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How to Hire Freelance Writers in 5 Steps (Ahrefs’ Process)

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How to Hire Freelance Writers in 5 Steps (Ahrefs' Process)

If you’ve ever tried to hire freelance writers, you probably ended up with thousands of applications.

This usually leads to you asking yourself two questions: 

  1. How do I choose the best ones?
  2. How will I even have time to filter through that many applications?

In this post, you’ll learn how we set up a process to answer these questions.

Step 1. Create an application form

Most job listings tell applicants to email the hiring manager their cover letter and resume. That works well when looking for full-time hires but not for freelance positions because they often attract hundreds or thousands of applicants. 

There’s just no way you can review that many resumes without losing it. As a result, suitable applicants often slip through the net and you miss out on great writers. 

One way to solve this problem is to have all applicants apply through a Google Form. 

Here are two reasons why this makes sense: 

  1. It helps you vet applicants fast and efficiently – Google Forms funnels applicants into a Google Sheet, so you can review all applicants there instead of sifting through emails. 
  2. It allows you to test writers’ skills and knowledge at scale – You can easily ask questions designed to judge applicants’ knowledge, skills, and experience with the topic at hand.

In terms of what you should ask applicants, I recommend a mix of multiple-choice questions and ones with short answers. Multiple-choice questions help gauge knowledge and experience, whereas “short answer” questions allow you to judge writing ability. 

Here’s one of our multiple-choice questions:

Example of a multiple-choice question in our application process

The answer to this question is something that we expect most experienced SEOs to know. But it may trip up those with less experience. 

Sidenote.

There’s still a bit of “it depends” with this question. But generally speaking, there’s a clear and correct answer that I think most knowledgeable SEOs will choose.

Here’s an example of a “short answer” question: 

Example of a "short answer" question in our application process

We designed this question to help us judge the applicant’s ability to explain things succinctly and accurately.

If you’re curious about our application form, here it is.

Only a handful of these questions are for vetting purposes; the rest are to get basic details like their names, email addresses, Twitter handles, etc. It’s essential to ask for these details, as it’s the only way to get them when applicants aren’t applying by email.

You now need to attract candidates to your application form, which you can do by creating a job listing and posting everywhere you can.

Here are the four things you need to explain:

  1. What you’re looking for – Keep it short. Tell applicants what the position entails.
  2. What skills you require – List everything you expect in applicants. 
  3. Who you are – Give some details about your company. (Keep it short; don’t bore people.) 
  4. How to apply – Send people to your application form. 

There are plenty of job boards where you can submit your listing. We posted to ProBlogger, Swipe Files Job Board (prev. Hey Marketers), our careers page, and a few others.

One of the job boards we posted on

We also posted in a few Slack and Facebook groups.

Given that every applicant goes through the same process, the more places you can post your job listing, the better. 

Every aspect of the vetting process takes place in the Google Sheet. This makes life super easy, as everything is in one place. I recommend splitting the process into automated and manual vetting to make things as quick and efficient as possible. 

Automated vetting

Here, the idea is to disqualify applicants who don’t fit the bill, give a preliminary score to the remaining ones, and clean up the sheet to make manual vetting as quick as possible. Here’s how to do it in three steps. 

A. Disqualify

There’s no point wasting time reviewing applications from folks who can’t follow basic rules or don’t meet basic criteria. So it pays to disqualify them automatically. The beauty of Google Sheets is that you can do this easily with filters and formulas.

You’ll recall that we asked all applicants to define two terms in under 50 words. As we wanted to disqualify those who exceeded the allowed word count, we added two additional columns with formulas to count the number of words in each definition. 

Columns calculating the word count of "short answer" responses

Then we filtered to exclude rows where the definitions were above 50 words.

Filtering out short answers that exceed the specified word count

We then filtered for a few more criteria: 

  • Rate per 1,000 words – We excluded anyone who didn’t put 10–1,000. (This was primarily to exclude applicants who couldn’t follow instructions and gave a price per word.)
  • Years of experience in SEO – We excluded anyone with “<1” year of experience.
  • Have you ever used Ahrefs before? – We excluded those who answered “no.”

B. Score

Next, you want to give each applicant a preliminary score to get a better sense of their knowledge and experience at a glance. 

