A Beginner’s Guide to SEO for YouTube

After Google, YouTube is the world’s biggest search engine. And, as it’s also owned by Google, YouTube videos feature prominently on the search giant’s result pages. By creating quality videos that are engaging and useful, and by optimising them well, you can see excellent results.

This beginner’s guide to SEO for YouTube is specifically about search engine optimisation for YouTube. Although I’ll touch on some good practices for video creation too, I won’t be going into any great detail about filming and editing a video.

What is YouTube SEO?

Screenshot of YouTube video of Ed Sheeran's song Bad Habits

YouTube SEO is all about  using techniques and practices that make your videos and channel as visible as possible to your target audience. It involves ‘behind the scenes’ actions that only Google and other search engines will be able to read, as well as front-end optimisation that will be seen by real users. YouTube SEO can take place both natively on the platform and externally.

You’ll find some similarities to SEO for your website.

Optimising Your YouTube Videos

1. Keyword Research

Before you even pick a topic and start filming your YouTube video, do some keyword research. Not only will this help you identify topics that users are interested in, it will help you write a script that uses relevant search phrases. By identifying keywords at this stage, you’ll be able to hyper-focus your content so that it best helps your target audience.

You should select a main keyword that will be the focus of your video, and then choose a number of secondary keywords relevant to the topic. You should use these within the video itself, and in the description, title, and even file name of your video. Remember to incorporate these naturally to avoid keyword stuffing.

2. Optimise Your Script

You’ve done your keyword research, so use that to influence your script. Chances are that, if you’re speaking on a certain topic, then you’ll cover a number of keywords naturally. However, by being more deliberate, you can also incorporate long-tail keywords and specific relevant search phrases into your script. When you come to add closed captions and a transcript, these inclusions will help you rank better for your chosen keywords.

3. Pick a Relevant Filename

Like for images on your website, the filename of your YouTube video is important. Select a name that’s relevant and descriptive, ideally using your target keyword. Separate words with a hyphen and be as specific as you can without making the filename too long: four or five words should be enough.

4. Optimise Your Title and Description

Refer back to your keyword research to write a relevant title and description.

As always, avoid keyword stuffing, but make sure your target phrases and its variations are used enough to make your topic clear. Both your title and description should be unique, relevant to your video, and engaging.

YouTube recommends using the first couple of sentences of your description should:

  • highlight your topic,
  • include your keywords,
  • use natural language, and
  • avoid irrelevant keywords.

You can repeat important phrases from your title in your description to really emphasise them.

5. Hashtags

Hashtags on YouTube

Still a relatively new feature on YouTube, hashtags help users find content relevant to a certain topic.

When you use hashtags (which take the format #topic) in your description, they will be highlighted and linked. Don’t overdo it, but pick a few that are relevant to your video. YouTube will stop linking them when you have over 15 hashtags, but you’re usually best using just four or five anyway.

Hashtags can be particularly useful if your video covers a trending topic.

6. Tags

YouTube tags are specific words or short phrases that are relevant to your video. They’re a great way of providing YouTube and Google with even more information about your upload.

Pick tags that are – as always – relevant and descriptive, and include them in the order of importance: the most important tags go first. Your keyword research will be a big help here, and you have up to 500 characters to use (though don’t feel that you have to use the full character count).

7. Cards and End Screens

Screenshot of video with cards from Yoga with Adriene

Ultimately, YouTube wants to keep users on the platform, and if you help them do this, then they’ll reward you with better visibility for your video. Cards and end screens are one way to do this.

Cards can be placed throughout the video and appear in the top right corner of the screen. When clicked on, they provide the user with further information and direct them to take an action such as navigating to another video. You can use up to five cards per video and can place them at any point of time.

If, for example, your video is a tutorial for knitting a hat, and you mention knitting a scarf at 45 seconds in, you can have a card appear at that point directing the user to your scarf tutorial.

End screens appear right at the end of your video and encourage the watcher to move onto something else. This could either be your channel, another playlist, a different video or an external link. You can also include a call to action to subscribe to your channel.

When putting your video together, it’s worth leaving some blank space at the end so you can overlay an end screen and give users plenty of chance to take these actions.

8. Closed Captions

Although video is usually more engaging and more popular than written content, it’s often watched without sound. Just think of people watching videos on the train on their commute, or in a crowded room. They may be interested in your content but, if they can’t watch without sound, they may not watch at all.

Using closed captions not only makes it easier for people to watch your videos, wherever they are, it also makes them more accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

A third benefit to using closed captions is that search engines, though they can’t watch videos, can crawl the caption text. If you’ve written a good script, the additional text from the captions will provide Google and others with keyword-rich information about your video, helping improve your rankings.

While YouTube will automatically generate closed captions, they’re usually not very accurate, and nonsense captions can actually harm your SEO. It’s better to replace or edit these with the correct text. You can do this either by editing the auto-generated captions directly, uploading your own SRT file, or using a professional video transcription service.

9. Include a Transcript

Including a transcript of your video provides yet another opportunity to highlight your target keywords and to make your video more accessible. A transcript allows users to skim through the topic if they need to, and you can make it easier for them to find relevant information by using timestamps to link sections of text with sections of video.

If you have a script for your video already, then your work here is almost done.

You can also use the transcript to create repurposed content such as blogs, website copy, and infographics.

10. Include Timestamps

YouTube timestamps on Google

If your video can be segmented into shorter parts, then consider using timestamps. These are links in your description that  help users skip to content they’re particularly interested in. As well as making for a better user experience, Google can use these timestamps to show searchers more specifically relevant answers to their queries, which leads to higher engagement.

11. Engage With Users

YouTube is a social channel, and user engagement is one of the factors that tells the platform how your video should rank. Encourage likes, shares and comments by asking for them, either directly or indirectly.

You should also try to stimulate discussion and respond to everyone who takes the time to comment. You can further increase engagement by asking open-ended questions that prompt further discussion.

12. Pick a Publishing Time

When you publish your video can affect the amount of engagement you receive. This can take a bit of experimenting, but try and discover when your target audience is online. Use the Analytics tool in YouTube Studio to see when users watch your videos, and adjust your posting schedule to suit.

13. Promote Your Content

You don’t have to solely rely on search to get your videos noticed. If you already have an audience elsewhere – such as on a blog, newsletter, or social media – make sure you share new posts with them. People who have already shown an interest in your content by following you or signing up to a newsletter are low-hanging fruit. They’re more likely to engage with your video content and will help boost your engagement rate.


As the world’s second largest search engine, YouTube provides a lot of opportunity for engaging current followers, building new audiences, and making sales. By optimising your videos, you can reach relevant users and make use one of the most engaging styles of content available. Make sure you give your video the best chance by using descriptive and relevant text, implementing calls to action, and engaging your audience.

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