Rediscovering Online Video: How YouTube Recommends to a Viewer Without an Account

Rediscovering Online Video: How YouTube Recommends to a Viewer Without an Account

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For 2016, I’m undertaking a project to rediscover online video. It’s the end of the first month, and perhaps the most shocking thing I’ve encountered is that I’ve had absolutely no reason to create an account on any social video platform. Not even YouTube. Although I’m not fully immersed in the user experience, I’ve been able to enjoy plenty of content on various platforms without being forced into anything.

Where am I Finding New Video Content?

Overwhelmingly I’m finding new content from the YouTube home page. I simply don’t know where else to go if I can’t use any sources I’ve learned about in the past 10 years. I have found a number of videos from Vimeo and YouTube via the front page of Reddit, but surprisingly I have found very few videos through Facebook and have even stopped checking there as my feeds tend to be devoid of any video content. I also just realized today that there is a trending tab on the front page of YouTube I’ll be using more in the coming weeks. Were it not for writing this article I wouldn’t even have seen it yet as there is nothing to draw my attention up to it.

One place I had overlooked is the power of traditional TV in getting me to online video. In looking for more inspiration for things I can do to find content, I’ve resorted to doing Google and YouTube searches on topics related to whatever is going on. I searched for singer Alessia Cara after her New Year’s Eve performance I watched on DVR and searched out an inspirational speech from coach Tom Coughlin to share with people after I had seen it on Sportscenter during lunch.

Video Discovery via YouTube Homepage

Even in incognito mode, the YouTube home page is tracking my watch history and starting to recommend videos to me. At one point this past week, I happened to binge watch a few videos from The Gregory Brothers and it changed my entire front page into content either by them or related to them. Whoa. I was particularly surprised by this because I stopped watching their content after a half hour or so because I simply had enough, I didn’t want to watch it anymore. Yet here was YouTube, spoon-feeding me more of what I was already set to move on from. I realize that without an account, there isn’t a lot of history or recommendations to go on, but there was a severe lack of variety in the home page that led straight to taking a break from watching anything on the site at all.

There also appears to be really only one section that’s good for content discovery, the first box. But that section only contains 4 videos. One of these comes up as a pretty prominent box, which for the second day in a row had the same video for me. The fact it is the same late night talk show again makes me wonder how much that spot is worth to YouTube, because the video in question isn’t even a full length video but essentially a commercial for The Late Late Show:

Don’t get me wrong, the video is entertaining in and of itself, but to have the most prime positioning on YouTube for two days straight doesn’t seem to serve viewers or the growth of the site.


Along with the prime video box is a banner ad that takes up about 1/3 of the available space on the visible home page, followed by another long bar of videos strictly from Adele or some other single creator. Granted, there is probably a high likelihood that somebody would find Adele pretty amazing and watch one or more of her videos, but that essentially leaves just 5 different creators (and one company) using the entire space of the visible home page for a site that uploads over 500 hours of video per minute. That’s just not enough space for content discovery.

What Am I Clicking On?

The biggest draw so far has got to be interesting thumbnails in the related sidebar on YouTube. Brands and creators have to ensure that they are making rock solid thumbnails and that their meta data makes them related to things people are actually seeking on the site. Closer to half of the content I have watched so far had an interesting title and a thumbnail that drew my attention away from the main video.

Homegrown Video Talent

One thing I’m NOT clicking on is YouTube Creators. They are not prominent at all on the site or in the main places I’ve gone to search out content. I think it speaks to the importance of having a specialized community or place you post your content to gain traction and exposure. You cannot simply rely on platforms to promote you, that’s your job, not theirs! For YouTube in particular, this is a bit of a double edged sword, as YouTubers are the ambassadors for the site and inspire others to create more content for the site as well. For me, this makes YouTube have a responsibility to promote people making content specifically for the site, but that is not reflected in the home page.

In fact, there is only one channel I’ve seen so far that I would even consider homegrown talent and that would be The Gregory Brothers. I only stumbled upon them due to falling down a YouTube tunnel of related videos that started with a viral news clip I saw on Facebook and ended with me watching Bed Intruder. I’ve noticed a definite lack of promotion for YouTube talent, which is a shame. It often can take multiple exposures to a creator to earn a subscription and even more for a devoted fan and I’m simply not getting exposed to them the way YouTube is currently operating.

Issues with YouTube Autoplay

Earlier last year, I endorsed YouTube having autoplay enabled by default. I still enjoy the feature, but I do have some issue with it now that I’m not allowed to rely on my networks. It scrolls to the next video way too quickly. I’ve found myself clicking off of content that doesn’t fire up a new entertaining video immediately. As a result, I’d actually recommend keeping end frames short so viewers don’t have a reason to jump. But the side effect is that there is less engagement, or reason to sign up for the site at all, before I go on to the next video. Having a verbal call to action is a must with the quick autoplay timers. I don’t have much time to hit the like button, share the video, or even go down into the comments. I’m not pausing the video to go back, I’m just pushing onward. But if that next video isn’t amazing, I’m often ending my viewing session and closing the browser entirely as a “newer viewer” to the site.

My first impression of this project is that it’s actually pretty fun. Trying to find new content without relying on who and what I know is quite the adventure. But it’s also interesting to see how much the industry has geared their content and their sites to be optimized for their users and not necessarily new users. Of the major platforms I tried to visit directly, YouTube was the only one that served me content without me needing to sign up for the site.


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