The YouTube algorithm. Never before has there been such a complicated labyrinth for content creators to navigate. It doesn’t help that there’s no exit.
Every social media platform uses an algorithm to decide what to show users. There’s too much content not to. As much as I’d love to write a post about every social media platform, that would be an insane amount of writing, so I’m just going to stick with YouTube. It’s for good reason too, as the platform is almost 20 years old, has billions of users, and generated a sizable $28 billion in revenue in 2021.
As YouTube keeps growing and becomes increasingly good at giving content creators a way to make money, the algorithm will continue to change. And because there’s so much money involved, every single one of those changes will be met with pushback, complaints, and general confusion. To prove my point, just go look up how many videos there are talking about the YouTube algorithm.
In this article, I’m going to talk about the YouTube algorithm at length. First, I’ll talk about how the algorithm aims to imitate human thought. Then I’ll talk about some practical, evergreen tips on how to improve your chances of getting your YouTube videos seen. I’ll then wrap it up by talking about how clever YouTubers exploit the system, because there’s a lot we can learn from them (even if we shouldn’t imitate them).
This is how the YouTube Algorithm works right now
Since the birth of YouTube in 2005, the algorithm has evolved. As with many of the artificial intelligence systems that power the modern internet, the algorithm learns through repetition and constant adjustment.
At first, the algorithm was optimized for clicks and views. Predictably, this lead to clickbait, which left viewers unhappy and annoyed by the low quality of the suggested content.
YouTube wised up, so they optimized for another metric: watch time. After all, the more time viewers spend watching a video, the better it must be. By switching from clicks and views to watch time, YouTube prioritized viewer satisfaction.
This isn’t a perfect system, and I’ll talk about why later. But for now, you should know that YouTube wants its creators to make videos that viewers will be interested in now, tomorrow, and the day after. The algorithm is constantly adjusting your experience – as a user – to show you videos that will increase the amount of time you spend on the site.
And if you don’t believe me, listen to Mr. Beast’s Vidcon talk below.
The YouTube Algorithm imitates human thought
The algorithm has two sides: the viewer and the creator. Both work together. Now let’s talk about how this works by breaking down the Mr. Beast video above.
Todd Beaupré has led the Discovery Product Team at YouTube since 2014. He knows the algorithm like the back of his hand at this point. His goal is to get the algorithm to behave as closely to the human brain as possible.
Sound wild? It is. It reminds me of the B Bots from the movie Ron’s Gone Wrong.
In Ron’s Gone Wrong, B Bots downloads all the data available about you online in order to become your best friend. The YouTube algorithm follows the same modus operandi. YouTube calls this Personalization History.
It also compares your personalized history with other people’s so that it can find similarities. YouTube then recommends videos to you that other people similar to you have enjoyed. You’ll see these recommendations in the “Suggested Videos” section of the website which, on desktop computers, is on the side of the video you’re currently watching.
Now, this might not sound like very human behavior, but it really is. YouTube is trying to personally please you, and like a friend who recommends music to you based on your tastes, it finds other things you might like.
As you watch the video, YouTube uses math and science to guess whether you really enjoyed it, just like your friend might watch your facial expressions. If you spend a long time watching something, share it with a lot of people, watch the same video multiple times, or leave a comment, then YouTube takes these signs as indicators that you probably like the video. YouTube will periodically run surveys too, just to make sure it hasn’t totally gone off the rails. Your responses further reinforce YouTube’s algorithmic choices.
YouTube starts sorting content recommendations based on your current and past behavior, as well as the behavior of others like you
From here, YouTube compiles all this information into what is basically a tier list of content to show you. If you’ve been watching Minecraft videos for years, that will go in the top tier, and you’ll basically always have at least one in your recommendations. If you watch a couple of dog grooming videos in a row, it might assume that’s a new hobby. YouTube will then tentatively add more dog grooming videos to your recommendations just to see what happens.
If you keep watching dog grooming videos, then YouTube will start showing you them more often. Then if other users start exhibiting the same behavior in mass, it will start to associate Minecraft and dog grooming videos. All of a sudden, Minecraft lovers will start seeing tons of dog grooming videos in their recommendations!
