like Google, YouTube is a search engine. But while Google searches the entire internet for a variety of media types, YouTube limits searches to its own platform for videos.

YouTube uses a sophisticated algorithm to rank content to serve the most relevant videos to its users. For this reason, optimizing videos for YouTube starts with understanding the algorithm.

Mainly, the YouTube algorithm shows videos that are relevant to a viewer and those that’ll engage them enough to continue watching. YouTubers like Elena Bateman agree that the YouTube algorithm can be hard to understand and is constantly changing what types of videos it likes to promote. That’s where YouTube SEO comes to the rescue. 

Optimizing all aspects of YouTube SEO that are within your control is one of the best ways to  prep your content so that each published video sends relevant ranking signals to the platform’s algorithm.

An intro to YouTube keyword research

To jumpstart video optimization, start with YouTube keyword research. Keyword research is the process of identifying relevant search terms and topics that align to your video content. 

These keywords help users find you. But that’s not all they do.  

Because keywords also rank in Google (which sends lots of traffic to YouTube), using contextual words and phrases to help YouTube’s algorithm better understand what your video is about also boosts ranking in other search engines internet-wide. 

A common mistake made when learning YouTube SEO is to obsess over finding keywords with the highest possible search volume (aka the total number of times the word or phrase was typed into YouTube over a given period of time). Instead, the goal is to identify keywords that are the most relevant to your audience and understand if your video content matches the keyword intent. 

Why? YouTube prioritizes relevancy. Plus, the higher the search volume, the more difficult it is to rank. Keyword research helps you match the keywords and topics that are most relevant to your audience and helps you create content that matches their search intent.

Here’s how to find relevant keywords for your audience

Use YouTube predictive search

A simple, zero-budget way to find keywords is to take advantage of YouTube’s Predictive Search. These are phrases that YouTube will automatically suggest to you as you begin typing your search query. This is a quick and easy way to discover other relevant keywords for your video topic.

Enter any query you think a member of your target audience will likely type into YouTube’s search bar to unearth the actual keywords the people you’d like to reach are searching for. In this example, the auto-completed phrases include “for students”, “for entrepreneurs,” and “working from home” all come up. You can use these keywords to help your videos rank higher in search.

Example search from YouTube's Predictive Search . Example shows similar search terms suggestions related to "productivity hacks"

Source: YouTube

Try competitor research

You can also head to a competitor’s YouTube channel and look at the words they’ve used in their videos’ title, description, and hashtags. 

Also, note what keywords they say in the first couple minutes of the video. If you hear them repeat words, these are probably the keywords they’re targeting.

Use Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer

Lastly, use a keyword research tool like Ahrefs.

Enter the keyword you’ve identified above into its Keywords Explorer and filter the results by search engine type. In this case it would be YouTube.

Screenshot of the Ahfers search console and search volume in Youtube for the keyword "swimwear"

Source: Ahrefs

The tool will show you the search volume for the keyword, the number of clicks videos ranking for it get, and related keywords to target.

How to optimize a video for YouTube’s SEO algorithm

Once you’ve got your hands on the keywords you’d like to target, start optimizing your videos to rank in search using the following steps.

1. Create relevant content for your audience

When you first post a video, YouTube shows it to a handful of people to see how well it engages them. Based on the performance here, the algorithm gives more reach to the video through search and the suggested videos bar. 

Therefore, the first step is to plan engaging content.

To plan engaging content, you first have to understand what a keyword’s search intent is. In other words, what are people looking for when searching for a particular keyword? For example, are they looking to compare your product with a competitor or do they want to further educate themselves on a pain point your product solves?

Identifying search intent is easy. Simply review the first two to three ranking videos on a topic to understand the angle they’ve taken. Then, consider using a similar angle in your own content to help the algorithm better understand who to show the video to. For example, if all ranking videos are educational, take the same approach.

2. Create engaging videos

Once settled on the keywords and angle for your video, create a video script or an outline for what you’ll cover. This will give your content a well-defined focus and an organized structure.

It’s especially important to work on each video’s hook. A hook makes up the opening lines of a video. The trick, however, is to make sure these opening lines are enticing enough to get viewers to continue watching.

Here are a few tips for a creating an attention-grabbing video hook:

  • Use keywords. This will tell viewers that your content covers what they’re searching for.
  • Answer the ‘what’s in it for me’ question. Briefly specify what viewers will learn so they know what to expect. 
  • Share what makes you an authority on the topic. This tells viewers they’re learning from experts while also building credibility and trust with your audience.

3. Add chapters to videos

Your video also needs a narrative arc or a clear beginning, middle, and end. This will create a flow for your video that makes it more enjoyable to watch and easy to understand. 

Chaptering is an essential part of your YouTube SEO strategy because it breaks up video content allowing viewers to demarcate sections, skim content, jump between sections, and rewatch key moments.

Think of each chapter on a video as a header. It allows viewers to click ahead to the place they’re searching for right on the search engine results page.

Keep in mind that a logical structure and chaptering strategy is key to creating an easy-to-understand video. When in doubt, simplify your outline to its core message. If you find that you have a lot to say on one topic, consider using any extra information for your next video.

4. Edit for more engagement

Video quality plays a key role in ranking videos.

Backlinko’s study of 1.3 million YouTube videos reveals that HD videos dominate search results on the platform. In fact, 68.2% of the videos on YouTube’s first page are in HD according to the study.

