The YouTube algorithm is designed to help viewers find videos they want to watch and maximize long-term viewer satisfaction. Similar to other social media platforms, YouTube’s algorithm has changed as the site has evolved.

Here’s what YouTube looks like today:

With such a dominating presence, of course we want to understand how the YouTube algorithm works. Read on to learn more about the algorithm and how to up your YouTube marketing strategy.

The YouTube algorithm before 2022

YouTube has significantly adjusted its algorithm a few times in its history. As a result, these changes had a direct impact on the videos that were posted and how users came across them.

2005-2011: Clicks & views

In its early years, YouTube was all about how many eyes were on a video and how many people clicked through to watch it. In 2006, Nike’s Ronaldinho ad became the first video to reach 1 million views on the platform. Then in 2008, the Evolution of Dance video was the first to reach 100 million views. However, because clicks and views were so highly valued, clickbait videos dominated the platform, pushing away user interest.

2012: Watch time

In 2012, YouTube announced a new metric “Time Watched” to use in their search and Suggested Video algorithm. YouTube decided the videos people were spending more time watching should be more valued in its algorithm.

2015-2016: Satisfaction & personalization

In 2016, YouTube released a paper on its algorithm for its recommendation systems. According to the paper, the user’s watch history, search history and video completion history – all contributed to producing recommendations that were more personalized than ever. Moreover, the company used surveys to collect information on what users enjoyed and preferred.

2016-present: Demonetization & policy updates

Although demonetization was in effect since 2012, the platform did not start notifying content creators about their violations of content guidelines until 2016. Ads were running alongside videos that promoted offensive or violent content, leading many major companies to pull their advertising. YouTube further updated its algorithm to have stricter policies on ads and tightened its eligibility requirements into the Partner Program.

How does the YouTube algorithm work today?

In 2021, YouTube gave more insight into its algorithm and how its recommendations system works. Above all, YouTube wants viewers to enjoy the videos and stay on the platform as long as possible.

YouTube uses three main categories to personalize recommendations:

  • Personalization: user watch history and action
  • Performance: interest in watching the video, view duration, satisfaction
  • External factors: topical interests, how your competition is performing, relevancy to the current season

There are seven areas on YouTube where the algorithm has an effect. Let’s have a closer look at what each one entails.

1. Home

Home is the first place that someone lands on when they open up YouTube and is one of the top traffic sources for most channels. The more you use YouTube and interact with videos, the more personalized your Home will be. In addition, your channel subscriptions show up here as well.

youtube home

The ranking for Home is based on two factors:

  • Performance: Based on the demographics data they’ve collected about you, they’ll show videos that have engaged and satisfied viewers similar to you
  • Personalization: Your own watch history, channel views and topic interests

Home algorithm tips for marketers

Below are a few tips from YouTube on optimizing your video to show up on someone’s Home page:

  • Pretend you’re a new viewer to your channel and objectively review your videos. Would you want to watch them?
  • Upload consistently to create expectations from your viewers
  • Do what works for you. Create content in a similar style or topic to ones that your viewers already enjoyed.
  • Check your YouTube Analytics Traffic Sources to see how often your channel is appearing on others’ Home pages

2. Suggested Videos

Suggested Videos are what show up in the sidebar when you’re watching a video. If you let your current video finish playing, a suggested video is what automatically plays next.

suggested videos on youtube

The videos which show up in the Suggested section are based on several signals such as:

  • Which videos are often watched together
  • How the videos relate to each other as a common topic
  • A user’s own watch history

Suggested Videos algorithm tips for marketers

To optimize the algorithm recommending your videos, utilize some of the below tips:

  • Create a series: publish videos that are related to each other. Don’t forget to turn it into a playlist.
  • Pay attention to your ending. YouTube has features like playlists, links, cards, end screens and call-to-action buttons to help you guide the viewer to another of your videos
  • Create videos in formats that are currently trending
  • Have consistent title and thumbnail styles for your videos

3. Search

The YouTube search engine is powerful. After all, the platform is owned by Google. Keep in mind that search results are not entirely based on videos with the most views, so understanding YouTube SEO can help you rank higher.

search on youtube

What determines which videos show up in search results?

  • Relevancy: How well do the keywords relate to what matches in the title, description and video content
  • Engagement: Videos that have had the most engagement as related to the search query
  • Watch time: Videos that have driven the most watch time as they relate to the search query

Search algorithm tips for marketers

There are quite a few ways to optimize your videos for showing up in the search results. While it may be tempting, stuffing your descriptions full of keywords is not the way to go.