This is why YouTube is very good at helping new content creators get discovered. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, the recommendations regularly push users to explore the wider website.
If you like a creator, you will see not only more content like what the creator made, but you’ll see content like what other fans of that creator’s content enjoy. You might even see content that the creator themself enjoys show up in your recommendations too. Now imagine this process repeating over and over for billions of users. This right here is how videos can go viral.
YouTube prioritizes a mix of popular videos until it knows what you like
Now let’s say you’ve never used YouTube before. How does YouTube know what to show you?
Short answer: it doesn’t. YouTube shows a mix of popular videos until it knows what you like. Once you start searching for videos and watching specific ones, then it will know what kind of content to show you. But until you do that, your recommendations are going to be full of super popular videos and a weird amount of lo-fi beats you can study and relax to.
Taking a closer look at these specific home page recommendations, you’ll see a few trends. Most thumbnails have people as the focal point. A lot of them have clickbaity titles like “Jared’s Eye Opening Transformation” or “FUNNIEST Judges’ Pranks on America’s Got Talent and Britain’s Got Talent.” Most of the titles tell you just enough to make you want to click to find out more.
One your home page starts to become more personalized, thumbnails and titles will likely remain clickbaity, but the subjects of the videos themselves will increasingly become specific to your interests.
Here’s what you can do to improve your odds of success on YouTube
By now, you likely have a feel for how YouTube decides to serve up videos. You likely understand how videos end up on your home page and how they end up on your recommendations.
But how do you end up on others’ home pages and recommendations? That is, in some cases, the million dollar question!
So let’s say you’re a content creator and you want to get in those sweet, sweet recommendations. Consistency is super important regardless of which platform you’re using. So you need Standard Operating Procedures (an SOP). Get out a pen and paper, because it’s time to write down clear instructions on how you will be using YouTube on a day-to-day basis.
Included in your SOP, you need to specify:
- How often to post videos
- When to post videos, both day of the week and time of day
- The general style of your videos
- The general subject matter of your videos
- Typical video length
You will then need to follow your SOP day-in, day-out. Consistency matters far more than the specifics here. Post enough videos and by pure chance, you will find something that connects with your target audience. When something clicks, you just adjust your SOP and keep doing more of it.
If you’re not consistently posting videos, your channel is going to slowly decline. You’ll lose subscribers and you won’t get traction. So consider recording your videos in batches and building a backlog of content to help you out when you’re not otherwise able to keep a regular schedule.
Now knowing all that, here are a few more specific tips you can use to get started.
#1: How often to post videos
YouTube loves new content. More videos means you have more chances to succeed. That means you need to make new videos as often as you can.
That said, if you rush it and can’t make good videos, your channel will suffer as a result. So the right answer is “make as many videos as you can without making bad videos.”
And if you need something more specific than that? Aim for one video per week.
#2: When to post videos
According to HubSpotBlog, the best time to upload your content is from Friday to Sunday during these specific times: 6-9 PM, 3-6 PM, and 12-3 PM.
Makes sense, right? These are times when people tend to either be on a lunch break at work or readily available online.
Now if you know for a fact that your specific audience tends to be online Tuesdays at 4 in the morning, then ignore this and do what they want instead. This chart is only a rough guideline.
#3: Style and subject matter
This is by far the hardest part of creating an SOP. When you’re creating your SOP, and you really don’t know what kind of content you want to create, come up with three or four different styles of video you can try. That way, you can see if one style tends to do better than others. Then you can lean into that.
But which styles and subjects should you cover? The only way to know for sure is to do some market research. Go to YouTube. Look up others in your niche, and pay attention to what gets a lot of views on the platform. Imitate what you see succeeding your specific niche.
Using video games as an example, there are a lot of types of videos you can create: you can record yourself playing them, you do video essays about the ones you like, you can become a reviewer, and so on. If you decide to play them, you could make a channel where you react to horror games, or play complicated strategy games, or focus solely on nostalgic games from the 1990s. It’s up to you.
Just do the research, pick a few things you like, and get started. Over time, YouTube – and people’s responses to your videos – will help you refine your plan.
