What Makes Your Video Rank in Search Results on YouTube?

March 25, 2019 BY ELISA LEWIS
Updated: May 1, 2020

As the digital age continues to evolve, one thing remains true – online video isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Video content is on the rise, and people everywhere can’t seem to get enough. In fact, video traffic will account for 80% of all consumer internet traffic.

hand scrolls up on phone

From watching videos of adorable dancing babies to keeping up with the latest in politics, you can find just about anything online.

YouTube, the prominent video sharing platform, is the second-largest search engine in the world – right after Google, its parent company. There are over 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, and with a seemingly endless amount of videos to choose from, how does your content stand out amongst the rest?

Here are just a few things to do to improve your video rank in search results on YouTube.

 Transform Your Video SEO ➡️ 

The Biggest Factors in YouTube SEO

There are two factors that are really important with video SEO: metadata and user engagement.

metadata and user engagement

When most people think about video SEO, they think about titles, tags, descriptions, captions, thumbnails – the video metadata. However, a significant part of how YouTube ranks videos is determined by how viewers interact with your content. Ultimately, it’s the viewers who end up determining how your video ranks.

Video Metadata

A lot of people will make a video, slap a title on it, and research keyword tags until they’re perfectly optimized…and then they don’t show up high in search results.

Why does this happen? Because they’ve optimized their video metadata, but not the user experience.

Video metadata is an important factor in SEO, but search engines give it less weight because it’s not always reliable. Sad fact: people actually lie in their metadata all the time.

Even if it’s not done maliciously, YouTubers may not be that great at describing what their video is really about. It is user behavior that helps Google figure out what your video is actually about, and how useful it is.

When a video is first indexed, the metadata is pretty much all a search engine has to determine a video’s topic and value. But once a video has been published, YouTube is really good at finding out which videos people find valuable and adjusting SERP position accordingly. YouTube rewards videos that actually keep viewers engage as opposed to click-bait. That’s why it’s so important to produce high-quality content.

“The best way to dominate on YouTube and in video SEO in general is to optimize your videos for people, not for robots.”

The best way to dominate on YouTube and in video SEO, in general, is to optimize your videos for people, not for robots. Provide people with a great experience watching your video, and search engines will reward you for it.

What Metadata Do I Need?

We’ve stressed how important user behavior is for determining video SEO, but you still need metadata to get you there. Optimize your video by including:

  • A compelling title that promises value to the viewer
  • Descriptive, accurate description
  • An eye-catching thumbnail
  • Topic tags
  • Accurate closed captions
  • Inclusion in relevant playlists
Tips for Video Keyword Research

There are lots of free ways to research keywords and get a sense of what people are generally searching for on YouTube.watch the webinar: how to get videos to rank

  • Google Trends: check the volume of search queries across all of Google. Is a keyword growing or declining in popularity?
  • Auto-complete: just start typing into Google or YouTube and see how it auto-completes. Generally speaking, the first suggestion it gives you as you start typing will be the most searched-for query for the letters that you type.
  • Keywordtool.io: this is a free keyword research tool that lets you can check the volume of search queries for given keywords or phrases.

User Engagement

Google focuses more on a searcher’s intent than on specific keywords used in a query.

For example, let’s say you google “How to get more views on YouTube,” and you get served a video called “How to Grow with Zero Views and Zero Subscribers.” “Get more views” isn’t even in the title. “Subscribers” is in the title, but not in the query.

But Google generally understands that when someone’s searching for “how to get more views on YouTube,” this video serves that person well. So even though it’s not an exact keyword match, Google and YouTube know if a video matches the user’s intent based on other users’ past behavior.

For example, in the gif below you can see the searcher is looking for ways to relax. Although the searcher didn’t specifically use the words “anxiety” or “stress” in their search, YouTube understands the user’s intent enough to provide relevant content in the SERP. By providing a yoga video to help relieve anxiety and stress, YouTube is solving the searcher’s need to find ways to relax.

user searches how to relax in YouTube and gets a yoga video on how to relieve anxiety and stress

Instead of writing keyword-stuffed titles and descriptions, just write a compelling title that pitches the value that you want to deliver. Make it easy for a human user to say, “oh, this video will answer my question and show me what I need to know.”

