Is the YouTube Algorithm Becoming Too Predictable?

Is the YouTube Algorithm Becoming Too Predictable?

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Let me first say that I LOVE YouTube. I’ve been a fan of the space since ’07 and I absolutely love the way new media has changed my viewing habits for the better. But I’m running into a little problem – I’m suddenly finding the YouTube algorithms a bit lacking and are making the content, despite the pure volume of options, stale. Let me explain.

YouTube’s Front Page: Time For a Better User Experience 

There are two places I go to grab content when I visit YouTube: the subscription box and the front page. More on the subscription box later, but the front page has turned into a massive disappointment outside of the search functionality, which is available on every page.

I don’t have a problem with a recommended section, or any other section, being created by an algorithm, but the front page absolutely needs to have a section curated by a human being. If it requires a little more control, have a group of curators and let viewers select whose version of the front page they want or maybe even let an algorithm pair up whose selections are most successful with which viewers.

YouTube Front PageAs a primarily subscription box viewer, the next few sections of the front page tend to be completely unnecessary for me. I watch nearly everything I expect I would enjoy in my sub box, so there is little reason to offer me up the opportunity to watch more from somebody. Further, when I watch their videos, THEY tell me what of theirs they’d like me to watch next. Seeing as I’ve already established I’d rather have human curated content, it only makes sense I’d prefer to take their recommendations over “the machine”.

There is certain content that I’ll specifically look for on YouTube at certain times. For example, I like to start my day with some “Good Mythical Morning”. Not only am I watching it daily, but I’m specifically watching it in the morning when it is brand new. There is no sense in recommending it to me when I’m not planning to watch it. When I want to see these things, I find them and watch them and am not very likely to watch them outside of when I am actively looking for them. I like to use the front page as a discovery tool, not a supplemental subscription box.

One bright spot to the front page, especially with my love of music, has to be the music playlist recommendations. I feel like YouTube put in some great effort when building the algorithm here because it tends to suggest not only songs I would enjoy, but the playlist continues on fairly well for at least 5 iterations.

YouTube Algorithm: What Video Content is Doing Well? 

YouTube and any user-generated media on demand has been replacing television for years. A part of that is certainly long form content, but the overwhelming emphasis on long form content on YouTube is undermining the ability to make shorter content. This is evidenced by the recent success of platforms like Snapchat and Vine which would have found a difficult time succeeding were it not for the emphasis on long form content on YouTube. The TV and movie industry’s dominance on long form content actually spurned the need for a site like YouTube. But as YouTube rewards longer content, they are artificially creating a need for their replacement.

The emphasis on watch time is causing many creators to either abandon their channels altogether or change their focus into something that will succeed better under the current conditions. In essence, YouTube is controlling what gets created by how they reward that content and it’s putting the squeeze on short form content.

Let me preface this next bit by saying I believe that all content can and should have a place on YouTube. But any time the algorithm begins to get too predictable, it leads to creators finding ways to influence the system in ways detrimental to the site. I’m critically examining these facets of the site not to determine the value of their content, but to beg the question of whether or not they are the content against which all others should be judged.

Music on YouTube: An Unfair Advantage?

According to Tubular data, in the last 365 days, 19 out of the top 20 most watched videos on YouTube are music video content. The #1 slot Goes (of course) to Taylor Swift and her ‘Blank Space’ video which to date, has generated over 1.1 billion views, and 10.7 million engagements:

I don’t have a problem with music on YouTube. In fact, it’s one of my favorite aspects of the site. But music is really a category all unto itself, and the amount of money being poured into boosting music videos, combined with the fact they are completed and then naturally lead to another song just by the way the system is built, leads to an unfair advantage for this genre.

YouTube needs to be more than just VEVO’s distribution platform. One way to help in this department would be to make the “Browse Channels” feature and “Categories” more front and center.

Gaming Videos: Encouraging Passive Viewing?

There is certainly an art form to a well done gaming video, specifically the 20+ minute let’s play videos that are prevalent on the site today. But gaming videos and podcasts benefit from being very similar to talk radio in that they serve a dual purpose as become background noise. When that happens, a viewer spends a long time on the site, whether they are actually paying attention and interacting or not.

Incentivizing extended videos encourages creators to make videos long for length sake. Conversely, a site like Vine is encouraging innovation and creativity with their limit on video length. The problem with rewarding longer content like this is that it promotes a less engaged viewer who has turned off their active mind and is just going with the flow. YouTube should be about an active, two-way conversation.

