Optimizing your videos for YouTube

Common sense would tell you that the most popular search engine is Google, and thus it is the most important search engine to optimize for. But what’s after Google?

It’s not the engine you might think — it’s YouTube! Indeed, YouTube is the second most popular search engine, by query volume.

If you want to show up in the YouTube search results, you’ll need to upload videos to your YouTube channel. No videos mean no rankings. Do you really want to leave your YouTube brand presence to chance, to your competitors, to detractors?

And for nonbrand searches, do you want your company to be left out of the consideration set when the consumer is researching products and services on YouTube?

Not only is YouTube a hugely popular search engine, it’s also a top social networking site. By the nature of its social networking capabilities — most viewed, favorites, channels, likes/dislikes, comments, video replies — YouTube is a far more effective venue for posting videos than your website — if you want your videos to spread virally.

It’s all about the content, though: If your video content is mediocre, it doesn’t matter how much you optimize it, it won’t “pop.” Nor should it. Mediocre content doesn’t deserve the rankings — or the attention.


One of the most well-known viral video campaigns by an online merchant is Blendtec’s “Will It Blend?” This series of videos showed various household objects being run through a Blendtec blender — including marbles, rake handles, light bulbs, golf clubs and iPads.

How did the campaign come about? Blendtec’s founder/CEO Tom Dickson likes to run nonstandard things through its blenders to test out their strength, according to George Wright, Blendtec’s former marketing director. After watching Dickson test a blender by jamming a 2″ × 2″ piece of wood in it, Wright had the idea to post those demonstrations of “extreme blending” online.

Dickson and Wright went to work creating the videos in the fall of 2006, starting with five “Don’t Try This at Home Blending” videos. They built a companion microsite to go with it — WillItBlend.com — and sent an email to all employees to pass on the word of the videos and the website.

They then emailed their customer base and asked for suggestions of things to blend. Not only did emails pour in, so did calls from the media: The campaign was covered by the “Today Show,” “iVillage Live,” Newsweek, Playboy magazine and The New York Times.

Blendtec had a surprisingly low budget. The company did have an on-staff video producer and webmaster, so development of the first five videos ran just $50 to $100 — including buying the domain name, a couple of rakes, some marbles and few other supplies. It was proof positive that viral video marketing can be done on a shoestring.

Wright advises companies wishing to get into YouTube marketing to focus on something fun. But don’t try to force it. It really should be something worth watching.

Wright’s second piece of advice is to clearly demonstrate the product. For Blendtec, it was initially 100% about branding. But after the brand awareness has been established, there has to be a need and there has to be a catalyst to compel them to solve the problem. A consumer watching a blender chop up a rake handle would likely conclude that this blender would do a pretty good job at blending ice as well.

Blendtec saw a dramatic increase in sales of both at-home blenders and commercial blenders sold to restaurants and coffee shops, etc. The “Will It Blend?” campaign targeted the home market, and online web sales were more than four-times greater than the previous top-selling month. All other channels have seen big increases as well.


It’s not enough to post a great video; you also must know how to take advantage of the social nature of YouTube. You need to build up friends and subscribers on YouTube so you can leverage them to increase your video’s reach.

YouTube’s ranking algorithm takes into account engagement metrics such as likes, dislikes, embeds, inbound links, tweets, favorites, video replies and attention span of viewers (YouTube calls these “hotspots”). It’s important to measure and improve these metrics.

If you’re effective with your YouTube marketing, you’ll see an overall SEO benefit. That said, YouTube tends to benefit in terms of inbound links rather than your site.

If the links and thus the SEO benefits don’t transfer to your site, you may ask what’s the point of video optimization? The point is to get your videos posted to YouTube to rank — either in YouTube’s or Google’s results — or both, of course.

You’ve seen Google fold in “oneboxes” of specialized content to its main web search results (news, images, products, local listings, videos). This is known as “universal search.” Aim to rank not only in YouTube but also in Google’s main web results via universal search.

You can increase the chances of folks linking to your site in addition to your YouTube video by including within the video’s YouTube description a URL — which YouTube will automatically make clickable. The link will not help your search engine rankings, as it will be “nofollowed,” but you will get direct clickthrough traffic from it — and hopefully mentions in blogs and mainstream media.

