YouTube is a staple in the global cultural landscape — parents use it to keep their kids occupied, students use it to learn, and millions use it for entertainment, information, and everything in between.
But one thing that is often a mystery is discovery. How does the YouTube algorithm actually work? How do people get the content they do? Why does certain content go viral seemingly overnight?
The platform is essentially a massive search engine, but more often than not, its users are watching YouTube’s recommendations and not much else. The more people watch something, the more it seems to be recommended until it goes viral.
In this article, we’ll break down the YouTube algorithm according to YouTube insiders and share tips for applying this knowledge to your YouTube videos.
What is the YouTube algorithm?
An algorithm is a set of scientific or mathematical rules used by social media platforms to determine what content a user most wants to see and in what order.
Most algorithms are designed to deliver the content a user is most likely to engage with based on previous content they’ve interacted with — and YouTube is no different. Here’s how it works.
How the YouTube algorithm works in 2024
There are effectively two main ways for YouTube users to discover your videos on the platform:
- Recommended content (i.e., videos on the user’s Home page and Suggested Videos).
- Trending Videos.
- YouTube’s search (the results users will see when they enter a specific search query into YouTube’s search bar or Google).
Much like the Instagram algorithm, YouTube has different algorithms that govern these different modes of discovery. These algorithms are all impacted by different ‘signals’ that tell YouTube how valuable a video is and what content users want to see more of.
Let’s unpack how the algorithms in these two distinct areas work:
Videos recommended by the Home page and Suggested Video algorithms are governed mainly by user behavior.
According to YouTube themselves: “We track what viewers watch, how long they watch, what they skip over, and more. This helps us figure out what kind of videos they like best and what we can recommend to them next.”
They specifically pinpoint these factors when it comes to the signals that impact the algorithm:
- What users watch
- What they don’t watch
- What they search for
- Likes and dislikes
- ‘Not interested’ feedback
YouTube Home page algorithm
Home is where YouTube users land when they first open the YouTube app or visit YouTube.com.
“It's where we aim to deliver the most relevant, personalized recommendations to each viewer,” YouTube says. “When your audience visits Home, YouTube displays videos from subscriptions. Videos watched by similar viewers and new videos are also shown.”
The selection of videos is based on:
- Performance: How well your video has interested and satisfied similar viewers, among other factors.
- Watch and search history: How often your audience watches a channel or topic and how many times we’ve already shown each video.
YouTube Suggested Videos algorithm
YouTube Suggested Videos are recommended alongside the video users are watching on the right side of their screen on the web and are ranked “to offer your audience videos they’re most likely to watch next,” YouTube says.
These YouTube videos are often related to the video your audience is watching, but they can also be personalized based on watch history.
Now, users can use filter buttons directly about this suggested videos feed to tailor their recommendations based on what they’d most like to see. They’ll find options like:
- From [Creator they’re currently watching]
- Similar artists
- Recently uploaded
There will also be category keywords related to the video they’re currently watching. You’ll see “Lo-fi” and “Background music” in the screenshot below.
Users take thousands of actions on the YouTube site and app that indicate whether or not your content or content like it will be recommended to users.
While this is not an exhaustive list, the signals below are strong indicators for the Home page and Suggest Videos algorithm:
Engagement metrics are the lifeblood of social media algorithms. User behavior on the platform offers the most vital indicators of the content that will keep them on the platform. On YouTube, watch time, video views, likes, dislikes, and shares can all have a powerful impact on what kind of content they’ll see more of.
2. Direct feedback
Rather than relying only on behavior cues, YouTube gives users a fair bit of control over their algorithm. Clicking on the three vertical dots just below a video will offer plenty of options for users that will impact the kind of content that appears in their feed.
Choosing options like Add to queue, Save to Watch later, Share, and so on effectively tells the algorithm, “I like this, more, please.” In turn, YouTube will serve them content from more videos from that creator or videos from more channels like theirs.
The options below the line also send strong signals in the opposite direction. For example, I’ve noticed that choosing the Not interested option is so rigorous that I won’t see that creator or that type of content for a long while if I use it.
3. Feedback surveys
Occasionally, YouTube will prompt users to share their thoughts on a video with a quick feedback survey like the one below.
This can impact individual video performance and how much that video is surfaced in other feeds.
YouTube Trending Videos algorithm
YouTube’s Trending feed is not personalized according to user behavior but rather determined by the popular videos or Shorts in a user’s country. The list refreshes every 15 minutes.
While this algorithm is a little more straightforward, there’s still some nuance involved in what videos and Shorts make the trending list. YouTube’s trending algorithm considers things like:
- View count
- How quickly the video is generating views
- Where views are coming from, including outside of YouTube
- The age of the video
- How the video performs compared to other recent uploads from the same channel
“We combine these signals to produce a list of videos that showcases what’s happening on YouTube while being relevant to our viewers and reflective of the content on the platform,” YouTube says.
“This means that the video with the highest view count on a given day may not be #1 on Trending, and videos with more views may be shown below videos with fewer views."
