YouTube Video Ranking

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Many of us in the SEO community obsess about Google algorithm changes, personalized search, Bing market share growth, and the myriad minutia that affects search engine behavior. But for all of the attention that we give most of the major players in search, it remains a mystery to me why the second largest search engine is routinely ignored. In case you hadn’t realized, in terms of share of search, YouTube remains ahead of Yahoo!, safely in the No. 2 spot behind Google, according to comScore.

Clients and colleagues frequently ask, “Why do some videos rank well on Google but not YouTube and vice-versa?” Just like all of life’s important questions, the answer is complicated. Therefore, I will concentrate only on the most important factors. When it comes to SEO, most of us follow the general rule that what’s good for Google is usually good enough for other search engines. And considering that most clients would tell you that Google is their number one priority for organic traffic, many of us don’t spend tons of time looking at other search engines. Unfortunately, the old adage (it’s an adage in my head anyway), “As Google goes, so goes the nation” doesn’t apply to YouTube, which has its own way of doing things. Which may sound weird as Google owns YouTube.

Why do some videos show up in Google and others don’t?

First let’s examine what triggers a video result in universal search. I’m making an assumption that the majority of marketers and brands are most interested in videos that appear in web search as opposed to Google’s video search because web search claims the majority of search volume. Therefore, from now on in this piece, that’s what I’ll be referring to when I talk about Google search. Matt Cutts addressed this question directly back in August on the “GoogleWebmasterHelp” YouTube channel. Of course, in classic Google style, the answer is vague, but the video contains some valuable information if you listen closely.


Pay special attention to what Matt says right around the 0:44 mark. In response to a user-submitted question about why a video with lots of views and comments on YouTube doesn’t trigger a Google universal search result, he says, “…it could be that this one has more PageRank, and that’s why it outranks it.” This is a clear indication that Google’s important ranking factors for videos are still those that SEOs have relied on for years—namely, links.

What makes a video rank well on YouTube? is probably the best source on the web for video optimization information, and it’s my go-to source whenever I start research for any video-related questions. Back in April, Glenn Gabe wrote a great post called YouTube SEO—Ranking Factors—Beyond Views, Titles, & Tags. Gabe’s post was coverage of a session at SES New York, and the primary content that Gabe covered was a presentation by Greg Markel. I’m going to assume that if you are reading this article, then you already know that titles, descriptions, and tags are the most important content elements on a YouTube page (in terms of SEO).

YouTube is sticking with an outdated model of:

  • Title = meta title tag
  • Description = meta description tag
  • Tags = meta keywords tag

This means that whatever you enter as the title, description and tags will be translated by YouTube into HTML elements of the video view page. Look at Google’s cached version of any YouTube video page and you’ll notice a bunch of text and no video. The conclusion that you should draw is that video is still invisible to Google and other search engines. Yeah, yeah, I know that the Google elves are hard at work developing technology that can index Flash and the content of videos. But for all practical purposes, it’s invisible. What’s left is the page content, so if you want to let Google and YouTube really know what your video is about, then you need to optimize the title, description, and tags. If you want to get really fancy, add a transcript to the description and use YouTube’s annotation feature to add captions or subtitles.

Greg Markel’s argument (as covered by Glenn Gabe) is that YouTube obviously draws content clues from the page text, and total videos views are clearly a major part of YouTube’s ranking algorithm. The other contributing factors are (in no particular order):

  • Ratings
  • Playlist additions
  • Flagging
  • Embeds
  • Shares
  • Comments
  • Age of video
  • Channel views
  • Subscribers
  • Inbound links (from external domains)

I can’t say which is the most important element or exactly how they interplay, but any YouTube marketer would be best advised to boost engagement and keep flagging to a minimum whenever possible. The most interesting factor in this list, in my opinion, is embeds, which seem to play a role in YouTube’s ranking algorithm. But I have seen no evidence thus far that YouTube embeds play any role whatsoever in Google’s ranking algorithm. Don’t you agree that it’s weird that there is no SEO value in YouTube embeds? From an SEO perspective, links are votes. By that reasoning, embeds should be votes too. If you have a clear example to the contrary, I would love to see it.

What makes a video rank well on Google?

When it comes to YouTube video view pages, textbook SEO is your friend. You have zero options for changing the page architecture, and you have limited options for altering the page content. But those options that you do have (title, description, tags, and even annotations) should be exploited to their maximum potential. So that pretty much leaves links. And there is no doubt that strong back links remain one of Google’s most important indicators of both importance and relevance. Google is only going to return a video as a universal search result if it is a highly relevant result for the entered keywords. And the fastest way to get Google’s attention is to obtain keyword-rich anchor-text links from relevant, reputable sources. For more information about factors that help to trigger a video result in Google’s universal search, please read the Michael Gray’s awesome article on optimizing for universal search on Directory Journal.

So how do I get a video to rank well on both Google and YouTube?

Social media is the fastest, cheapest way to turbo-charge interaction and back links. Even a simple social media strategy with varied, regularly updated, creative content will boost engagement, return visits, and viral sharing. The viral sharing aspect will increase back links faster than any link builder with a modest budget could do. Of course, social sharing takes control of anchor text out of your hands, so you can help alleviate this problem by having a keyword-target link-building strategy in place alongside your social media strategy.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. If you search for “cat business trip” on both Google andYouTube, the top result is a silly Japanese commercial with a cat in it. Now, I realize that “cat business trip” doesn’t carry huge search volume, but please bear with me as I try to make my point.

Another example is “turkey cheese fries.” Again, it’s not a great example of a competitive search term, but the same video ranks No. 1 on both Google and YouTube for that term (I should warn you before watching the Turkey Cheese Fries video that it will be stuck in your head for the rest of time). Both videos got a lot of play on social sharing sites like Digg, Reddit, Buzzfeed and others. Therefore, social interaction was boosted as were back links, which resulted in these videos being propelled to the top of the results on both search engines.

The takeaways here are that if you want a video to rank well on YouTube, spend some getting the page content right, and then share it everywhere you can. To get the same video to rank on Google, build some good back links. To get video to rank on both, set up a solid social media strategy and encourage (even incentivize) as much interaction as possible.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.