Several recent conversations and encounters had shaken my confidence in what I’ve been doing on YouTube. You may have picked up on some of this if you read my newsletter.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been hearing from countless people that YouTube SEO is dead. It’s over. It’s a waste of time. Everything on Google is decided by AI now. So nothing matters. Just pair great thumbnails with intriguing titles, so people click them. But don’t forget to make great videos that people want to watch. Also, make sure your retention rates are high. Everything else is a waste of time. Let the AI do its thing.
Those of you who have followed me for a while know that SEO is a key element of my YouTube strategy. At first, it was easy to ignore the “YouTube SEO is Dead” crowd, but eventually, I let it get to me.
So I dove in – to see if my strategies were still working. I didn’t just analyze the channels I actively manage, I analyzed all the channels I have access to. I also asked some of my long-time YouTube friends what was working – and what wasn’t – for them.
The TLDR takeaway: It all still works. It may even be working better than ever.
But, the terminology I’ve been using is out of date and inaccurate. It’s time to update how I talk about these things.
It’s also important to point out, that this is only one component of what I do to produce successful channels. It’s part of a framework for creating successful content in an intelligent way.
So… What am I really talking about when I talk about YouTube SEO
A lot of people think YouTube SEO is all about finding keywords people are searching for, making a video, and then structuring your title, description, and tags so that you rank #1 for those words. They think that it works like magic, and once they’ve cracked the code, they can rinse and repeat. Pretty soon, they’ll be raking in the Adsense bucks.
That’s not how I do it.
First of all, ranking #1 for something isn’t even possible anymore. Google and YouTube search results are incredibly personalized and localized now. So don’t waste time worrying about that. It’s an out-of-date concept.
The Real Goal: Get your videos to your desired audience in the most efficient way possible.
My approach starts with research. I used to call this keyword research but that’s no longer accurate.
Keyword Research ➡ Audience Research
Audience research is ongoing. I use this to find ideas for videos we want to make. I also use it to learn how our audience is talking about our topic. What words are they using? What questions are they asking? What are their peripheral interests? What do they want? research the topics and the audience for a channel and for each video I create.
I use a combination of tools for this:
- VidIQ (my favorite YouTube research tool)
- Ahrefs (for when you want to rank in Google)
- Google Analytics (where’s your traffic coming from and where does it go?)
- YouTube Studio (how is your community engaging? What’s working?)
- Google Trends (What’s next?)
I don’t have a clean and precise mathematical system for this. It’s messy to be honest.
I’m looking for:
- search terms
- search volume
- how things are trending
- how people are landing on our videos and pages
- what related videos and sites are sending us traffic.
I dump all this into Google sheets. I have one master sheet for each channel, and then as I get topics narrowed down, I create a focus sheet for each video.
Sometimes we have a great idea for a video but we haven’t done any research. In these cases, I’ll reverse engineer it. I research ways to “package” it into something appealing and accessible.
Search Engine Optimization ➡ Content Optimization
Then we go into pre-production and we use the data from the research phase to guide us. This about more than title and metadata. We are optimizing the content itself. We use what we’ve learned to inform our decisions in the following areas:
- Video Intro
- Website embed/post
You no doubt already know about the importance of the Thumbnail and title. But the intro to the video itself is almost as important. Once someone has clicked through, let them know that there are actually going to see a video about the topic they’ve been promised. This will help your retention dramatically.
When it comes to metadata, I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet. The description is still important, but possibly not as much for search discovery, but for getting your videos to show up in related videos.
Also, backlinks still work—100%.
Messing Up With SEO
Every 12-18 months, I will go through the channel libraries and clean things up. I look at this like tending to a garden. Sometimes links are out of date. Sometimes there are opportunities to improve things. One year I got super agressive with the Yoga With Adriene channel because I was using Ahrefs. Ahrefs was new to me at the time and I was very excited about it.
The result: I knocked some of our most important (and profitable) videos out of the search results in YouTube. I messed up big time. For a week or so, it seemed like the videos had completely disappeared. Our traffic took a nosedive. I thought I had killed the channel.
Then traffic came back. And it was stronger than ever. Our CPM was even higher than it had been before. But the videos still didn’t seem to be showing up in YouTube rankings. So where was the traffic coming from?
The videos were now ranking on Google.
What I thought was a critical mistake turned out to be a happy accident. It changed my approach. I now want my videos to rank highly in Google as well as in YouTube. In fact, for the types of channels I manage, the traffic from Google is actually better because it is much more targeted. It’s not just someone clicking on an intriguing thumbnail and then bouncing when it’s not what they want.
The fact that I was able to mess something up this bad, is proof to me that YouTube (and Google) SEO still works.
I’m just going to call it something else from now on.