A History of YouTube’s Search Algorithm: What Content Gets the Best Results?

Joshua Reed

Lead Programmer

Before 2012, YouTube measured success by views and used that as the metric to pay content creators. Even if a video was only viewed for 2 seconds, it would count as a success. Although the hope was likely that this would lead to people building amazing short content that would go viral, it was far more common for people to use “clickbait” titles and thumbnails to get views. Nowhere was this more common than in response videos, with many of the most commercially successful YouTubers deceivingly posting unrelated content just to attract views.

Maybe you didn’t even remember that YouTube had a video response feature given we are going all the way back to when there were literally a handful of content creators with more than 1 million subscribers, but trust us it existed. Originally envisioned as a way for users to engage with videos through videos, the feature ended up being removed in 2013.

To understand why video responses were removed it is important to understand what YouTube’s goal is as a platform. YouTube isn’t looking to be a social platform; it is looking to be an entertainment platform, and response videos made them realize they were measuring their success incorrectly.

On March 15, 2012 YouTube started using View Duration as its success statistic. Videos that were viewed longer were promoted more in search and the content creators of these videos were financially rewarded. This directly combatted short misleading content and made short response videos almost worthless (from a financial perspective). Most response channels died out with no financial incentive to produce content and the remaining response content was rarely of the same quality as other stand-alone videos on the same subject.

One year later the average watch time of videos on YouTube increased 400%, up to 4 minutes, and Video Responses were discontinued in September 2013 due to a .0004% click through rate.

The decision to change how videos were recommended and rewarded didn’t just kill response videos. This was the reason why you no longer see “cute dog video” and instead see “cute dog video compilation”. This was the reason why PewDiePie, the most successful YouTuber currently, made his fortune by recording himself playing video games. YouTube rewards longer content, and the less editing required per video, the more efficient it is to make. Short animations, or short videos laden with special effects are much harder to produce, and are less profitable as an individual content creator.

By looking at this, you can see what kind of content will work best for you as a brand. Because brands are not dependent on ad revenue, they can create videos that are shorter and of higher quality. These videos, when done correctly, will stand out compared to the majority of the content on YouTube.

YouTube’s search algorithm was changed to prevent low-effort video responses from being a primary part of the YouTube platform and led to a complete change across the board in the type of content produced for YouTube.