YouTube Algorithm – How it works and how to Beat it

For years, content creators, organizations and brands have been working to understand the ever-evolving YouTube algorithm. This algorithm determines how videos are previewed to potential viewers through the site homepage and relevant keyword searches. 

The secrets to YouTube lie in the large data sets that make up the platform’s back end.  Luckily, digital marketing experts agree that while Youtube’s algorithm is constantly changing, the general data structure has remained consistent since the switch from ‘views’ to ‘watch time’ in 2012.  Knowing how YouTube optimizes its content can provide valuable insights into how you can best promote your own. 

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What is Youtube’s Algorithm?
  • How to Maximize Youtube Outreach and Engagement
  • Key Takeaways

What is YouTube’s Algorithm?

youtube algorithm best practices

The YouTube algorithm  is safeguarded by the platform itself, but many experts have done incredible work solving the data chains that make up the algorithm.  Understanding how this algorithm can work in your favour is critical for many brands and content creators looking to increase their views, subscribers and overall ad revenue opportunities on the YouTube platform. This process is sometimes called YouTube search engine optimization, or YouTube SEO.

In 2016, Google engineers Jay Adams, Paul Covington and Emre Sargin wrote an in-depth white paper on the YouTube algorithm and what they identify as important signals of influence within the platform. These signals are responsible for ranking YouTube videos, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be seen by users not subscribed to a particular channel. These seven data signals include:

  1. The click-through rate or the number of clicks on your video
  2. Time spent watching – this is the combined amount of time that viewers spend watching your videos
  3. How many times a user has watched other videos on your channel
  4. How many times a user has watched similar videos
  5. A user’s search history
  6. The user’s total analysis of previously watched videos
  7. The user’s location and other important demographic information

It is important to understand the signals that you can influence and the signals that are determined beyond your channel. Click through rate and time spent watching are critical objectives that users can manipulate to increase their channel’s videos and overall visibility on the platform.

The most important equation in the YouTube algorithm is the delicate balance of click-through rate and time spent watching. This balance is a critical component of YouTube’s supposed “war on clickbait.” 

Clickbait videos try to mislead the algorithm by increasing their click-through rate by promoting exaggerated, often false video titles and incorrect image thumbnails. Users who take advantage of clickbait content try to cheat the system and increase their visibility when users search YouTube.

To combat this, YouTube has embedded the time spent watching feature, calculating the time viewers spend watching a video.   In the data of the algorithm, the primary indicator of a quality video is the amount of time viewers spend watching it, not simply if the video is clicked on and then quickly exited. If a video has a high click-through rate and low watch time, it is flagged as clickbait. 

By contrast, if you prioritize watch time data, your channel would consist of incredibly long videos that are less likely to have a strong click-through rate. This important balance of click-through rate and time spent watching helps YouTube optimize quality videos for the platform.

How Do You Maximize the YouTube Algorithm?

youtube algorithm how to

As we just learned, balancing the click-through rate and time spent watching is the goal of optimizing YouTube’s algorithm to maximize your impressions on the platform. Impressions are an important metric indicating how many times your video’s thumbnails were shown to users on the platform, either on the home page or in search results.

There are a number of basic search engine optimization strategies you can integrate into your content strategy to maximize your YouTube outreach.

1. Creating a consistent content format with strong keywords

Most successful YouTube channels thrive due to their strong branding, consistent content format and concise keywords. These keywords are critical in influencing the metadata that feeds into the YouTube algorithm. 

These keywords should be used in video titles, descriptions, captions, and tags. Understanding and leveraging these keywords can be tricky. Luckily, there are a number of free resources available to guide you, such as the podcasts YouTube Creators Hub, Video Creators with Tim Schmoyer and the Goal Digger Podcast with Jenna Kutcher.

Knowing which keywords to use can elevate your content’s visibility. Learn how to do your own keyword research by checking out our comprehensive guide.

2. Choose the right thumbnail images

In addition to your video’s title, the thumbnail is often a decisive factor for a viewer deciding whether or not to view your video. To appeal to viewers, it is recommended that videos use a custom thumbnail rather than auto-generated ones.  Effective custom thumbnails usually include close-ups of faces with expressive emotions, action shots, text overlays and slightly off centered imagery.

3. Learn from fellow content creators

One of the best ways to learn about creating a successful YouTube channel is through the amazing resources made available by content creators who have already done it! Many YouTube content creators share their tips, tricks and stories about making the algorithm work in their favour. 

These creators often offer an inside understanding of the platform that is beyond common knowledge. In addition, it can help to use these successful channels as inspiration for creating your own! Top YouTubers with excellent algorithm resources include Cathrin Manning, Brian Dean and Gillian Perkins.

4. Use your own data to your advantage

Understanding your content’s data insights helps you to further leverage the YouTube algorithm, by determining what is doing well and why. It also gives insight into videos that are not performing well. 

These downward trends are identified by low watch time or click-through rate subscriber behaviour. Harnessing YouTube’s wealth of metadata is a peek inside the workings of the algorithm and gives clues at how to best harness it to your advantage.

5. Optimize videos for viewing on mobile devices

YouTube data trends continue to show that users are more likely to view videos on a mobile device than a computer. This data also shows that sound off viewing is common for these mobile users making it beneficial for videos to be customized with closed captions or subtitles. 

When a user creates custom closed captioning or subtitles, this content is indexed into YouTube’s metadata, which could also contribute to an improvement in your video’s search visibility.

6. Continue to promote your videos in other ways

It is important to remember that YouTube search engine optimization is only part of the equation in creating a successful YouTube channel. 


Cross promoting videos on other platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, email newsletters etc. is an important step in bringing in more viewers on the YouTube platform and optimizing your content for the YouTube algorithm. 


Users who interact with you on other forms of social media, are more likely to click on and thoroughly watch your content, contributing positively to your overall data.

Key Takeaways On Youtube’s Algorithm 

Understanding the complex nuances of YouTube’s algorithm is an important first step in creating an engaging and profitable YouTube channel. While the YouTube platform is designed to prioritize quality videos with a predictable balance of click-through rate and watch time, it is important to remember that a number of factors outside your control also impact a video’s overall success.

For content creators and brands looking to maximize their YouTube efforts, it’s important to stay educated on the continual advancements in YouTube’s data manufacturing. It cannot be overstated enough the importance of taking the time to monitor your data insights thoroughly to understand how best to beat the algorithm and ensure success.

Thea Christie

Written By Thea Christie

Thea is the Content Marketing Lead at Advesa and possesses a strange love of grammar, syntax and punctuation. In the past, she’s worked as a content specialist for publications in the startup, SME and tech space. When she’s not storytelling, she’s busy being a travel junkie. @theachristie