Creators are making longer videos to cater to the YouTube algorithm

YouTube has frustrated digital video creators for not always displaying their videos to the people who subscribe to their channels and for sometimes pulling ads from their videos that people do see. So YouTube stars are increasingly responding by extending the lengths of their videos in order to curry favor with YouTube’s watch-time-minded recommendation algorithm and to be able to feature more ads per video.

“I’ve figured out ways to monetize and to take advantage of the power of the algorithm,” said Cody Ko, a comedian whose main YouTube channel claims more than 1.1 million subscribers. “Obviously, it preferences longer videos, throwing multiple mid-rolls in, which tons of people do now.” Last year, Ko typically posted videos to his channel that lasted between six and seven minutes. But as YouTube cracked down on which videos were eligible to carry ads and removed ads from some of Ko’s, he upped the average length of his videos to range from 12 to 16 minutes.

The move by creators to produce longer videos “is very much correlated to over the last two years when YouTube switched the recommendation engine and search and discovery [to push new channels and creators to viewers],” said Rafi Fine, CEO of Fine Brothers Entertainment, an entertainment company that produces videos and shows for digital platforms like YouTube as well as for traditional TV and whose main YouTube channel counts more than 17 million subscribers.

While YouTube’s algorithm has prioritized watch time since 2012, creators have seen it shift toward favoring videos that people are likely to click on, but from channels they don’t subscribe to over videos from subscribed channels, Fine said. But if creators can demonstrate that their audiences spend more time on YouTube in order to watch their longer videos, they may be able to retrain YouTube’s algorithm to promote their videos in order to generate the desired watch time.

Other creators and media companies are similarly lengthening the videos they upload to YouTube. Remi Cruz, a lifestyle vlogger with 2.3 million subscribers on YouTube, usually posts 20-minute videos, she said. Gwen Miller, vp of content strategy at digital video network Kin Community, said 10 to 16 minutes has become the sweet spot for YouTube videos. And Whistle Sports, a digital video network that works with individual creators and produces its own original programming, tries to stick between the seven- and 12-minute range.

“We’re trying to generate watch time because we know that’s favorable to YouTube,” said Josh Grunberg, Whistle Sports’ head of community development and growth. “We know that they want meaningful views.”

Meanwhile, the move to increasingly insert mid-roll ads within these longer videos coincides with YouTube’s push over the past year to more aggressively restrict ads from running against some videos in an effort to reduce its brand-safety problems. A video may still risk being stripped of ads, but creators can hedge their bets by attaching more ads to a video so that a monetized view can generate more money to offset a demonetized view.

Once Ko’s videos began to exceed 10 minutes, he could run multiple ads in the middle of videos in order to make more money per view. Sixty percent of viewers probably won’t even be shown an ad, said Ko, “but it ups the chance that someone will get an ad, so the [per-video revenue] goes up, and you make more money for your video.”

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YouTube algorithm favors scandalous content

YouTube’s acquisition by Google in 2005 brought a new focus on search to the video sharing company. The shift heralded the birth of the YouTube algorithm. The algorithm helped YouTube morph from an engine driving embedded video at other sites into the top destination for video online.

YouTube’s algorithm dictates what videos to recommend, suggest, relate, and play next, as well as which videos appear in your search results. Over the years it has evolved to maximize ‘watch time’ over ‘views.’ The algorithm helped YouTube win a Peabody award for “promoting democracy,” and Entertainment weekly heralded it as a ‘safe home’ for creators. It was during this time that it came to dominate online video by a very wide margin.

Today, YouTube’s algorithm can predict what users will select even before they know themselves. Personalization and more advanced predictive analytics keep users glued to their screens. As Jim McFadden, the technical head behind ‘suggested videos’ on YouTube, put it:

“We also wanted to serve the needs of people when they didn’t necessarily know what they wanted to look for.”

The approach has been very successful. Speaking at Google IO in 2017, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said that users watched more than a billion hours of video per day.

With an algorithm as powerful as this, comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, YouTube doesn’t seem able to measure up.

YouTube’s algorithm a big part of the problem

Though incredibly successful at keeping users watching on its platform, YouTube’s success has come at a cost. Though it is effective at choosing videos which are entertaining it is very poor at picking which videos are factual or appropriate.

According to an ex-YouTube insider, the recommendation algorithm has promoted divisive clips and conspiracy videos. For example, during the shooting in Las Vegas, the top video search results on YouTube claimed it was a government conspiracy. Despite all the outrage, the same thing happened again after the recent Florida shooting.

Kids content is not safe either. As nScreenMedia pointed out, many top kids’ channels on YouTube were found to contain disturbing and inappropriate content. One such channel was Toyfreaks, which had 8.53 million subscribers at the time of its removal. Though YouTube apologized for both these and other incidents inappropriate content is still making it onto its kids’ channel.

The biggest controversy, however, came with One of YouTube’s top creators, Logan Paul. A video he posted showed him laughing and joking around a dead body in Japan’s suicide forest. Despite the backlash and negative press it received, and perhaps partly because of it, the video made it onto YouTube’s most watched videos trending page. The video was deleted, and YouTube and Paul apologized profusely. Unfortunately for them, copies of the original video were re-uploaded. Once again, the copies appeared on YouTube’s trending page with one ranked 2nd and another 20th.

YouTube’s algorithm will not change despite the backlash

YouTube has been trying to fix the problem. It has hired thousands of human reviewers to monitor large channels. However, this “whack-a-mole” strategy, of removing videos after there is an uproar, does little to prevent the video from being uploaded in the first place.

YouTube seems unable to deliver a technical or business solution to prevent the cycle of posting of offensive material, public apology, removal, and re-upload.

The bitter truth is that no matter how misinformed, disturbing, or controversial these videos may have been they were watched by millions of people! YouTube’s algorithm prioritizes all that watch time over the appropriateness of the content.

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