The Optimal YouTube Video Description: A Reel How-To Guide

The Optimal YouTube Video Description: A Reel How-To Guide

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Alongside a compelling custom thumbnail, and a title with a killer hook, an enticing video description is almost certainly guaranteed to attract eyeballs. But so many brands and creators fail to take full advantage of this basic feature, and therefore miss out on a huge opportunity to engage with their viewers, rise in search rankings, and drive conversions. We’re constantly surprised by the sheer number of video descriptions that are left blank, or contain just a few words, like this one:

bad-youtube-descriptionYouTube gives you 5000 characters to play with in the description box, and so why not use some. There really is no excuse for neglecting this field when it often takes just a few minutes to write copy that will not only benefit the viewer, but will also give YouTube some much needed extra information about your video content. A well thought-out description will help with video SEO and will give the viewer an outline of the content – leading to a longer watch time, and, hopefully, more engagement.

How-to Optimize YouTube Video Descriptions

A Few Facts about YouTube Description Field:

The description field on the YouTube watch page helps the viewer – as well as YouTube itself – understand what your video is about. Only around 157 characters are shown on the watch page above the ‘Show More’ button, so it makes sense to confirm the content of the video here. Think of it as an ad that will entice the viewer into watching.

snippet description youtube

YouTube gives creators 5000 characters to use in this field, but the first couple of sentences are hugely important because they will be pulled through and used as meta data (along with the title and thumbnail) for the following:

  • Google Universal Search Snippets ~100 Characters
  • YouTube Search Results ~ 125 Characters
  • YouTube API
  • Facebook, Twitter, and other social media

How We Optimized ReelSEO’s Most Viewed Video

YOUTUBE1There are over 460 public videos on the ReelSEO YouTube channel, the majority of which are how-tos and tutorials. Obviously, being the world’s leading guide to online video marketing, we need to put our money where our mouth is when it it comes to video optimization. We try to walk-the-walk with most of our videos but admittedly, even we could spend more time on some of our video descriptions.

For this post, we will use the example of one of our best performing videos on YouTube – “How to Create a Storyboard for Your Video Shoot“. We optimized the video, and the accompanying blog post, for the main keywords ‘storyboard’, and ‘storyboarding’, as well as semantically-related key terms. The results? The video appears (at time of writing) at #2 in the YouTube search results for ‘storyboard‘, and at #5 for ‘storyboarding’.

youtube rankings storyboard

On Google, the video appears at #1 for the term ‘how to storyboard a video‘. Not bad for a search query that returns 9.5 million results, right? It’s also the only video result that appears on the front page for that query.

The video is well-produced, and answers a specific question, so we knew that it would do well, but we also optimized the metadata to give the video every chance of being found when people were searching about tutorials on that subject. At time of writing, the video has generated 142,600 views, and significantly contributes to our YouTube channel’s overall Watch Time. Now, let’s take a look at what we did with the description.

how to storyboard a video universal search results google

Video Description Essentials: Linking to Website(s)

YOUTUBE1Apart from certain annotations (fundraising annotations & associated website annotations), the description field on the YouTube watch page is really the one place that you can link off-platform. This is an invaluable feature for brands, and creators, because they get the opportunity to drive traffic to a specific landing page elsewhere. This is doubly important for e-commerce videos, where the video acts as a trailer for a product, or a service. After all, 73% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase after watching a video, so link to a page that lets them do that.

Outbound Website Links: there are two schools of thought regarding the best place to position your first outbound link.

  1. YouTube-Centric Success Strategy: If your strategy is to create and grow a thriving YouTube presence which conforms to YouTube best practices, and performs it’s best within YouTube’s platform/environment — then you should already know that it’s critically important to encourage engagement, and further drive video viewing within YouTube itself.  This all ties back to what’s known as “YouTube Watch Time”, and it’s YouTube’s most important ranking factor for discovery. If you still want to provide links off-YouTube, then we would encourage you to add the link below the fold.
  2. However, if your strategy is to drive viewers to your website or any other URLs, we would encourage you to include the link as high up in the description as you can. But, PLEASE BEAR IN MIND, you are guiding the viewer away from YouTube which could ultimately affect your overall performance in YouTube itself.  We also highly encourage you to read our in-depth guide to understanding YouTube’s Watch-Time factor.

At ReelSEO, we make a decision on a video-by-video basis, depending on our goals for that content. For our storyboard video, YouTube Analytics confirms that Google Search traffic (including YouTube) accounts for about 49% views for that video. One of our goals was to encourage traffic back to the landing page on ReelSEO, so we made that blog post URL the first line of the description, to take advantage of the traffic coming from search results.