To keep viewers safe, YouTube has strict controls in place in this section of the platform. Videos that contain “excessive profanity, mature content, or violence, or videos that are otherwise inappropriate, such as disparaging others in the community,” are automatically excluded.
YouTube search algorithm
YouTube is effectively a massive video search engine — it is owned by Google, after all! In this arena, I’d argue that YouTubers have a little more control over how their content ranks in search results.
“Like Google’s search engine, YouTube search strives to surface the most relevant results according to keyword searches,” YouTube says. “Search results are not a list of the most-viewed videos for a given search.”
YouTube ranks videos based on the following factors:
- How well the title, description, and video content match the viewer’s search.
- What videos drive the most engagement for a search
To make sure your videos appear in specific user searches, you’ll need to give YouTube as much information about your video as possible — and ensure it’s accurate. Hello, YouTube SEO (search engine optimization).
Factors that come into play here are your video’s title, the description, the keywords, and even the name of the video file you upload. I’ll unpack all this a little more below.
How to work with the YouTube algorithm to boost your content
All the above is well and good — but what do all those signals, behavior cues, and keywords mean for the creators themselves?
As part of their efforts to support creators, YouTube’s Creator Liasion Rene Ritchie sat down with Director of Growth and Discovery, Todd Beaupré, to give a background look at how their team thinks about and treats the YouTube algorithm.
Here are the main lessons for creators.
Don’t think algorithm — think audience
The first thing Todd highlights in the conversation is that creators who want to game the algorithm are going about it the wrong way. “The way we design the algorithm is such that we want to give the audience the content they’ll be most satisfied by.”
He mentions that things like the best time to post or which keywords to use don’t matter much to the algorithm because they don’t matter to the audience.
So, instead of optimizing your content for the algorithm, the key is getting to know your audience and creating for them. However, don’t forget to create what you want by finding the intersection between what you want to create and what they want to see.
I spoke with YouTuber Aprilynne Alter about her experience on the platform, and she mentioned that part of the reason she struggled with her first niche was the lack of that intersection. Her audience loved her content, but she didn’t love creating it, ultimately leading to burnout.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the tools at your disposal. Part of growth is understanding how to deliver content your audience will be most satisfied with. The rules are the rules for a reason.
Think about it this way: if you worked hard on an informational video that isn’t discoverable because you didn’t use the right title or the thumbnail doesn’t tell people what the video is about, it likely won’t reach who it’s meant for. A video that has both engaging content and ticks all the boxes will perform better in most cases.
The best way to strike this balance is to follow Todd’s advice and replace “algorithm” with “audience” when asking questions about how to create better-performing content. Instead of “How can I make sure the algorithm finds this video?” ask, “How can I make sure my audience finds this video?”
Replace “algorithm” with “audience” when asking questions about how to create better-performing content. Instead of “How can I make sure the algorithm finds this video?” ask, “How can I make sure my audience finds this video?”
The algorithm prioritizes audience satisfaction – you should, too
Video watch time is a significant metric with YouTube’s algorithm. The idea behind prioritizing this metric is that if someone spends a considerable amount of time on a video, it’s a good video. Of course, not all watch times are created equal — time spent on a YouTube Short is not the same as time spent on an hour-long video.
However, watch time alone isn’t an indicator of “satisfaction” — there might be more value packed into a five-minute video than in a video thrice as long.
So, to understand what that value is and represent it in algorithmic recommendations, YouTube looks for opportunities to ask viewers periodically about their experience. You may have seen this in the surveys mentioned above, which allow you to give specific feedback on a video you’ve watched.
The video's survey results and other signals, like engagement rate, comments, etc., are fed into their recommendation system. The team has found that viewers are ultimately more satisfied with the mix of videos from the recommendations plus the creators they already follow.
Understanding the signals of content performance
Congratulations, you had a video go viral — now what? What happens after the curtains close and you have this new audience from your viral video?
Virality is one thing that can be affected by a number of factors, not least luck. But long-term value – or cumulative value over time for your audience – is harder to build and doesn’t translate to a long career.
Some creators hit the ground running and only build momentum over time (like Emma Chamberlain). Others have to build slowly over time and often never see audience growth in the millions. However, both can be classified as successful because of the value of their audience. A YouTuber with a million followers who can’t get them to take action might as well have zero followers.
Instead of thinking about how you can get your video to get a given number of views, prioritize making a lasting impression on your audience. Incorporate elements that make them want to keep coming back and build a relationship with them.
As gathered from Todd and Rene’s conversation, a way to do this is to “think like a viewer.” Take off your creator hat, and look at the content you like and the content in your niche through the lens of an audience member. Take note of the things that kept you engaged with a video. Was it the editing? Or the storytelling? Did the creator have an especially charming personality?
Take off your creator hat, and look at the content you like and the content in your niche through the lens of an audience member. Take note of the things that kept you engaged with a video. Was it the editing? Or the storytelling? Did the creator have an especially charming personality?