To do this, we created a formula that checked their answers to our multiple-choice questions, their Ahrefs experience, and whether they still had an active Ahrefs subscription. The result was a score between 0 and 5.

Preliminary applicant score in Google Sheets

C. Simplify

Even with the filters and scores in place, your sheet will be overwhelming because it contains so much data. So it’s worth hiding columns you don’t need for the vetting process, such as applicants’ names and email addresses. This also helps to eliminate potential biases.

For us, we added conditional formatting to our preliminary score to make eyeballing the quality of each applicant easier.

Here’s what we ended up with:

Final applicant sheet

Manual vetting

We skimmed applicants’ preliminary scores and definitions to decide whether they should progress to the next stage of the process. Each applicant took no more than a few seconds, allowing us to vet over 100 applicants per hour.

For example, it only took a second to decide not to continue with this applicant because they defined SEM rather than SEO.

Example of a not-so-good definition from an applicant

For the applicant below, on the other hand, we could tell pretty quickly that it’d be worth giving them a shot. Both of their definitions were accurate and well written, and they scored well on our multiple-choice questions:

Example of a good applicant

To track our decision for each applicant, we added one final column:

Decision column for the applicants

Most people test writers by having them write a test article from a content brief. We do the same but don’t send unique briefs to each applicant. We send them all the same brief. 

Here are three reasons why we recommend this: 

  1. It’s easier to grade their work – You can create a checklist to score writers on the same criteria. 
  2. It’s quicker You don’t have to create a new content brief for each writer.
  3. It can be automated – You can set up systems to send the brief to writers when they hit this stage.

Let’s look at how to ensure tests run smoothly and efficiently. 

A. Explain the deal and get their details

For applicants who pass our initial vetting process, we need to explain the deal for the test article and get their details. We created a template in Gmail for this. 

It explains that we:

  • Want to offer them a paid test article.
  • Pay a flat fee per test article (and how much).
  • Send the same brief to every applicant and that their article won’t be published.
  • Own all the work they produce for us.
  • Pay invoices at the end of the month.
Email we sent to approved applicants

That may seem like information overload, but it’s best to make sure everyone’s on the same page from the beginning.

Our email ends with a link to a Google Form asking for their invoice email address (this is often different from the one they use daily) and how they want to be paid.

Link to the next part of the process in the email we sent to applicants

B. Send the content brief for the test

We show a confirmation message when an applicant submits the Google Form in the previous step. It links them to a Google Doc with the content brief for the test article.

Link to the test job at the end of our Google Form

Here’s what that looks like:

Our content brief for writers

The document also contains instructions that tell the applicant to:

  1. Make a copy of the document.
  2. Write as much or as little as they like (no word count quotas).
  3. Email us the test article and invoice us when they’re done.
  4. Read our content guidelines before they start writing.

I recommend everyone create content guidelines when working with freelance writers. We link to ours in the doc. It explains what we expect regarding style and content.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

Excerpt from our style guidelines
Excerpt from our style guidelines

C. Review their content

Given that you’ll be testing a few writers, you need a fair and consistent way to judge their relative quality. For this, we created a checklist to review and score their efforts quickly.

Here’s an excerpt from our checklist:

Our content checklist for vetting submissions

You can see that we check the article as a whole for a few basics, then review each section in more depth. 

For example, here are a few of our criteria for the definition:

  • Is it written in the correct format (according to our guidelines)?
  • Is it accurate?
  • Is it well written?

In total, there are 30 things on our checklist. Each one equals one point, so we score each applicant out of 30. 

Hiring is the easy part. If an applicant scores well on their test article, we assign them an actual one to write. If that goes well, we give them more.

Here are a few things to look out for when working with freelancers:

  • Quality deterioration – Freelancers can sometimes get lazy or even begin subcontracting work. Both of these things lead to a reduction in quality. 
  • Reliability issues – Life occasionally gets in the way for everyone but watch out for consistent unreliability. 
  • Communication issues – For whatever reason, disappearing off the face of the earth is surprisingly common. 

Don’t hesitate to drop writers if you face these issues. Continuing to work with them will suck your time and energy. 

By that same token, when you come across reliable freelancers who consistently produce high-quality work, treat them well. Great writers are worth their weight in gold, so keep giving them work and review their rates periodically. 

Final thoughts

Hiring freelance writers is easy when you have a system in place. You can even automate many of the steps with tools like Zapier. 