  • Research what keywords users are typing to find your videos
  • Write better YouTube descriptions: Write smart descriptions that are searchable, maximized and informative – timestamps for topic changes are one way to have an informative description
  • Utilize translation tools to help you reach a global audience
  • Check your Trending tab to see what video and topic ideas might fit into your channel

4. Trending

YouTube’s Trending tab compiles the most popular videos of the moment as well as identifies creators that are gaining in popularity. These results are specific to the user’s country and aim to combine popularity with novelty. For example, the Creator On The Rise and Artist On The Rise sections feature up-and-coming channels and are updated daily.

The Trending tab takes note of the following attributes:

  • View count
  • Rate of growth in views
  • Where the views are coming from (location)

Trending algorithm tips for marketers

Showing up in a Trending tab is a big win for many marketers. But you can’t pay your way into showing up there, you can only try and make videos that might fit there. Here are some tips:

  • Make broadly appealing, shareable videos. That means making videos that will appeal to a wide variety of people, not just your subscribers.
  • Check your analytics to see how often your videos are appearing in the Trending tab
  • Be consistent in quality and schedule. To be qualified for the Creator and Artist On The Rise sections, you’ll need to reach a certain subscriber level and meet other metrics like growth in views and subscribers.

5. Subscribers & Subscriptions tab

Subscribers are viewers that opted in to see more content from you. When someone subscribes to your channel, your videos appear in their Subscriptions tab. Subscribers are your biggest fans and provide the most engagement on your videos. In addition, video subscriptions also show up on the Home page.

Subscriber tips for marketers

Increasing subscriber counts is a primary goal for many YouTube channels. To do this, there are a few tips that YouTube offers:

  • Ask for viewers to subscribe at the highest points of engagement or emotion in a video and at the end
  • Be genuine in why subscribing is important. Educate your viewers on why subscriber counts matter to you and your channel.
  • Check on your subscriber count in analytics and create videos similar to those that have performed well. Using Sprout’s YouTube Analytics, you’ll be able to discover insights that drive video longevity and benchmark your existing videos.

6. Notifications

Notifications are alerts sent to a user either via push or email. The default for notifications is from channels you watch often or those you’ve subscribed to. Users can edit the frequency of notifications from the subscribe button.

notifications on youtube

There is a limit to notifications, though. Viewers will receive a maximum of three per upload/livestream per channel within a 24-hour period.

Notification tips for marketers

Notifications are a great way to inform your subscribers of new content that you produce. To encourage subscribers to turn on notifications, use these tips:

  • Subscribe and be notified by other channels so you can understand how they work from the subscriber’s point of view.
  • Check your analytics to see how much watch time is produced from videos that appeared in notifications.
  • Encourage and explain notifications to your viewers.
  • Publish videos at optimal times for your viewers.

7. Restricted Mode

Restricted mode is an optional feature on YouTube you can use to filter out potentially mature content. This mode must be turned on for it to take effect. To see if your videos appear in Restricted Mode, you’ll need to turn it on and visit your videos directly.

The algorithm used for Restricted Mode is based on automatic detection of your video content:

  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Sexual situations
  • Violence
  • Mature subjects
  • Profane and mature language
  • Incendiary and demeaning content

Restricted Mode tips for marketers

Some videos that shouldn’t be restricted do get restricted, therefore it’s important for you to check your videos:

  • Turn on Restricted Mode to manually check your videos
  • If it’s unfairly filtered, send in feedback

YouTube algorithm myths debunked

Myths about YouTube’s algorithm have existed for a long time. Here are the most common ones, debunked:

Myth 1. Uploading videos as unlisted and then changing them to public will affect the algorithm.

Truth: The algorithm does not penalize this. Instead, it looks at how a video performs after you publish it.

Myth 2. Optimizing your titles and descriptions will get you to rank higher in the algorithm.

Truth: SEO is not the only signal that the algorithm considers. Optimizing your video SEO will help but the algorithm takes into account a lot of other factors.

Myth 3. It would be better if the Subscribers feed was the default instead of Home.

Truth: YouTube has tested this and found that it reduces the number of subscribers who come back and watch on the platform.

Myth 4. Subscribers receive all notifications for all the new uploads.

Truth: Subscribers need to opt-in for notifications in order to receive them.

Conquer the YouTube algorithm

The YouTube algorithm isn’t fully transparent, but there is still some information out there on how it works. We know that the algorithm has changed through the years, from valuing view numbers to personalizing the home feed. We also know that it plays a role in various areas on YouTube, including Home, Suggested, Subscriptions and more. Now that you know more about how the YouTube algorithm works, the next big step is understanding how consumers are using social media and how you can stand out from the crowd.