In August 2015, YouTube gaming giants TheDiamondMinecart and PewDiePie generated 702 million views between them, both creators very often create long-form content (i.e. 10 minutes plus) which does extraordinarily well for them.

ASMR Videos: For Head Tingle Addicts

This is an interesting blip on the radar, but one I thought was worth mentioning because it is something that I would say is good that is benefiting from the current algorithms. If you’re unfamiliar with ASMR it stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and it’s essentially a physical phenomenon, closely associated with a very calming and pleasant feeling enjoyed by certain sounds and close personal attention. The interesting thing is that these videos tend to be longer in length because the people seeking them out enjoy watching them and wish them to never end. I actually respond to ASMR videos and love the community that has built up around them.

Never heard of ASMR videos? These one has notched up 3.1 million views, adding to a total of 148.4 million views generated for the GentleWhispering YouTube channel:

This is a great example of niche content gaining in popularity from the current set of algorithms. But like Gaming and some other long form content, it can be easily ignored and still serve its purpose. Part of what makes YouTube unique is the ability to have and learn from interacting with other people. Content that can be consumed without promoting that connection should not be the benchmark for all other content.

Compilation Videos: Great Background Noise

 Compilation videos seem to be more successful than ever. Collections of Vines, shorter video clips and even hour-long looped children’s music are succeeding very well on the site. Rather than a viewer going on a journey of discovering new and interesting content, they are packaging all of it into something that is just enough to get the viewer to zone out and watch the whole thing.Certainly many of these clips are useful or entertaining, but because so many are put together in one “show”, viewers are more likely to wait through a bad clip to see if the next one is better. This content is a direct reflection of the state of the algorithms. More and longer is better and quality can suffer at the expense of length.

Perhaps the best example of this is ‘Wheels on the Bus‘ from LittleBabyBum (another one of YouTube’s most watched channels). This one video has generated a mind-blowing 902.2 million views but its engagement rate is relatively low at just 675K across YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Now this could be for a couple of reasons (a huge paid promotional push for example which very often leads to high views but low engagement), but it’s more than likely the result of adults turning the video on for their little ones to enjoy – and neither demographic having any inclination to like, share or comment on the content.

long form compilation childrens content youtube
Wheels on the Bus – YouTube Views and Social Engagement Oct 2015 (Data via Tubular)

Bring Back the Balance Please YouTube

The current algorithm is focusing too heavily on length of video and viewing session. It becomes more about how creators trick viewers into staying on the site, rather than how to make entertaining and beneficial videos regardless of the length.

Where are the “most viewed” and “most subscribed” lists? Gone. The reason I’d expect to hear is that YouTube wanted to place an emphasis on watch time so they created algorithms to sort for and reward that. But I suspect the truth of the matter has to do more with advertising. The dollars spent by channels as advertising would make the vast majority of the list populated by ads and music videos. The 13th most viewed video uploaded in the last 90 days is the advertisement by Tai Lopez from his garage. You know which one I’m talking about. For a few days it dominated most pre-rolls to the annoyance of viewers and each of those counted as a view. It has over 64 million views and less than 6K engagements. So, clearly the video is being watched but not really shared or liked, and comments have been turned off so even less engagement there.

So while I am recommending that YouTube bring back the most subscribed and most viewed list, there is some housekeeping that needs to be done. They’ve been protecting themselves from view and subscriber bots by placing emphasis on watch time, but it’s time they report these numbers correctly. A paid for view is not a view. Or if YouTube is going to count it as a view, they need to include two numbers, organic and paid views. The most viewed list needs to be made of videos that rank highest in organic views to aid as a discovery tool and a balance to the watch/session time based algorithms. I realize paying for views can give a video a boost and therefore inflate the organic views number, but these rankings are an important detail being left out of the discovery process.

How does rewarding long form content and watch time reward high quality content? It doesn’t inherently do that actually. YouTube rewards content that keeps users on the site longer, so if it doesn’t push to other content or have a long duration, it will under-perform against content that does. This creates a system in which creators are incentivized to create long content that keeps viewers hooked in and not necessarily something that is intrinsically entertaining.

YouTube used to be full of unique content that couldn’t be found anywhere else, but as it positions itself to replace or work with TV style content, it’s losing the identity that made it uniquely entertaining. The algorithms currently in place are pushing forward content that is drastically changing the identity of the site. The back and forth conversations that made the site so unique are falling to the wayside in favor of advertised content and videos inflated for length.


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