For example, we have zaps for outline requests, logging details, and sending payment requests to our office manager. 

How we automated our freelance application process with Zapier

Got questions? Ping me on Twitter.



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Google’s Web Crawler Fakes Being “Idle” To Render JavaScript

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Google's Web Crawler Fakes Being "Idle" To Render JavaScript

In a recent episode of the Search Off The Record podcast, it was revealed that Google’s rendering system now pretends to be “idle” to trigger certain JavaScript events and improve webpage rendering.

The podcast features Zoe Clifford from Google’s rendering team, who discussed how the company’s web crawlers deal with JavaScript-based sites.

This revelation is insightful for web developers who use such methods to defer content loading.

Google’s “Idle” Trick

Googlebot simulates “idle” states during rendering, which triggers JavaScript events like requestIdleCallback.

Developers use this function to defer loading less critical content until the browser is free from other tasks.

Before this change, Google’s rendering process was so efficient that the browser was always active, causing some websites to fail to load important content.

Clifford explained:

“There was a certain popular video website which I won’t name…which deferred loading any of the page contents until after requestIdleCallback was fired.”

Since the browser was never idle, this event wouldn’t fire, preventing much of the page from loading properly.

Faking Idle Time To Improve Rendering

Google implemented a system where the browser pretends to be idle periodically, even when it’s busy rendering pages.

This tweak ensures that idle callbacks are triggered correctly, allowing pages to fully load their content for indexing.

Importance Of Error Handling

Clifford emphasized the importance of developers implementing graceful error handling in their JavaScript code.

Unhandled errors can lead to blank pages, redirects, or missing content, negatively impacting indexing.

She advised:

“If there is an error, I just try and handle it as gracefully as possible…web development is hard stuff.”

What Does This Mean?

Implications For Web Developers

  • Graceful Error Handling: Implementing graceful error handling ensures pages load as intended, even if certain code elements fail.
  • Cautious Use of Idle Callbacks: While Google has adapted to handle idle callbacks, be wary of over-relying on these functions.

Implications For SEO Professionals

  • Monitoring & Testing: Implement regular website monitoring and testing to identify rendering issues that may impact search visibility.
  • Developer Collaboration: Collaborate with your development team to create user-friendly and search engine-friendly websites.
  • Continuous Learning: Stay updated with the latest developments and best practices in how search engines handle JavaScript, render web pages, and evaluate content.

See also: Google Renders All Pages For Search, Including JavaScript-Heavy Sites

Other Rendering-Related Topics Discussed

The discussion also touched on other rendering-related topics, such as the challenges posed by user agent detection and the handling of JavaScript redirects.

The whole podcast provides valuable insights into web rendering and the steps Google takes to assess pages accurately.

See also: Google Renders All Pages For Search, Including JavaScript-Heavy Sites


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Google’s Indifference To Site Publishers Explained

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Google inadvertently reveals reasons that explain their seeming indifference to publishers hurt by algorithm updates

A publisher named Brandon Saltalamacchia interviewed Google’s SearchLiaison in which he offered hope that quality sites hit by Google’s algorithms may soon see their traffic levels bounce back. But that interview and a recent Google podcast reveal deeper issues that may explain why Google seems indifferent to publishers with every update.

Google Search Relations

Google has a team whose job is to communicate how site owners can do well on Google. So it’s not that Googlers themselves are indifferent to site publishers and creatives. Google provides a lot of feedback to publishers, especially through Google Search Console. The area in which Google is indifferent to publishers is directly in search at its most fundamental level.

Google’s algorithms are built on the premise that it has to provide a good user experience and is internally evaluated to that standard. This creates the situation where from Google’s perspective the algorithm is working the way it should. But from the perspective of website publishers Google’s ranking algorithms are failing. Putting a finger on why that’s happening is what this article is about.

Publishers Are Not Even An Afterthought To Google

The interview by Brandon Saltalamacchia comes against the background of many websites having lost traffic due to Google’s recent algorithm updates. From Google’s point of view their algorithms are working fine for users. But the steady feedback from website publishers is no, it’s not working. Google’s response for the past month is that they’re investigating how to improve.

