Youtube's hashtag pages and the long-tail

Youtube's new hashtag pages improve discoverability for search engines and open up a long-tail of content to users.

The longtail is a concept SEOs are very familiar with, but it's also a significant differentiator between traditional and internet economics. In his famous Wired essay, Chris Anderson explains it at the hand Amazon's book sales:

What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are.

Anderson's essay from 2004 was related to e-commerce. It was since then applied to location: Booking helps you find hotels outside of big cities, UBER connects you with drivers near you, wherever you live, Doordash delivers food to any suburb. It was also applied to websites: Google brings traffic to any site, not just those listed in a directory. There are many other areas the internet brought the longtail to: software (G2), merchants (Shopify), or music (Spotify). The internet democratized access to niches and minorities.

Google searches are no different. Shorthead keywords have a lot of search volume but ambiguous intent. Longtail keywords have low search volume with clear intent. In aggregate, longtail queries can sum up to way more searches than shorthead keywords, especially when considering the number of people with specific intent. That brings me to Youtube.

Youtube launches hashtag pages


"YouTube is embracing the hashtag. The company has been quietly working on a new feature that allows users to better discover content using hashtags — either by clicking on a hashtag on YouTube or by typing in a hashtag link directly. Before, these actions would return a mix of content related to the hashtag, but not only those videos where the hashtag had been directly used. Now that’s changing, as YouTube has fully rolled out its new 'hashtag landing pages.'

Going forward, when you click on a hashtag on YouTube, you’ll be taken to a dedicated landing page that contains only videos that are using the hashtag. This page is also sorted to keep the “best” videos at the top, YouTube claimed. The ranking algorithm, however, may need some work as it’s currently surfacing an odd mix of both newer and older videos and seems to be heavily dominated by Indian creator content, in several top categories."
Hashtag pages on Youtube
Hashtag pages on Youtube

Youtube's strategy with hashtag pages is similar to Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, & co: they use categories like hashtags, people, businesses, or locations to structure their vast data indices. Clubhouse does something similar with Interests and Events (/events) right now. I'm actually surprised Youtube hasn't done this sooner.

Structuring content under accessible URLs makes content available to users and search engines. It's vital because UGC platforms and marketplaces often have so much content that finding it through backlinks, the homepage, and XML sitemaps is not as reliable as a solid internal link structure.

Side note: Youtube loads a lot of duplicate content with unoptimized titles on its plate, which makes the doubt that an SEO had their hand in this. It should have.

Youtube's hashtag pages in Google's index
Youtube's hashtag pages in Google's index

Rank = incentive

When you create structure and group content, you build structures that lead to "rank". A video at the top of a hashtag page will be seen more often than one at the bottom - and that's good. A homepage is a feed that has to serve everyone. Platforms either show the most recent and relevant content on it or personalize the homepage. That's good and makes sense, but categories and category pages are the parts of a taxonomy that drive relevance and competition for attention.

Youtube has categories, G2 has categories, and in both cases, it helps users and machines to orient themselves and narrow content further down. It helps them find what they're looking for faster. Ranking on the homepage is either impossible (100% personalization) or unrealistic (because you compete with everyone). Category pages is where it's at. Google, when it started, opened the same opportunity up to billions of sites because ranking for keywords instead of at the top of directories (like Mozilla's DMOZ) is way more economical.

The challenge for platforms is sorting. If the homepage feed is completely personalized, category pages are where content competes for attention. The narrower the playing field, the better you need to be able to sort because relevance is clearly defined. How do you decide what ranks at the top or is the most visible? It's still a hard question.

For tool vendors, hashtag pages are an opportunity to crawl hashtag pages and aggregate the number of channels and videos to display a competition or popularity score.

For users, hashtag pages mean more ways discovery of videos.

Youtube will have to find a way to make hashtag pages discoverable, display relevant content on them, and ensure they provide value. They got the relevance down, but not yet discoverability and optimization. I haven't seen any links between hashtag pages. They're only discoverable through hashtag links on videos, and that's where Youtube misses the point: the goal of the longtail is to bring more niche content to the surface. Let's see if they'll succeed.

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