New YouTube Rankings Place Value on Viewer Retention

New YouTube Rankings Place Value on Viewer Retention
October 18, 2012

It looks like change is on the way for YouTube search rankings. But what does that mean for video marketers?

Late last week, YouTube quietly announced a change to the site’s search engine that will place more emphasis on the time users spend watching videos. Theoretically, this means content that viewers spend more time watching (as in seconds and minutes) will be given greater authority in YouTube search, and could rank higher as a result.

This really isn’t all that surprising, as Google (which owns YouTube) has been working to improve the overall quality of search results for years now. It only makes sense that this focus would carry over to YouTube as well. And in video marketing, one of the best ways to measure content quality is by monitoring audience retention. In fact, one of the great things about Brainshark reporting is that not only can you track how long people view your content, but also which specific parts of your video (i.e. slides) are most popular too.

It seems YouTube has been testing this change over the past few months, and is pleased with the results. So what should video marketers understand about this? Here are few initial takeaways and questions.

Better content equals better SEO

As CNET’s Casey Newton wrote recently, this change could make it more difficult for marketers to “game the system by choosing a provocative thumbnail image for your video.” This seems a little strong to me, as using compelling visuals, video titles and descriptions is all part of good SEO, and will continue to be.

But if the content you were promoting stinks, causing viewers to drop off and abandon you immediately, than your optimized videos weren’t really helping you anyway. It’s the whole “lipstick on a pig” concept that Google is trying to avoid. What changes like these mean is that great content shouldn’t be less valuable than a great title. So marketers should continue to research their audience, create videos that appeal to them, and monitor retention to improve their strategies. And really, that’s always been true.


Retention is all relative

At first glance, the change here seems to be made in the spirit of providing viewers with higher quality content in YouTube search, and thus rewarding folks who create videos that people like best.

But that’s not exactly what’s happening, because the change in search rankings doesn’t seem to be about targeting videos with higher average retention rates. Instead, YouTube’s goal, per its blog, is to highlight videos that “drive more viewing time across YouTube.”

This is evident by the new Time Watched metric that’s been added to the YouTube analytics dashboard (below). It appears this view has been added to help content creators monitor the amount of time viewers spend watching their videos – the total amount of time. In other words, if you had 30 people each watch one of your videos for exactly one minute last week, your Estimated Time Watched for that video would be about 30 minutes. You’re video could be 10 minutes long, but all that matters is what your viewers did watch, not what they didn’t.


It’s not clear yet whether YouTube search takes into account the total length of a video or exactly how much of an impact this metric will have on search. But if it’s only looking at the total time watched on YouTube (which I suppose it what YouTube is most interested in), then the value of the Time Watched metric will be tied pretty close to popularity.  That is to say that a video with low retention but 1,000s of views could theoretically rank better than a video with excellent retention but a much lower view total (since the more popular video would still likely result in a higher Time Watched total.)

I’m not sure this is a bad thing, but it’s certainly interesting. Either way, it’s clear that while marketers should focus more on creating high-quality videos that people spend more time watching, it’s still important to get as many views to that content as possible as well.

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