What all of this reveals is that there is a real disconnect between how Google measures how their algorithms are working and how website publishers experience it in the real world. It may surprise most people to learn that that this disconnect begins with Google’s mission statement to make information “universally accessible and useful”  and ends with the rollout of an algorithm that is tested for metrics that take into account how users experience it but is 100% blind to how publishers experience it.

Some of the complaints about Google’s algorithms:

  • Ranking algorithms for reviews, travel and other topics are favoring big brands over smaller publishers.
  • Google’s decision to firehose traffic at Reddit contributes to the dismantling of the website publishing ecosystem.
  • AI Overviews summarizes web pages and deprives websites of search traffic.

The stated goal for Google’s algorithm decisions is to increase user satisfaction but the problem with that approach is that website publishers are left out of that equation.  Consider this: Google’s Search Quality Raters Guidelines says nothing about checking if big brands are dominating the search results. Zero.

Website publishers aren’t even an afterthought for Google. Publishers are not not considered at any stage of the creation, testing and rollout of ranking algorithms.

Google Historically Doesn’t Focus On Publishers

A remark by Gary Illyes in a recent Search Off The Record indicated that in Gary’s opinion Google is all about the user experience because if search is good for the user then that’ll trickle down to the publishers and will be good for them too.

In the context of Gary explaining whether Google will announce that something is broken in search, Gary emphasized that search relations is focused on the search users and not the publishers who may be suffering from whatever is broken.

John Mueller asked:

“So, is the focus more on what users would see or what site owners would see? Because, as a Search Relations team, we would focus more on site owners. But it sounds like you’re saying, for these issues, we would look at what users would experience.”

Gary Illyes answered:

“So it’s Search Relations, not Site Owners Relations, from Search perspective.”

Google’s Indifference To Publishers

Google’s focus on satisfying search users can in practice turn into indifference toward publishers.  If you read all the Google patents and research papers related to information retrieval (search technology) the one thing that becomes apparent is that the measure of success is always about the users. The impact to site publishers are consistently ignored. That’s why Google Search is perceived as indifferent to site publishers, because publishers have never been a part of the search satisfaction equation.

This is something that publishers and Google may not have wrapped their minds around just yet.

Later on, in the Search Off The Record  podcast, the Googlers specifically discuss how an update is deemed to be working well regardless if a (relatively) small amount of publishers are complaining that Google Search is broken, because what matters is if Google perceives that they are doing the right thing from Google’s perspective.

John said:

“…Sometimes we get feedback after big ranking updates, like core updates, where people are like, “Oh, everything is broken.”

At the 12:06 minute mark of the podcast Gary made light of that kind of feedback:

“Do we? We get feedback like that?”

Mueller responded:

“Well, yeah.”

Then Mueller completed his thought:

“I feel bad for them. I kind of understand that. I think those are the kind of situations where we would look at the examples and be like, “Oh, I see some sites are unhappy with this, but overall we’re doing the right thing from our perspective.”

And Gary responded:

“Right.”

And John asks:

“And then we wouldn’t see it as an issue, right?”

Gary affirmed that Google wouldn’t see it as an issue if a legit publisher loses traffic when overall the algorithm is working as they feel it should.

“Yeah.”

It is precisely that shrugging indifference that a website publisher, Brandon Saltalamacchia, is concerned about and discussed with SearchLiaison in a recent blog post.

Lots of Questions

SearchLiaison asked many questions about how Google could better support content creators, which is notable because Google has a long history of focusing on their user experience but seemingly not also considering what the impact on businesses with an online presence.

That’s a good sign from SearchLiaison but not entirely a surprise because unlike most Googlers, SearchLiaison (aka Danny Sullivan) has decades of experience as a publisher so he knows what it’s like on our side of the search box.

It will be interesting if SearchLiaison’s concern for publishers makes it back to Google in a more profound way so that there’s a better understanding that the Search Ecosystem is greater than Google’s users and encompasses website publishers, too. Algorithm updates should be about more than how they impact users, the updates should also be about how they impact publishers.

Hope For Sites That Lost Traffic

Perhaps the most important news from the interview is that SearchLiaison expressed that there may be changes coming over the next few months that will benefit the publishers who have lost rankings over the past few months of updates.

Brandon wrote:

“One main take away from my conversation with Danny is that he did say to hang on, to keep doing what we are doing and that he’s hopeful that those of us building great websites will see some signs of recovery over the coming months.”

