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Understanding the YouTube Algorithm

If you have been on YouTube for any amount of time, either as a viewer or creator, you have most likely heard of the YouTube Algorithm – the invisible hand that controls what you watch and determines the fate of your favorite creator.

In recent years the algorithm has been brought more and more into the forefront of YouTube and typically gets blamed for the dip in traffic and overall growth of a channel. Philip DeFranco among others will cite the Algorithm for any low performing video and even suggest that the video is suppressed by YouTube. DeFranco is a veteran of YouTube and has the data to back up his claims but YouTube continues to deny that this is taking place.

Because of large YouTubers suggesting that the Algorithm decides your fate, it’s no surprise that smaller YouTubers might assume the same thing.

On Tuesday, February 12th, Jeff from SmashJT posted a video about how posting a ton of videos was killing his channel. He went into detail that the views just weren’t there to justify posting so frequently and considered spacing content out instead.

In response to that video. Switch Kraft argued that posting a lot of videos actually helped his channel.

While I don’t have access to either channel’s analytics outside of Socialblade, both channels have had a good year over year progress. One question that both of these videos did pose and didn’t really answer is how the YouTube algorithm works.

Anyone who says they know exactly how the YouTube algorithm works is lying

The YouTube algorithm is a mystery and it’s designed that way on purpose. While you can see certain trends, the algorithm is always changing to prevent people from manipulating the system to their advantage.

Back in the early days of YouTube it was pretty easy to see what worked and what didn’t. Youtube’s original algorithm favored views vs watch time to determine how much money you got from ads. This lead to a lot of incredibly untrue clickbait. The amount of latest movies you could find on the platform was crazy. It didn’t matter that it was just a still image of the studio logo for 2 hours.

Eventually YouTube would switch to watch time vs clicks. The longer a person watches your video the more likely the video is to be recommended by others. This gave rise to the let’s play people and other long form content. Eventually content intended for shorter videos like animations fell out of favor and it was no longer profitable to offer that content.

Since the adpocolypse happened, the Algorithm has become a scapegoat for anything negative that happens to your channel. Less views than before? Must be YouTube suppressing content. People unsubscribing in mass? Must be that unsubscribe bug everyone keeps hearing about.

The algorithm might have a hand in those issues, but one thing I have noticed is that when people complain about the algorithm they are usually so confident that everything else about their channel is perfect. It’s just that pesky algorithm keeping the channel from success.

That’s where I disagree with Smash JT about his complaints about the algorithm. I think its influence is overblown in many aspects. Ultimately it’s what you do with your channel that determines your fate.

The difference between the Algorithm and SEO

Smash does have a point that larger channels have a leg up against up and coming channels with similar content. Let’s take the Switch Mini for example.

Smash JT last year posted a video titled – did Nintendo just accidentally announce the switch mini. The video netted 140 thousand views in its first week. At the time no one was talking about the Switch mini. This year it’s all but inevitable that Nintendo will announce the Switch Mini. Now that everyone’s talking about it, Jeff’s latest video on the topic only netted 435 views.

On the surface it might appear that Jeff did something to anger the algorithm and is now being punished, it’s pretty simple to see what happened: More competition on the subject.

The Algorithm and Search Engine Optimization get conflated. YouTube is a part of Alphabet which encompasses Google and other lines of business. YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world next to Google.

It stands to reason that YouTube would use similar SEO strategies as Google. SEO in its simplest form is tailoring content to make it more searchable. The better the SEO, the more likely that your piece of content will be the first thing people click on when they search for a specific keyword.

The more popular the topic the more competition there is to produce quality content. Simply talking about a topic is no longer enough and you’ll need a hook to get people to click in.

Depending on how many channels are talking about a popular topic, it might be a waste of time to even make a video if you aren’t the first one to break the topic.

The other thing to consider with SEO is that the longer the channel has been established, the higher it will rank when a popular topic is being talked about. If a channel has a lot of repeat viewers, YouTube will consider it a more trusted source and rank it higher as well.

Being a small channel doesn’t mean you can’t talk about popular topics, but you will need to up your quality and make sure that your bounceback rate isn’t too high. A bounceback is when someone clicks on your video or article and then immediately clicks off. You can see this in your analytics of each video.

A video with a low retention rate will not favor well with your search rankings because YouTube will think that the video is low quality. Keep pumping out more videos of poor quality and YouTube might not recommend your videos at all.

I could go into a lot of other issues, but I just wanted to address Jeff’s concerns that the algorithm is working against him despite his insistence that he’s doing everything right. I don’t have access to his analytics, but judging on the video he posted, he should be focusing on watch time first and views second.

In spite of Jeff’s woes, he continues to get a healthy amount of subs. Gaining 400 since his dying channel video, I’d say reports of SmashJT’s death are greatly exaggerated. Once he focuses on getting people to click AND stay on his videos, he’ll start to see his videos recommended to others.

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