YouTube ranking factors 2021 - The ultimate guide
Written by: Dexxter ClarkKnowing how to rank on YouTube is crucial to get a foot in the door on the platform.
Ranking on YouTube is a combination of factors.
The ratio of importance of these factors is continuously shifting, because YouTube changes it’s algorithms all the time.
What will work today, will not work tomorrow.
But there is a general consensus on the the factors that are important for ranking.
So in this article I look at the difference between ranking small and big channels, the ranking factors and the ranking penalties.
Ranking a small YouTube channelRanking on all YouTube algorithms is very difficult, especially as a small channel.
Ranking for Search as a small channel is achievable in the right niche, while ranking for Suggested you can simply forget.
If you have a small channel, focus on finding a niche with low competition.
Use long tail keywords, instead targeting “how to build a car” target “how to build a car under 1000 dollars in 2021”.
In my article “How to rank #1 in YouTube search results in 2021” I tell you exactly how you can rank in YouTube search.
1. Watch time minutes of a videoBy far the most important ranking factor is the number of watch time minutes that a video generates.
Watch time minutes tell the YouTube algorithm how much your viewers are loving your content.
Because of the short attention span of viewers, this is a measurement for quality.
The goal of YouTube is to keep viewers on the platform as long as possible.
If you can contribute to that, they will reward you for that.
For example: If people search for topic X and find two videos of the same length:
when they watch video A they leave after 4 minutes
when they watch video B they watch for 15 minutes
the algorithm will probably promote video B over A purely based on watch time minutes.
It sounds logical, but I want to have said it anyway: longer videos lead to more watch time minutes.
How long should a YouTube video be?
That question I’ll answer in my article: What is the perfect length for a YouTube video in 2021?
2. Watch time minutes of a channel (channel authority)The second most important ranking factor is the number of accumulated watch time minutes of the channel.
So a video of 10 minutes that attracts 25 viewers that watch 4 minutes, is 100 watch time minutes (4x25).
The number of watch time minutes accumulated on a channel, is the channel authority.
The same video (same title, thumbnail etc.) with 1 million watch time minutes will outrank the channel with 1000 watch time minutes in pretty much every algorithm.
3. Session watch timeAn extension of watch time minutes is the session watch time.
How many minutes does an average viewer spend on watching videos on your YouTube channel.
If viewers discover one of your videos and watch 10 more videos, that will earn you session-watch-time “credits”.
Again, YouTube wants viewers to stay on the platform, if you can facilitate that, they will show you appreciation in the form of higher rankings.
4. Audience retentionNext to watch time, the audience retention is the most important ranking factor.
There is a discussion between YouTube experts which one is more important: audience retention or watch time.
My opinion, audience retention is very important, but the amount of watch time minutes is more important.
I have found that longer videos tend to have lower audience retention, but do better in ranking.
Audience retention is a metric which represents the viewers behavior: “what percentage of viewers make it to the end of your video?”.
A 40% retention rate is ok, 50% is great, higher than 50% is amazing.
Videos with close to 50% or even higher retention tend to do very well in pretty much every algorithm.
You would think that if viewers on average watch 5 minutes of your video, that people watch a 5 minute video all the way through.
That is not the case.
If you make longer videos, viewers tend to watch your videos longer.
That is not expressed in the percentage of the total video length, but in the number in watch time minutes.
If a 5 minute video has an average audience retention of 50% (=2,5 minutes), but a 10 minute video has an average audience retention of 30% (=3,3 minutes), the longer video will perform better in the algorithm because of the watch time minutes.
A video of 120 minutes with 12 watch time minutes (10%) will perform better in ranking than a 1 minute video with 30 seconds of watch time (50%).
Since those watch time minutes are more important than audience retention percentage, choose to make longer videos.
In my article: “Rank #1: improve audience retention on YouTube” I talk about sure-fire ways to improve audience retention.
5. CTRClick through rate says a lot about the attractiveness of the package.
6. Viewers from other sourcesYouTube rewards you to keep viewers on the platform, but getting people on the platform is rewarded even more.
Having multiple social media platforms for your content, a website and a mailing list, allows you to do a dance between all these platforms by sending people back and forth.
Email lists are especially great, because you are not penalized for sending people away from that platform.
7. Upload frequencyThe algorithm rewards people who upload a lot of content.
More content is better for ranking. Preferably daily over weekly, and weekly over monthly.
Also, keep releasing consistently.
Besides confusing your subscribers (your fans), the algorithm doesn’t like it.
Stop uploading entirely and you will sink down to the bottom of the ranking pit gradually.
Don’t release two videos on the same day (except if you are a daily uploader), dedicate a separate day for a video.
It is said that Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the best days to upload.
Saturday seems obvious because most people have a day off.
I choose to release on Friday, because Saturday is my day off too, and I always want to check how a video is doing and answering comments in the first crucial hours of a video.
8. Topic relevancyI may be stating the obvious, but if your content is related to a search query you have the possibility to rank for that query.