Content is key!

You can have a catchy title, an appealing thumbnail, and fully optimize your video with relevant keywords. However, none of these will keep viewers engaged with your video.

In order to increase user engagement, you must create content that is truly authentic and captivating. If you spend more time improving your content, you won’t have to worry about making sure your video ranks. The better you’re able to educate, entertain, or inform your viewers, the more they’ll engage with your video. Your viewers will do the work for you by liking, sharing, and commenting on your video!



How Does Google Measure User Engagement on YouTube Videos?

women watching videos on smartphone

How can a search engine tell what people really think of a video?

It measures these user signals:

Watch Time

Watch time is the total amount of time spent watching a video. Most people agree that it’s not the percentage of time watched, but it’s the actual total accumulated time spent watching that video.

For example, let’s say I made a video that was 10 minutes long and, on average, people watched 50% of it. That video got an average of 5 minutes of watch time.

Compare that to a 3-minute video that people watch to completion.

Now, you would think, well, this got 100% audience retention. No one clicked away. This video is super valuable. It must outrank the other video, right?

But all things considered equal, the 10-minute video that got 50% audience retention will outrank the 3-minute video with 100% completion. Strange but true!

A couple of tips for improving watch time on your videos:

  • Hook the viewer within the first 15 seconds
  • Right away, restate the title of the video and the value you’ll deliver to the viewer
  • If your video is a DIY tutorial, start with footage of the finished product

Session Watch Time

Session watch time measures how a video contributes to a viewing session overall.

When someone watches your video, do they abandon YouTube at that point and end their viewing session, or do they go on to watch another two or three videos as a result of watching this video?

Encourage viewers to watch another relevant video on your channel and only send them to your website when it makes good business sense for you to do so.

YouTube’s objective is to get people to spend more time on their platform, watching more content, seeing more ads, discovering other channels, etc. So they favor videos that help them achieve that goal.

This is very important for video marketers who feel pressured to drive traffic off of YouTube and onto their websites. If all the videos on your YouTube channel are designed to drive viewers directly to your website, that will reduce session watch time and hurt your SEO.

A better solution is to encourage viewers to watch another relevant video on your channel and only send them to your website when it makes good business sense for you to do so.


When you submit a search query on YouTube, what do you get? Obviously, videos. But that’s not all. Playlists can also show up in YouTube SERPs, as well as a whole YouTube channel.

YouTube playlists are really important for optimizing session watch time. Here are a couple of do’s and don’ts of making playlists on your channel:

Do Don’t
Make playlists of relevant topics and categories Add the same videos to every playlist
Keep playlists to a reasonable size: 4-6 videos Make giant playlists of 50+ videos that no one could watch in one session
Share a link to your video within a playlist so that visitors keep watching Share a link to just your video

Likes and Comments

Likes, favorites, shares, and comments don’t directly impact your video search rank, but they do tell you how your audience is responding to your content. You can use these metrics to inform what kind of content to create in the future.

Download the Infographic: The Ultimate Guide to User Engagement

Recency Factor

When you post a new video to YouTube, it gets a “New” tag added to it. This sticks around for the first week of publication.

During that first week, Google boosts your video’s rank to attract initial traffic. From that first week of user behavior, YouTube collects data to learn what your video’s about, how people respond to it, and how valuable it is.

Until then, metadata is all that search engines have to understand your video.

After that first week, video search rank can plummet if it wasn’t a hit with users.

This is why you shouldn’t hire consultants who claim they “can get any video to rank number one on YouTube in only 24 hours.” That SERP position won’t last!


Subscribers are really important for SEO because they can generate a lot of watch time within the first seven days your video is published. One of the best things you can do for your video SEO is to grow your subscriber base. This amplifies the positive signals and data points your video sends to Google during that critical week. That is really, really helpful.

One tip for nurturing your YouTube subscribers: post on a regular schedule so that your viewers know when to come back to watch your latest videos. Ideally, you want them to make your channel part of their weekly routine.

Need help boosting video SEO? Caption your YouTube videos easily👇

Download the ebook: Transforming Video SEO with Captions and Transcripts.

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