Once you understand how an audience member might view a video, take the lessons to your content and figure out what fits where. Maybe you need to learn how to implement sharper edits, use bigger text on the screen, or do more live examples for your educational videos. Chances are, you’ll discover something you can incorporate into future content.
Take a multi-format approach to your YouTube content
With all the opportunities for multi-format content creation today – long-form, Live, Shorts, podcasts, and even multi-language content – it might feel like you're juggling way too much.
In addition, if you're producing content that appeals to different audiences or in different formats, you may be considering if it makes sense to have it all on one channel or if it would be better to separate it into different channels.
The answer comes down to two things: you and your audience. If a channel makes sense and you feel supported enough to take on something new, by all means, go for it. But don’t burn yourself going multi-format out in the hopes that it’ll accelerate your growth.
Remember, YouTube (and its algorithm) prioritize the audience. So if you take on a new channel but your content quality drops because it’s not right for you, or your audience just doesn’t like it, you may find yourself with a new set of problems.
The recommendations are simple:
- If your new format is for the same audience and is within the same niche, keep it on the same channel for better discovery (adapting your long-form videos into short-form)
- If your new format is for the same audience but is in a different niche (like live streaming games as a lifestyle creator), consider creating a new channel.
- If you’re targeting a new audience in a different niche with a different format, create a new channel and keep it separate so the people who need your content will find it organically.
Finally, Todd shares that the algorithm is always looking to recommend your content to people who view it in one format or another format (they watch your Shorts → they’re recommended your longer videos). Consider a strategy to create multi-format content eventually, so there’s something to suggest in a discovery feed.
3 tips for growth as a YouTube creator, based on the algorithm
We know that YouTube’s algorithms prioritize viewer satisfaction, and we know what metrics and features they use to measure that. Here are some tips to help you put this knowledge into practice.
Pick a niche — and stick to it
Although the topic, industry, or niche you want to pursue might be saturated, Jay Acunzo shares some advice for thinking about the uniqueness of your content. He uses the XY premise, which is a sentence that defines what sets your content apart from similar creators. Some examples of the XY premise include:
- Madeleine White is a fashion content creator. Unlike other fashion creators, only Madeleine turns designer items into unique, DIY pieces from her home.
- Aprilynne Alter is a YouTuber who creates for YouTubers. Unlike similar creators, only Aprilynne shares the lessons from her experience growing a channel to over 20,000 followers.
Adapt the Premise template for your content: “This is a [Project type] about [Topic]. Unlike other [Project types] about [Topic], only we [Unique Proposition].” Once you've figured out yours, you can focus on developing content that suits your premise.
Use the tools at your disposal
After spending time on the platform, most users know what they want from scrolling through their YouTube Homepage. Instead of sticking with the familiar, they might be looking for something other than new content. But, they may try out a new recommendation — if it shows up for them and catches their attention. How can you best capture this attention?
Well, the conventional advice is the convention for a reason — to a certain degree, it’s the best path to steady growth that most creators can control. Here are some features that you can always count on to help with your growth:
- Ensure your video’s title includes the right keyword: As I mentioned, YouTube is a massive video search engine, and many people use it this way. The same rules apply here as they do for Google – add keywords to your title for better search engine optimization (SEO). Check out this resource for the right keyword research tools to get started.
- Include keywords in other parts of your video, like the video description and metadata. These are tracked by the search engine as well. However, don’t use irrelevant keywords as clickbait to boost your click-through rate. That will just give you an inflated view count, and you are more likely to see lots of people bounce from your video, which will hurt you in the long run.
- Add subtitles to your videos for better accessibility. Thankfully, many tools can help you add these automatically.
- Group your content into playlists so viewers who find one video interesting can find similar content quickly and easily.
Optimize your YouTube thumbnails
One of the things that will always stop me from scrolling is eye-catching visuals. Your video thumbnail is the first impression a new viewer will get of your video – if it’s not appealing, they won’t click through.
Your thumbnails don’t have to be elaborate – Canva has a lot of great, simple templates you can use if you don’t have the design experience. Some tips to use in your thumbnails include:
- Show something alive or that evokes emotion – don’t just stick a bunch of text on your screen.
- Speaking of text, use it in your thumbnail. You can communicate more of what a viewer can expect from your video with text.
- Create branded thumbnails that viewers can recognize when they see your content. If this sounds too formal, stick to a consistent design immediately associated with your YouTube channel.
Your thumbnail shows up before the title, so it’s great real estate to get as much information to YouTube users before they scroll past.
No matter your audience size, YouTube is a viable platform for growth as a creator
If you use YouTube a lot (like me!), you may have noticed that your Recommended tab often features new videos from small creators. This is entirely on purpose – there’s even a whole team dedicated to it.
Todd explains that this team has folks dedicated to trying different approaches to promote small creators to their target audience and tracking how many of them are succeeding, as this is a priority for YouTube.
So, if you’ve been worried about your prospects with starting a new YouTube channel in 2024, lay some of those worries to rest. However slowly or quickly you grow, YouTube is a great platform to be on.
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