Example of YouTube search volume for HS

Source: Backlinko

Another important point here is to edit videos for brevity to retain viewers’ attention.

Prune any line or scene that doesn’t add value to the content. Also, work in transitions, branded graphics, subscribe watermarks, and other engaging elements to retain viewers. Think about what will keep them watching until the end. 

There are three more video elements you can use on YouTube to fully engage your audience:

  • Cards: YouTube info cards pop in to share relevant links to internal or external pages that add meaning to what you’re saying. 
  • End screens: These cards show in the last 5-20 seconds of your video, presenting a clickable call to action.
  • Playlists: These organize your videos by category, making it easy for viewers to browse and watch more videos.

5. Create an attention-grabbing video thumbnail

Thumbnails are static images that preview what’s covered in the video.

When you upload a video to YouTube, the platform automatically pulls three still images from your video that you can use for your thumbnail.

You can either choose from these images or add custom thumbnails to your video.

While creating custom thumbnails isn’t mandatory, they help your video stand out. Custom thumbnails also give you the opportunity to create a branded look for your YouTube channel. 

Plus, the more interesting and put together your video thumbnail looks, the more likely your audience is to choose it from the list of related search results. That’s why creating thumbnails is one tactic we highly recommend if you want to optimize the SEO for your YouTube channel.

Example of Youtube Video Thumbnails

Source: YouTube

Make sure you size your art correctly when designing your thumbnails. The correct specifications to remember are:

  • Aspect ratio: 16:9
  • File size under the 2MB limit
  • Upload in JPG, GIF, or PNG formats
  • Resolution: 1280×720 pixels (minimum width of 640 px)

6. Strategically weave in keywords

Throwing keywords anywhere and everywhere you see fit is a surefire recipe to fail at YouTube video SEO. Not only does this look spammy to your audience, it may also negatively impact your ranking since keyword-stuffing, as it’s called, is a big no-no for any search engine. 

Instead, add keywords where they naturally fit into each of the following areas:

  • Video file name
  • Title
  • Description
  • Transcription/subtitle file
  • Tags
  • Thumbnail image

Also, don’t forget to say your keywords out loud in the first few minutes of your video. Because Google extracts the audio to identify keywords and ranks videos accordingly, doing so will maximize the impact of your search engine strategy. 

Pro tip: Identify related keywords to add to your video tags using TubeBuddy’s Chrome extension. This chrome extension shows you the “Most Used Tags” on a sidebar directly on the page as you search for relevant queries on YouTube.

7. Promote your video

Remember when we talked about how YouTube initially shows a video to a small group of users to determine if it’s worth more reach and a better ranking? While you don’t have control over who YouTube shows it to, creators can and should share their videos wherever they think their audience hangs out online to help boost the video’s viewer count.  

Let’s walk you through how to improve your video’s performance after publishing it:

  • Share your video on other social platforms

Nearly 100% of YouTube users are also on other social media channels. If you’ve built an audience there, share your video to encourage people to watch it.

Have an online community as well? Share the video with your community members — be it linked on Slack, embedded into your newsletter, or on any other digital space dedicated to your brand. 

  • Comment and engage with other YouTubers

This step doesn’t necessarily come here — it starts way before publishing a new video. The point, however, is to engage with and support other creators so they can reciprocate the engagement once your video is published. 

The Backlinko study we shared earlier also confirms that comments as an essential ranking factor. Research shows that videos with comments tend to rank higher.

Examples of YouTube video comments correlated with youtube video rankings

Source: Backlinko

  • Encourage viewers to leave comments

Lastly, end your video with questions for viewers. This encourages them to leave comments.

  • Use paid tools

We also recommend driving more viewers to your video after you’ve uploaded it by using YouTube paid promotion tools such as Ads.

Pro tip: Always promote your video within the first hour it is published. The more eyeballs it gets in a short amount of time after it goes live the better it will rank.

How to optimize your YouTube channel

No effective YouTube SEO strategy is incomplete without channel optimization. 

Here are a few things you can do to ensure your entire page is ready to rank as high as possible in search:

  • Add a relevant keyword to your channel name. This makes it easy for viewers to organically find you.
  • Fill out the About Us page to tell the algorithm and users about your channel. Make sure you frontload the value in the first 48 characters as those will preview in YouTube’s search results.
  • Create a 30-60-second trailer for your channel. Make it enticing to convert visitors into subscribers by promoting the benefits of watching your channel. 

YouTube SEO tools you need to succeed

Before we wrap this up, here’s a list of YouTube SEO tools:

  • Ahrefs. Its Keywords Explorer feature will help you identify keywords to use, their search volume, and even give you some new keyword ideas too.
  • TubeBuddy. Apart from its Chrome extension, the full tool gives you real-time suggestions for keywords to use while also giving you insight into how your videos are performing.
  • Vimeo. Use Vimeo to quickly upload, edit, chapter, and optimize your videos. For quick, bite-sized versions of your video for social media promotion, try Vimeo Create templates.

Ready to level up your YouTube SEO?

As you can see, there’s a lot of work that goes into YouTube video SEO. The good news is it will all pay off in the long term.

So to recap:

  • Plan audience-relevant video content that satisfies their search intent
  • Focus on content quality and use keywords strategically
  • Use YouTube SEO tools to fully optimize your channel and videos
  • Drive engagement to your videos by promoting them

Ready to rank #1 in YouTube search? Strengthen your video marketing with Vimeo