The majority of the other views come from the video embed on the blog post landing page, or directly from the blog post itself. This sets up a very efficient circle where we can either guide the reader to YouTube from the blog post, or to the blog post from YouTube. We ensured that both were optimized for the keywords we wanted to be found for, so the visitor received the same value from both.

link in youtube description

Be aware that links out from YouTube are no-followed, so you won’t get any precious link juice from them, but they are still insanely valuable in terms of indexing, visibility, and driving traffic to a site. If you have built other assets around a video marketing campaign, then use the description to point the viewer towards them. Oh and always, always use http:// before the URL or it won’t become clickable. Non-clickable link = waste of real estate.

Extra Tip: If your landing page URL is very long, or doesn’t contain any relevant keywords then consider using a URL Shortener like to customize the link. While you’re at it, why not tag and track referral traffic from that YouTube description link? That way, you can confirm just how much traffic that first link sent you.

Video Description Essentials: 200-500 Word Synopsis

YOUTUBE1Now we come to the real meat and potatoes of the description. YouTube provides this field to give you the opportunity to not only ‘sell’ your content to the viewer, but to also provide them with context and extra information. You should use the description box to:

  • Let them know what they are about to watch
  • Give them a reason to watch it
  • Let them know what to expect

We believe a good rule of thumb is that each video should have a uniquely written synopsis, with a minimum of 200 words, to not only create context and value for the viewer, but also for video SEO purposes. The video description field is a goldmine for SEO for all sorts of reasons – but primarily because the 5000 characters provides you with an ability to surround your video with additional relevant text to give context in search.

YouTube is reliant on the text surrounding the video (including closed captions) to identify the topic so that they can return it for the relevant user search query. The more that YouTube knows about your video – because you have told it via your title, tags, and video description, the more confidence they will have to rank it.

YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world (we’re going to keep saying it), and that kind of clout goes a long way with Google, its parent company. The chances are that if the video ranks well within YouTube, then it stands a good chance of appearing in Google’s Universal Search too, just like our storyboard video did.

You should already have a solid marketing strategy based on keyword research so it will be easy to identify which keywords to use in the description. Not just your main keywords either, the description is a great place to optimize for your for long-tail keywords.

There are more than 3.5B searches made on YouTube /month, so use your video description to optimize for your keywords (Tweet this)

YouTube’s Description Snippet: Above the Fold

YouTube will only show around the first 157 characters of your description in its snippets, Google slightly less in its Universal Search results. So, make this first part of your description as engaging, and informative as possible. For the storyboard video, we used the following for our opening paragraph: ▻ Ever wonder what storyboarding is and why you need it to create a video?

This fits the snippet length nicely, and gives the viewer enough of a taster that they (hopefully) want to click through to our watch page.

youtube serp description snippet

The first snippet should be placed above the fold (that is, visible to all viewers without the need to click the ‘Show More’ button). Ideally, the keywords included should mirror the title of your video.

youtube description above the fold

Description Snippet: Below the Fold

So you have hopefully captured the viewer’s attention with your snippet. Now it’s time to expand your description with some extra information. For our storyboard video, we used the following:

full snippet youtube description

That description is 154 words. We use some of the transcript further down in the description (see below) so decided to keep the 2nd paragraph a little shorter. If you re not building out your video description with other elements, than we recommend using another 100-400 words here.

NOTE: We wrote up a post around the video – it would be very easy to cut and paste that into the YouTube video description, but the SEO Gods frown upon this behavior so take the time to re-write so you have that original content.

Video Description Essential: Include Strong Calls to Action

YOUTUBE1Annotations are brilliant for creating call-to-actions, but don’t forget to use the description field to do the same. You can link out to many other places from this box so think about what you want the viewer to do after they have watched the video. You might want to encourage them to do any of the following:

  • Visit a particular landing page on your website
  • Sign up for a special sales offer or promotion
  • Enter a competition
  • Get a free download
  • Subscribe to a podcast (like ReelSEO’s TubeTalk)
  • Visit another channel as part of a cross-promotion
  • Sign up to your newsletter
  • Watch another video (individually or via a Playlist)
  • Connect with you on social media
  • Visit your YouTube channel ‘About Page’


If you only set up one call to action link, it should be to encourage the viewer to subscribe to your YouTube channel. Again, you can (and should) do this via an annotation, but it doesn’t harm to include it again in the description. You can either ask the viewer outright to subscribe and/or paste in the YouTube’s direct to subscribe link:

Subscribe Now!