Yet despite those promises from Danny, Brandon didn’t come away with hope.

Brandon wrote:

“I got the sense things won’t change fast, nor anytime soon. “

Read the entire interview:

A Brief Meeting With Google After The Apocalypse

Listen to the Search Off The Record Podcast

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20 Confirmed Facts About YouTube’s Algorithm

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20 Confirmed Facts About YouTube's Algorithm

Instead of counting the number of clicks or views a video gets, YouTube’s algorithms focus on ensuring viewers are happy with what they watch.

This article examines how YouTube’s algorithms work to help users find videos they like and keep them watching for longer.

We’ll explain how YouTube selects videos for different parts of its site, such as the home page and the “up next” suggestions.

We’ll also discuss what makes some videos appear more than others and how YouTube matches videos to each person’s interests.

By breaking this down, we hope to help marketers and YouTubers understand how to work better with YouTube’s system.

A summary of all facts is listed at the end.

Prioritizing Viewer Satisfaction

Early on, YouTube ranked videos based on watch time data, assuming longer view durations correlated with audience satisfaction.

However, they realized that total watch time alone was an incomplete measure, as viewers could still be left unsatisfied.

So, beginning in the early 2010s, YouTube prioritized viewer satisfaction metrics for ranking content across the site.

The algorithms consider signals like:

  • Survey responses directly asking viewers about their satisfaction with recommended videos.
  • Clicks on the “like,” “dislike,” or “not interested” buttons which indicate satisfaction.
  • Overall audience retention metrics like the percentage of videos viewed.
  • User behavior metrics, including what users have watched before (watch history) and what they watch after a video (watch next).

The recommendation algorithms continuously learn from user behavior patterns and explicit satisfaction inputs to identify the best videos to recommend.

How Videos Rank On The Homepage

The YouTube homepage curates and ranks a selection of videos a viewer will most likely watch.

The ranking factors include:

Performance Data

This covers metrics like click-through rates from impressions and average view duration. When shown on its homepages, YouTube uses these traditional viewer behavioral signals to gauge how compelling a video is for other viewers.

Personalized Relevance

Besides performance data, YouTube relies heavily on personalized relevance to customize the homepage feed for each viewer’s unique interests. This personalization is based on insights from their viewing history, subscriptions, and engagement patterns with specific topics or creators.

How YouTube Ranks Suggested Video Recommendations

The suggested videos column is designed to keep viewers engaged by identifying other videos relevant to what they’re currently watching and aligned with their interests.

The ranking factors include:

Video Co-Viewing

YouTube analyzes viewing patterns to understand which videos are frequently watched together or sequentially by the same audience segments. This allows them to recommend related content the viewer will likely watch next.

Topic/Category Matching

The algorithm looks for videos covering topics or categories similar to the video being watched currently to provide tightly relevant suggestions.

Personal Watch History

A viewer’s viewing patterns and history are a strong signal for suggesting videos they’ll likely want to watch again.

Channel Subscriptions

Videos from channels that viewers frequently watch and engage with are prioritized as suggestions to keep them connected to favored creators.

External Ranking Variables

YouTube has acknowledged the following external variables can impact video performance:

  • The overall popularity and competition level for different topics and content categories.
  • Shifting viewer behavior patterns and interest trends in what content they consume.
  • Seasonal effects can influence what types of videos people watch during different times of the year.

Being a small or emerging creator can also be a positive factor, as YouTube tries to get them discovered through recommendations.

The company says it closely monitors success rates for new creators and is working on further advancements like:

  • Leveraging advanced AI language models to better understand content topics and viewer interests.
  • Optimizing the discovery experience with improved layouts and content pathways to reduce “choice paralysis.”

Strategies For Creators

With viewer satisfaction as the overarching goal, this is how creators can maximize the potential of having their videos recommended:

  • Focus on creating content that drives high viewer satisfaction through strong audience retention, positive survey responses, likes/engagement, and low abandon rates.
  • Develop consistent series or sequel videos to increase chances of being suggested for related/sequence views.
  • Utilize playlists, end screens, and linked video prompts to connect your content for extended viewing sessions.
  • Explore creating content in newer formats, such as Shorts, live streams, or podcasts, that may align with changing viewer interests.
  • Monitor performance overall, specifically from your existing subscriber base as a baseline.
  • Don’t get discouraged by initial metrics. YouTube allows videos to continuously find relevant audience segments over time.
  • Pay attention to seasonality trends, competition, and evolving viewer interests, which can all impact recommendations.

