Video CTR (click-through-rate): How many people are clicking it from search? How do your video’s title, description, and thumbnail stack up to the competition for its keyword rankings?
Audience Retention: How much of your video does the average viewer watch? Do you keep them engaged?
Session Time: After watching your video, how long does your audience remain on YouTube?
And although these metrics are not in the direct control of the video creator, there’s a laundry list of “best practices” that can be applied in an effort to optimize for these three important factors.
The strategic planning for video search engine optimization begins long before the camera ever turns on. Making top-ranking videos on YouTube involves prioritizing these metrics throughout every step of the video creation process.
Below, we will explore each of these further and discuss how to balance the objectives for optimization.
1. Video CTR (click-through-rate): Optimize to reach new audiences
A YouTube video’s CTR is the number of times that a video is clicked on, per the number of impressions shown on the site, in other words, how many people who see your video and actually click it.
Creating video impressions that convert into clicks is arguably half the battle of attracting new viewership, however, half is the keyword here.
If CTR is high, but audience retention is suffering, YouTube will bury your video after not trusting that it delivers what it promises. CTR and audience retention must be prioritized with a balance in mind – more on that later.
Out of the top three video SEO factors, CTR is the one that we as YouTube creators have the most actionable control over.
There are only three simple variables that affect every video’s CTR and that you can change:
To achieve the best results:
Ensure that your primary target keyword is included within your YouTube video title, ideally toward the front half. The remainder should be focused on capturing more clicks.
Make the title as compelling and actionable as possible, while ensuring most importantly to stay true to the content of the video.
Clickbait titles – or titles that mismanage viewers’ expectations in any way – will always do more harm than good for a video’s overall search rankings. These misleading titles will cause viewers to click out of the video quickly, creating low audience retention.
Video thumbnails receive more attention and consideration from viewers than any other CTR variable. To achieve the best results with yours:
Create a custom thumbnail for every single YouTube video.
Use large text that allows users to read your thumbnail text on desktop or mobile devices.
Maintain consistencies across your channel’s video thumbnails to allow viewers to recognize your other videos as they begin to have your content suggested to them.
When you are competing to rank for a specific keyword, analyze the current top 5 video thumbnails ranking for the keyword and intentionally make a thumbnail that contrasts and differentiates yourself – with color, font, graphics, thumbnail text, etc.
The first 125 characters of the video’s description will be included in its YouTube impressions with the title and the thumbnail. To get the most out of yours, make sure:
The included portion gives more context in congruence with the title text and the thumbnail text.
It is at least 150 words long to help give YouTube more context about what the video covers.
Your targeted keywords are seamlessly included in your video description.
Learning how to make these three parts of a video impression work together is truly the art behind optimizing Video CTR. Get in the habit of performing A/B tests on your videos’ titles and thumbnails to try out new ideas and find what works better with your particular audience.
Well, you got your viewer to click on your video. Now, it’s time to ensure they’re hooked.
2. Audience Retention: Produce videos with the goal of having your audience make it to the next 15-second mark
Audience Retention is the amount of the video that the average viewer watches – as a percentage of the whole video.
Generally speaking, YouTubers should strive to retain the average viewer for 50% of the video’s length. Any retention rate beyond 50% is usually perceived as a successfully produced video.
NOTE: I say produced because Audience Retention is not like CTR in the sense that it can hide behind catchy text or images. If CTR measures “talking the talk,” then Audience Retention measures “walking the walk.”
What I mean by that is that Audience Retention is based solely on how clear, captivating, and valuable the video itself is. It’s the content alone that retains audiences, so let’s talk about how to hold their attention longer:
Explain what the video will cover and what to expect in the first 15 seconds of your video.
Showcase a logo bumper and/or other motion graphics to give the anticipation of high-production, valueable content.
Provide an explicit “hook” or “tease” to be sure your audience has something specific to stick around for.
Use segments with segment titles for the content-heavy portion of your video. This allows the audience to mentally break up the information into smaller parcels of content, and the break from new information allows the segment to sink in.
Follow the Video 6 formula to structure your video for improved audience retention. This is a six-step method for structuring videos that we’ve found to hold viewers’ attention as long as possible.
Mix In “Pattern Interruptions” as needed. These are brief, (sometimes) humorous moments in a video that change things up for the sake of change. They are used to reset attention and reinvigorate a viewer’s curiosity.
Include some content standardizations for your audience to recognize and look forward to. Maybe you provide a fun-fact, a gag, or a life lesson at the end of every video. Perhaps you always have a slightly different outro that your regulars begin to look forward to. Think of the countless versions of The Simpsons’ couch gag in their intro that audiences tuned in early for, it’s pretty much the same idea.
Be articulate and concise when providing the information that your video claimed to have in the impression. Viewers have increasingly less patience for content that doesn’t give them what they want quickly. Follow through on your claim of information effectively, or risk having viewers bounce back to find a video that will give them what they want.
Once your new viewer is hooked on your video, let’s make the most out of them.
3. Session Watch Time: "We reward videos that keep people on YouTube” - YouTube
YouTube loves content that keeps viewers engaged on the platform longer.
Aside from Total Watch Time – which is the total amount of time in aggregate that viewers have spent watching a specific creator’s videos – there is something called Session Watch Time: The amount of time that an average viewer continues to watch videos on YouTube after watching your video, regardless of whose videos the viewer is watching.
Total Watch Time can dramatically improve channel authority and promotion, while Session Watch Time affects video-specific rankings more directly. Videos with a high Session Watch Time are often populated in suggested videos as well.
There are best practices that help to increase both Session and Total Watch Time across a channel. You should focus on three main areas:
Playlists can be searched, ranked, and found in the same way that videos are, and videos are able to be added to multiple playlists at no penalty to the video. This means that playlists can be created for specific target audiences with videos being used multiple times. Curate accordingly! Also, leverage the YouTube playlist player format, which lists your playlist videos to the right of the video player. It also allows your videos to be auto-played.
Produce long videos to increase total watch time.
Highly ranked YouTube content has grown increasingly longer in the last several years, supporting a change in audience content duration preferences. A 10-minute video that is watched for five minutes will benefit channel reputation more than a five-minute video that is watched for four minutes.
End Screen Elements
Always include YouTube end screen elements on all videos to give your audience an intuitive next-step by continuing to consume your content. Take the last 5-20 seconds to provide another video link, recommended by YouTube, for your audience to consider while the previous video finishes. Include the option to subscribe to your channel within every YouTube end screen as well.
Quality Above All
At the end of the day, there is a balance to strike when working to optimize your content for these influential video statistics.
There are also no shortcuts, or ways to “trick” the YouTube Algorithm with these metrics. The only thing that we as creators can do is continue to make every strategic video decision with our audience’s opinions, wants, and objectives in mind -- give them quality.
They are the only feedback loop that matters to both the video creators and the YouTube Algorithm. When you’re delivering them the value they’re looking for, they’ll keep clicking and watching and signaling to the algorithm to pay attention.
So, keep experimenting and improving, fellow video creators!