A guide to YouTube optimisation and video SEO

Video content: as digital marketers you know how important it is. Consumers love it, spending 6 billion hours a month on YouTube. 

Research has confirmed that branded video content is successful in increasing reach, interactions, and overcoming brand pessimism, and there is still huge untapped potential for brands in the video space.  

In this guide we’re going to look at best practices to maximise the visibility of your videos so they can achieve higher rankings:

  1. in search results within YouTube (provided your video is uploaded to YouTube of course)
  2. in search engine results, for example when users are searching on Google (your video could be hosted within YouTube or in another video hosting platform and be embedded on your website), a.k.a ‘Video SEO’

In Part 1 you’ll find tips and examples on improving your videos’ visibility within YouTube.

Then we’ll move to Part 2, which is all about Video SEO. Let’s go!

Part 1: YouTube optimisation

I’ll start by saying that YouTube themselves have published an excellent video optimisation guides, which you can find here: Multimedia Storytelling. There’s no point in reproducing the entire guide in this post, but let’s have a look at the principles it covers:


YouTube says:

Create optimised titles, tags and descriptions for content. This helps YouTube to index content and is critical to building views from search and suggested videos.

You’ve all done your YouTube keyword research, right?

Of course you analysed what people are searching for within YouTube using something like keywordtool.io before you went and actually made the video.

Well, you need to incorporate those keywords into your video title, tags, and descriptions. 

For example, YouTube users are more likely to be searching for video blogger Bethany Mota than clothing brand Aeropostale when using YouTube.

So Aeropostale did the right thing with including Bethany’s name in their video titles.


YouTube says:

Create high-quality, custom thumbnails for your videos that accurately represent the content. They act as miniature marketing posters for your videos – they attract viewers to your content and compel them to click through to watch.

Here’s what YouTube defines as a ‘good’ video thumbnail:

  • Clear, in-focus, hi-resolution (640px x 360px min., 16:9 aspect ratio)
  • Bright, high-contrast
  • Close-ups of faces
  • Visually compelling imagery
  • Well-framed, good composition
  • Foreground stands out from background
  • Looks great both small and large.
  • Accurately represents the content

If there’s celebrities participating in the video, thumbnails should make the most of this. That’s exactly what Marriott did here for instance:


YouTube says:

You can use cards to add interactivity to your videos. Cards can point viewers to a specific URL (from a list of eligible sites) and show customised images, titles and calls to action, depending on the card type.

A ‘specific URL’ can also be another YouTube video, one of your playlists or your YouTube channel.

My tip is to not only use cards at the end of video but also while it’s playing. This will encourage your viewers to interact with more videos from your channel or subscribe to it.

Have a look at how Video Creators use cards on their videos to drive more views and interactions with their YouTube video content:

Channel Optimisation

YouTube says:

Create a cohesive and compelling channel experience that will turn first-time visitors into long-term subscribers. A well-organised channel page and robust channel metadata will make your channel a richer destination for both current and potential subscribers.

There are many features that enable YouTube channel optimisation – visual aspects such as art, logos and organisational tools such as playlists.

Don’t forget to also pay attention to the ‘about’ section of your channel as well as your channel trailer that will be shown to unsubscribed users: they are both essential when it comes to introducing who you are and what your videos are about to the user.

Check out Unilever’s carefully structured All Things Hair channel:

Reaching all audiences

YouTube says:

Caption your videos to ensure that they are accessible to any viewer. Create dedicated content to offer a localised experience. Captioning makes your videos accessible to more viewers, localised content unlocks new audiences.

Closed captions are essential for viewers with hearing impairment.

There’s the option of enabling automatic captions – which might save you time – but on the flip side the auto-generated captions might not be accurate or make much sense.

The solution? Take control of the caption content by uploading a correct transcript.

Using captions not only improves the ‘watching’ experience for users with hearing impairment but also lets you add a significant amount of keyword-rich content to each video piece.

Most of the times there will be quite a few repetitions of key phrases in the text, which helps your video appear higher up in YouTube searches around these words.

Here’s an example from Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube channel:

Part 2: Video SEO

Video SEO is a relatively specialist field that focuses on ensuring that video content on your website is surfaced within both regular search engine listings and within video searches.

Best practice with regards to where your video is hosted can be at odds with the objective of driving views and subscriptions within YouTube itself: from an SEO perspective, it’s ultimately better for videos to be hosted on a service other than YouTube.

So based on what you’re trying to achieve and what will bring more value to you (e.g. is it important that users visit your website to watch the video or is it just the overall number of video views that matters?), you’ll need to start by deciding which way to go.

Whatever you decide, let’s have a look at some basic video SEO principles.

Unique pages

Search engines cannot see what is in videos. And that’s a fact.

So in order to ensure they understand what your video is about, host each video on its own page with a unique URL, meta title, description and body copy descriptive of its content.

Here’s an example from the Great British Chefs website, with a video page that follows the above rules: 

All of these elements should be unique and contain the target keywords as discussed in the ‘metadata’ section of Part 1 of this guide.

Finally, each page should be linked to from at least one other page on your website, so that search engines are able to find the video pages as they crawl the site.

Structured data

Structured data, in the form of schema.org, can be used to add more context to a video, specifically for the use of search engines.

The Video Object schema has many useful metadata fields that let you optimise your video content further.

E.g. in the ‘about’ metadata field you can add keywords relevant to the content of the video, which will in turn give search engines a clearer picture of what it is about. In addition to that, the ‘transcript’ field allows you to specify the location of the (keyword-rich) transcript of the video.

Video Sitemap

If your site is rich in video content, a video sitemap can be generated to give search engines an even clearer picture of how it is used across your domain and its relationship to other content on your website.

After having created individually themed pages for each video like we discussed above, create a video sitemap and submit it to the relevant Webmaster Tools facilities.

Dedicated video hosting

The ‘holy grail’ of video SEO is for a video thumbnail to be shown alongside your website’s listing in the search results page (SERPs).

Although Google reduced the amount that they displayed video thumbnails back in 2014, they still appear for some listings which has a significant impact in improving the click through rate (CTR). And, of course, they appear alongside every result in the Google video listings.

While YouTube videos occasionally provide rich snippets for the websites they are embedded on in the organic SERPs, the YouTube domain will frequently rank first instead.

Therefore it’s currently not as sure-fire a way to achieve a rich snippet as securely hosting the content, submitting a video XML sitemap and implementing schema markup.

Ultimately the best advice for video SEO and achieving visibility for your video content is to use a dedicated HTML5 player.

If your video is embedded on third party sites, this will also create links back to your website, offering an SEO benefit to the domain as a whole.

However this might negatively affect views of your videos within YouTube itself, which is something you need to keep in mind.

If you choose to go with dedicated hosting, a service such as Wistia would be a very good option. The player is extremely flexible and comprehensive video analytics are provided, meaning views can still be counted.

Wistia also automatically generates a video sitemap that is automatically updated each time a new video is added to your hosting package.  

This guide hopefully gave you everything you need to get started with optimising your videos for higher rankings, both within YouTube and in SERPs.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss a strategy on how you can maximise your video content’s visibility, drop us a line – we’d be delighted to help.


Caroline Hagan

Caroline brings over 20 years experience as a Designer and Developer; featured in .NET magazine, the only woman in the UK accredited for Google Mobile Sites. A STEM Ambassador and Google Women Techmaker Ambassador. Previous clients include Blackberry, FIAT, Clark Shoes and Sky.

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