In Summary – 20 Key Facts About YouTube’s Algorithm

  1. YouTube has multiple algorithms for different sections (homepage, suggested videos, search, etc.).
  2. The recommendation system powers the homepage and suggested video sections.
  3. The system pulls in videos that are relevant for each viewer.
  4. Maximizing viewer satisfaction is the top priority for rankings.
  5. YouTube uses survey responses, likes, dislikes, and “not interested” clicks to measure satisfaction.
  6. High audience retention percentages signal positive satisfaction.
  7. Homepage rankings combine performance data and personalized relevance.
  8. Performance is based on click-through rates and average view duration.
  9. Personalized relevance factors include watch history, interests, and subscriptions.
  10. Suggested videos prioritize content that is co-viewed by the same audiences.
  11. Videos from subscribed channels are prioritized for suggestions.
  12. Consistent series and sequential videos increase suggestions for related viewing.
  13. Playlists, end screens, and linked videos can extend viewing sessions.
  14. Creating engaging, satisfying content is the core strategy for recommendations.
  15. External factors like competition, trends, and seasonality impact recommendations.
  16. YouTube aims to help new/smaller creators get discovered through recommendations.
  17. AI language models are improving content understanding and personalization.
  18. YouTube optimizes the discovery experience to reduce “choice paralysis.”
  19. Videos can find audiences over time, even if initial metrics are discouraging.
  20. The algorithm focuses on delivering long-term, satisfying experiences for viewer retention.

Insight From Industry Experts

While putting together this article, I reached out to industry experts to ask about their take on YouTube’s algorithms and what’s currently working for them.

Greg Jarboe, the president and co-founder of SEO-PR and author of YouTube and Video Marketing, says:

“The goals of YouTube’s search and discovery system are twofold: to help viewers find the videos they want to watch, and to maximize long-term viewer engagement and satisfaction. So, to optimize your videos for discovery, you should write optimized titles, tags, and descriptions. This has been true since July 2011, when the YouTube Creator Playbook became available to the public for the first time.

However, YouTube changed its algorithm in October 2012 – replacing ‘view count’ with ‘watch time.’ That’s why you need to go beyond optimizing your video’s metadata. You also need to keep viewers watching with a variety of techniques. For starters, you need to create a compelling opening to your videos and then use effective editing techniques to maintain and build interest through the video.

There are other ranking factors, of course, but these are the two most important ones. I’ve used these video SEO best practices to help the Travel Magazine channel increase from just 1,510 to 8.7 million views. And these video SEO techniques help the SonoSite channel grow from 99,529 views to 22.7 million views.

The biggest recent trend is the advent of YouTube Shorts, which is discoverable on the YouTube homepage (in the new Shorts shelf), as well as across other parts of the app. For more details, read “Can YouTube Shorts Be Monetized? Spoiler Alert: Some Already Are!

Brie E. Anderson, an SEO and digital marketing consultant, says:

“In my experience, there are a few things that are really critical when it comes to optimizing for YouTube, most of which won’t be much of a surprise. The first is obviously the keyword you choose to target. It’s really hard to beat out really large and high authority channels, much like it is on Google. That being said, using tools like TubeBuddy can help you get a sense of the keywords you can compete for.

Another big thing is focusing on the SERP for YouTube Search. Your thumbnail has to be attention-grabbing – this is honestly what we test the most and one of the most impactful tests we run. More times than not, you’re looking at a large face, and max four words. But the amount of contrast happening in the thumbnail and how well it explains the topic of the video is the main concern.

Also, adding the ‘chapters’ timestamps can be really helpful. YouTube actually shows these in the SERP, as mentioned in this article.

Lastly, providing your own .srt file with captions can really help YouTube understand what your video is about.

Aside from actual on-video optimizations, I usually encourage people to write blog posts and embed their videos or, at the very least, link to them. This just helps with indexing and building some authority. It also increases the chance that the video will help YOUR SITE rank (as opposed to YouTube).”

Sources: YouTube’s Creator Insider Channel (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), How YouTube Works

More resources: 


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