YouTube’s ‘Time Watched’ signal was implemented because of misleading thumbnail previews


YouTube mysteriously, and without an explanation, changed its recommendation algorithm last month to penalize videos that were garnering a high volume of clicks but weren’t keeping the attention of its viewers. The move may have indicated YouTube’s favoritism for original programming. But during an Ad:Tech panel this week, Laura Lee, Director/Head of Entertainment East Content Partnerships revealed that the decision to implement the Time Watched algorithm came after brainstorming ways to systematically prevent YouTube content creators from gaming its search engine.

The “gaming” she’s referring to is the use of thumbnails that misleadingly advertise videos. Content creators can take any single frame from their video and feature it as a preview thumbnail. These thumbnails proved to be a critical component in luring viewers to click on the video. Any YouTuber can tell you that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have their content discovered on the platform, so creators will take any edge that they can get.

How it works, according to Lee, is that YouTubers will add just five seconds of irrelevant, often lewd or graphic, content for the sole purpose of using one frame from the content as a thumbnail.

“We talked to our product team and did a lot of A/B testing, and we felt that this was a bad user experience on YouTube and the users might not come back,” says Lee. “Part of our tinkering was that we didn’t reward those gaming the system.”

Even some of the upper echelon YouTubers weren’t immune to the update, and felt the initial impact. “All of a sudden some partners were like, ‘hey my view count isn’t as great as it used to be, what’s up with that?’ And not always but sometimes they were gaming the system,” recalls Lee.

She makes sure to point out that this change doesn’t necessarily favor feature length content and it shouldn’t be a logical extension of what content creators do. “Time spent for us could mean someone coming to watch five two minute clips for a total of 10 minutes. Or it could mean watching Machinima’s 19 minute Battlestar Galactica too.”

“We just want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to surface content that’s relevant and very meaningful to the niche user,” Lee adds.

Since YouTube is able to figure out that you’ve watched five two minute videos rather than one 10 minute video, there’s probably a machine learning algorithm behind its search engine. When I asked Lee before the conference if YouTube could confirm that it was tracking its user’s viewing habits for the purpose of recommending targeted content, she neither confirmed nor denied my speculation.

But let’s entertain the theory for a second: It doesn’t take a fortune teller to see that the natural progression for YouTube’s search algorithm will evolve, if it hasn’t already, into an engine for suggesting targeted results. In other words, based on individual viewing habits, soon the same query searched by two different people may suggest two different, but tailored results.

With YouTube maintaining its position as the second largest search engine on the Web, if targeted results become a reality it could have a far-reaching impact for marketers and content creators alike.


Photography News: Instagram’s disappearing likes, the best photos of the year

In this week's Photography News, see why Instagram is testing a version that excludes the number of likes a post gets. Also, see the impressive winners from two photography contests and the latest features coming to the Fujifilm X-T3.

After controversial video, China bans ‘Leica’ on social media

A video that referenced Tiananmen Square got the name of the camera company Leica banned from the social media platform Weibo. Leica says the video wasn't an officially sanctioned promotion.

YouTube Red is now YouTube Premium. What's changed, and should you subscribe?

Thanks to Google, YouTube Red is now YouTube Premium. We explain what exactly a YouTube Premium subscription gets you, how much it costs, and break down if it's a good choice for you.
Smart Home

I have seen the future, and it’s full of salad-making robots

Think that robots bussing tables, tossing salads and baking bread is a futuristic concept? It's actually not as far away as you might think. Robots took center stage at a food robotics summit in San Francisco this week, where they showed…
Social Media

How to download Instagram Stories on iOS, Android, and desktop

Curious about how to save someone's Instagram Story to your phone? Lucky for you, it can be done -- but it does take a few extra steps. Here's what you need to know to save Instagram Stories on both iOS and Android.
Social Media

Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp went down worldwide for 2 hours this morning

Chaos erupted on the internet this morning, as Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp all went down from 6:30 a.m. to approximately 9 a.m. Thousands of users were unable to access the sites or send or receive Whatsapp messages.

Skype screen sharing for mobile will let you share your swipes on dating apps

Skype is prepping the launch of screen sharing for mobile so you can share your swipes on dating apps, shop with buddies, or, perhaps, show a PowerPoint presentation to coworkers. It's in beta just now, but anyone can try it.
Social Media

Facebook toys with mixing Stories and News Feed into one swipeable carousel

Facebook's News Feed could look a lot like Stories if a prototype the social media giant is working on rolls out to users. The design change mixes Stories and News Feed posts into a full-screen slideshow that users swipe left to navigate.
Social Media

No more moon showers as Facebook Messenger’s dark mode gets official rollout

Facebook Messenger launched a dark mode last month, but to activate it you had to message the crescent moon to someone. Now it's been rolled out officially, and it can be accessed in a far more sensible way — via settings.

Twitter has revealed a launch date for its handy hide replies features

Twitter has revealed a launch date for a feature that lets users hide replies to their tweets. The hope is that it will help the original poster filter out offensive or irrelevant content from conversation threads.
Smart Home

Oh, Zuck, no! Facebook rumored to be creating a voice assistant to rival Alexa

Facebook hasn't been a big player in the smart speaker market, but that may be changing: The social media giant is reportedly working on a digital assistant to compete against Alexa and others.
Social Media

Facebook says it unintentionally uploaded email contacts of 1.5 million users

Facebook says that over the last two years it unintentionally uploaded the email contacts of 1.5 million users as they signed up to the social networking service. The process has ended and the email addresses are being deleted.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Facebook data security, Ubisoft helps Notre Dame, and more

Join DT Live as we discuss Facebook security issues, Ubisoft's plan to help rebuild Notre Dame, and more. We are also joined by Emily Teteut of Snap the Gap, Jennifer Sendrow of New York Public Radio, and DJ and producer Zeke Thomas.

Earn more likes on your photos with the best cameras for Instagram

Looking to snap better Instagrams? Instagram doesn't demand high-resolution files, but upgrading your camera can deliver better bokeh and low-light quality. Here our the best cameras for Instagram.