YOUTUBE1If you are active elsewhere across the internet, them make it easy for viewer to find you. Yes, you may have already included this information on your YouTube ‘About Page’ but you are asking the user to make that extra step to find that info – and they may not have the inclination.

Let the viewer know that they can follow you on social media, and give them the links to your profiles:

youtube social media links

Video Description Essential: Channel Upload Defaults

YOUTUBE1Did you know that your can implement a standard boilerplate template for your video descriptions? Well you can! Just set up automatic default uploads for your descriptions via Video Manager > Channel > Upload Defaults (or follow this link). This will save a ton of time if you publish a lot of content because they will be added to the description for every new upload. It also ensures consistently.

We are very active on social media so we set up our defaults to link out to our profiles on Facebook, Twitter etc. We also added a ‘Subscribe Now’ call to action, as well as a link to our home page:

youtube channel upload defaults

You can also automate other settings within this feature such as tags, ad formats, and categories……

Video Description Essential: Choose the Right Category

YOUTUBE1Selecting a video category as part of your upload is mandatory. At the moment, you have 15 to choose from (see below), and you need to select one as part of the upload process. If you are consistently creating content around a particular theme, then choose a category and stick with it. Obviously, make sure that the category is relevant to the video content you are publishing – how-to videos may be one of the fastest growing verticals on YouTube, but if your content falls squarely in the ‘News and Politics’ section then don’t try and game the system.

  • YouTube’s Categories include: Autos & Vehicles, Comedy, Education, Entertainment, Film & Animation, Gaming, How-to & Style, Music, News & Politics, Nonprofits & Activism, People & Blogs, Pets & Animals, Science & Technology, Sports, and Travel & Events.

Optional Extras: Use Your Video Transcription

YOUTUBE1YouTube gives creators, and marketers 5000 characters to play with in the description field, and you can use these in a number of ways. As we’ve confirmed above, the description box is the ideal location to optimize for your keywords, main and long-tail, so any good, original content here will contribute greatly towards your video SEO strategy.

But don’t just copy and paste from your website, and definitely don’t copy and paste from anywhere else! Take the time to craft some original copy, or do what other savvy marketers do, and use all or part of the video transcript you have created for your content. As you know, YouTube can’t actually ‘read’ the video, so transcripts, or closed captions, help give the video some context. It’s standard practice to upload an SRT file to YouTube to enable subtitles, but why not give YouTube a helping hand and also use the transcript in the description box too.

We enabled closed captions for our storyboard video, but we also used the transcript as part of our original blog post:

video transcript

We didn’t want to use the full copy again in our YouTube description because of duplicate content concerns. However, we pulled out the following paragraph, and added that to the description:

extra information video description youtube

If you haven’t posted the transcript in full elsewhere, then consider using it in the description field.

YOUTUBE1The description field is also the ideal place to link out to other YouTubers who you have collaborated with. YouTube has just made this even easier with the introduction of ‘Creator Credits‘, a feature available for channels with 10K subscribers, that lets you tag others for a particular role.

The storyboard video example from above was created by Stephen Schweickart of VScreen specifically for ReelSEO’s Reel Rebel series, so we tagged him as Executive Producer:

youtube video credits

Optional Extras: Use Chapter Markers for Longer Content

YOUTUBE1If you are uploading long-form content then consider using ‘chapter markers’ to enable your viewers to jump to the content they  want to. Adding these ‘time codes’ is easy – just add (mm:ss) in the description. YouTube will automatically make this a clickable link for the user, and they can skip right to the part they want to watch (and back again).

Our storyboard video comes in at 2:37, and we wouldn’t normally set up chapter markers for a video this short. But, for this example we have, and if you go to the video you can try them out for yourself:

chapter markers youtube description

You can find out more information about chapter markers in this Creator’s Tip video.

Takeaway: Our Top Video Description Tips

YOUTUBE1Hopefully, we have convinced you of the need to spend time crafting a really solid description for every one of your videos. You can – and should – revisit your video descriptions and optimize them if they are missing any information that could help YouTube understand more about your content. We leave you with our top tips from this post:

  • Always use the http:// prefix on any external links
  • Refer to your keyword research when writing copy – especially the long-tail keyterms
  • Use at least a couple of keywords in the opening sentences
  • Always include a strong call to action
  • Link out to your social media profiles
  • Use the transcript of the video if you have one
  • Use chapter markers if your video is long-form
  • It’s is a violation of YouTube’s TOS to use misleading info in your description field – so don’t.


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