But also topic relevancy between videos is important for Search and Suggested algorithms.
If you watch a video on the watch page, Suggested shows topic related videos.
If you search, videos from creators you watched earlier (related to your search query) are ranked higher for you.
So, show YouTube in the tiniest detail what your video is about, then they can rank you higher.
A lot of creators miss out so much opportunities in the title, thumbnail, description and closed captions.
In the article I mentioned earlier “How to rank #1 in YouTube search results in 2021” I tell you exactly how you can rank in YouTube search
9. Likes and dislikesThe number of likes is a ranking factor, but just in a really small amount.
YouTube looks at the ratio of likes and dislikes.
A high ratio of likes in percentage (90% or higher) is an indication that viewers like the content.
But watch time and audience retention is far more important for ranking.
I started a new channel where I gave my opinion on the MGTOW movement (Men Going Their Own Way) in one of the first videos.
To frame MGTOW: it’s a controversial topic about straight men choose to ignore women regarding relationships.
The video was watched 40 times within a couple of days (that is amazing for a new channel without any promotion or channel authority).
There were 0 thumbs up, 25 thumbs down and a bunch of nasty comments.
The engagement drove the video to be (somewhat) promoted by the algorithm over the next weeks.
If the number of thumbs down was an important ranking factor, YouTube would have killed the video promotion entirely.
Thumbs down are not a good measure for your content, luckily YouTube knows that.
Sometimes people leave comments about why they gave a thumbs down.
Since I read those, I don’t weigh the weight of a dislike as much.
Some of those comments were:
“thumbs down for not mentioning software [X] in your top 5”.
I know from my extensive polls in videos and the community tab, that software X doesn’t even make the top 20 of most used software packages.
So, it’s a meaningless dislike.
“thumbs down for being a [X] pusher”
I gave unbiased pros and cons for both product X and Y in the video.
I said at the end of the video that they need to decide for themselves.
In the previous video I even said that you shouldn’t even buy product X.
This another meaningless dislike.
“this video sucks because you don’t mention [X]”
I did mention [X], but the commenter didn’t pay attention.
I have videos with more dislikes than likes, but they have a high audience retention.
In other words, people dislike the video, but keep watching.
Why do you keep watching the content if it’s bad? That is weird, right?
In other words: people actually don’t dislike the content, maybe just disagree with your opinion and click the thumbs-down.
Don’t get discouraged by the amount of dislikes.
Some of my videos are well researched, well presented and in one word brilliant (if I may say so), and there is a 70% like/dislike ratio.
Other videos are full of mistakes and have 100% like/dislike ratio.
What is true for dislikes is probably also true for likes.
Both are to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.
10. CommentsEngagement is the social currency on social media.
Content is considered good if it creates a lot of engagement.
Even if the video is bad and a lot of viewers comment on the video being bad, in the eyes of the YouTube algorithm that is considered great content.
Controversial or sexual content is skyrocketing for that reason alone.
I hope that the brilliant engineers at YouTube find a way to turn that around.
Personally I think commenting should be an earned privilege for viewers instead of a “natural born” ability to do so.
But that’s a discussion of another day …
A lot of creators encourage viewers to leave a comment and you should too.
If you do, ask a specific question like “What is your opinion about [X]”, instead of “leave a comment below”.
Replying to every comment (or a heart) on new videos is a proven tactic, even used by the biggest channels.
As a small channel you can be available to your fans this way, you can’t do that when you grow big and strong.
As a small channel you simply need every single promotion in the book.
11. Content freshnessYouTube prefers content that is fresh.
Some of your well performing videos can suddenly lose viewers overnight.
This is because your competition probably got ahead of you.
The algorithm found a new path for viewers through content.
12. Avoid ranking “penalties”Now we know what to do, what should we not do?
Sending viewers awayYouTube wants viewers to stay on the platform.
The worst thing you can do is send people away.
Be very careful with hyperlinks in your description.
If you do it, have a solid reason why, like selling your product or subscribing to your mailing list.
Have a healthy ratio of videos that send viewers away and not send viewers away.
That ration could be, sending viewers away in only 1 out of 5 videos.
That way YouTube won’t hold it against you as much.
I don’t want people to leave YouTube if I don’t gain anything from it.
This is the reason why I don’t allow hyperlinks of viewers in the comments.
YouTube has link filtering for comments disabled by default for viewers (not creators).
ClickbaitMy advice: just don’t do it.
In my article: “What is clickbait on YouTube? How does YouTube detect it?” I go into detail about where the clickbait-line is.
No recent or consistent video uploadsThe fact that you upload videos at all is a ranking factor and a penalty if you don’t.
Consistency is important, even if it’s just once a month.
If you are serious about YouTube and want to take it to the next level, take a look at my YouTube e-book.
The book takes you step-by-step through the process of starting a YouTube channel.
How to get more views, subscribers, make money with YouTube, go viral ... and much more.
Click here for more information about my YouTube e-book: "What Big Tubers Don't tell you"
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Content creator / YouTuber
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Content creator / YouTuber
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