#4: Typical video length
How long your videos should be depends on your audience, of course. But if you’re looking for some basic guidelines, keep it over 10 minutes, especially when you’re starting. This is because YouTube prioritizes watch time. Another factor to consider here is that short videos just don’t make as much money as long ones.
Take for example this video from Penguinz0. In it, he frankly says that he’s running his second channel which of short clips at a loss, with some videos earning him 20 cents and others 20 dollars.
Then you have YouTube Shorts, which are 60 second videos equivalent to what you would see on TikTok or Instagram Reels. By all means, use YouTube Shorts, just recognize that the algorithm still wants to prioritize long-term videos for viewer retention and ad revenue. Shorts are good for viewer discovery, but garbage for making revenue.
Once you master the basics, you can refine your style and possibly break free of the algorithm’s rules
If you’ve read all this and you feel a twinge of despair, that’s normal. A lot of people are disappointed to hear that they have to play by the YouTube algorithm rules in order to get discovered. But you should know that this doesn’t mean you will forever be caged.
By creating videos, getting discovered, and building a fan base, you are also building a brand. That will help you prevent your business from having to constantly chase trends and please the algorithm to succeed.
Also keep in mind that once you have a huge subscriber count, you will likely have good instincts too. That means you can do what feels right and have a pretty good sense of whether or not it will work on YouTube. For example, consider Game Theory, which has been doing videos for a really long time. They acknowledge the algorithm and are relentless marketers, yes. But at this point, they’re in ultra instinct mode and largely do what they want.
On the complete opposite end, you can just tell the algorithm to screw itself entirely. That’s what Markiplier did with Unus Annus, a show made in tandem with CrankGameplays. The whole gimmick was that they would post one video per day, then delete the channel after a year. And they actually did it. The entire show, just, poof – gone!
Some YouTubers get big by exploiting the algorithm – learn from them, but think twice before imitating them
As good as the algorithm is at keeping viewers happy, it has flaws. When we pay attention to those exploiting the flaws, we can see them cast in stark relief. We can also see the weaknesses that YouTube is likely to try to patch up in the next couple of years.
If you’re looking for algorithmic exploiters, there’s no better example than the Spiffing Brit. With the power of Yorkshire Tea and exploitation on the mind, the Spiffing Brit is a YouTuber who loves to find the cheesiest strategies in video games, while also breaking YouTube on the regular.
Spiffing Brit has an insane 3.17M subscribers, much of which is because of his algorithmic exploits. Part of how he comes up with his ideas is by testing things on private channels with his Discord community. It’s glorious.
His most recent YouTube exploit shows just how important watch time is. This is because he forces viewers to watch it at 0.5x speed so that viewers who complete the video will show a watch time of 200% instead of 100%. It’s ludicrous.
He also experiments with YouTube live-streaming. He has his viewers dislike the video all at once, and then immediately like it right after. He also found a way to trick the algorithm into thinking that more than 100% of viewers were watching at a time.
This is not even getting into monetization. You can tweak currency settings and make YouTube videos look way more profitable than they are, thus further pushing them up the YouTube algorithm.
Again, this is really wild stuff to pay attention to. You don’t have to do any of this to succeed, but knowing that this kind of stuff works can help you predict the kinds of behaviors YouTube will one day disincentivize.
The Spiffing Brit exploits YouTube because it is his brand. And it’s hilarious and I want him to keep doing it! Just don’t be surprised if he gets kicked off the platform one day.
The YouTube algorithm is complicated, but it’s very good at keeping people on the platform. It’s far from perfect, and it is exploitable, but it’s also predictable, understandable, and something you personally can work with.
Focus on satisfying your viewer. If you do that, you’ve already done the most important work and your odds of showing up in others’ recommendations go way up.
If you’re struggling to get seen, don’t stop making videos. Consistency is key, and if you keep experimenting and trying new things, you increase your odds of success in the long run.
And from here, who knows where the algorithm will go? Will it start to know us better than we know ourselves? And if so, will it be fun or a cyberpunk dystopia?
I suppose those questions are for another article!