Don’t get too caught up with achieving a certain number of views, a certain number of links to the video, or a certain ranking in the YouTube search results. What matters is the impact the video has on the bottom line.

A YouTube analytics tool called Voot (www.voot.net) is a must-have for marketing on YouTube. It tracks your videos’ YouTube search rankings as well as various engagement metrics like favorites and comments.

The tool is in private beta, but you can get an invite by clicking on the “Request a Beta Invite” link on the home page. YouTube Insight, at http://www.youtube.com/my_videos_insight, is also helpful in monitoring popularity metrics, but only for your own videos. You can also glean some insight on your competitors’ videos simply by clicking on the graph icon next to the number of views — if they weren’t savvy enough to turn that off.


What will YouTube use to determine relevancy? The spiders can’t see what you say in the video — or can they? YouTube does machine transcription of the audio, so the spoken word actually is indexable. You can even override the machine-made transcript with your own simply by uploading it.

Jeff Martin, director of search for Voot parent TouchStorm, suggests uploading not just an English transcript, but also translations of that transcript in foreign languages. YouTube will turn these translations into subtitles, helping you rank in YouTube for searches in other languages. DotSUB and Automatic Sync are affordable options for YouTube transcription services.

When you upload a video to YouTube, optimize the title, the description and tags (keywords). What you call your video, the words you use in the description, and what tags you assign it will make a big difference when it comes to its ranking in YouTube — and for which keywords.

When coming up with a good title and description for your video, remember to use the words you are trying to rank for. This might sound obvious, but it’s no different from writing good titles and descriptions for a regular page on a website you are trying to optimize.

Don’t be too broad or too esoteric. Use YouTube’s suggestion feature (auto-complete) for keyword brainstorming. The suggestions given are popular keywords.

Or use Soovle.com to get these suggestions alongside suggestions from Google, Yahoo, Bing, Amazon.com, Answers.com and Wikipedia. Also use YouTube’s keyword tool at https://ads.youtube.com/keyword_tool and Google’s keyword tool at https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal.

Make copious use of tags on your videos, with all tags relevant to the content. Separate each tag with a comma, use adjectives as well as category descriptors to make your videos more visible to folks searching based on their mood, and don’t use throwaway words like “and” or “to.” Note that your tag list is capped at 120 characters.

Martin advises optimizing your video’s thumbnail and making it eye grabbing (e.g., with a brightly colored background). YouTube will give you three to choose from. You have to edit the video attributes to access this option.

Finally, annotate your videos with calls-to-action such as: like this video, watch next video, and subscribe to your channel.

Have fun, and remember, the more optimized videos you have on YouTube, the more opportunities you have to rank. So have at it!

Stephan Spencer is co-author of the O’Reilly book The Art of SEO and founder of Netconcepts (acquired by Covario).


AN ONLINE MERCHANT THAT HAS DONE WELL WITH YOUTUBE MARKETING IS INTUIT, MAKER OF THE QUICKEN, QUICKBOOKS AND TURBOTAX SOFTWARE. The company’s “Tax Rap” campaign (http://turbotax.intuit.com/taxrap/) from several years ago is one such example.

It was a pretty off-the-wall idea that Intuit executives threw out in a brainstorming session — but, as luck would have it, they were able to secure rapper Vanilla Ice as their front man. Once they landed Vanilla Ice, the Intuit team decided to pull out all the stops — avoiding any corporate marketing feel to the campaign.

“Rather than people making fun of our campaign, we wanted to poke fun at ourselves,” says Seth Greenberg, vice president at Intuit. The video team went to Vanilla Ice’s house in Palm Beach, FL, and spent several hours there shooting.

The campaign got more buzz offline than online: It was covered at least 50 times by news outlets from CNN on down to local stations. Entertainment Weekly listed Vanilla Ice’s Tax Rap as #10 on its Hit List.

The key to the Tax Rap video campaign was not just that Vanilla Ice is the front man, but that it also encourages participation and viewer support. A contest with prize money of $50,000 encouraged users to create their own rap about taxes to compete for the prize.

Intuit’s investment included buying a Contest channel and a Branded channel, as well as paying for visibility on the YouTube.com home page. Those were crucial factors for Intuit getting more than 1 million views of its video. Greenberg figured that it would have been hard to scale virally without it. — SS