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YouTube’s Trending section puts creators at a huge disadvantage over big brands

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Study collected data on more than 40,000 videos

YouTube creators need to get millions more views than late-night TV shows in order to appear in YouTube’s Trending section, according to a study conducted by a YouTube channel popular among creators. The Trending section appears on YouTube’s homepage and can potentially direct thousands of views to a video, but YouTube seems to make it far harder for individuals to be featured than for large brands.

Using data scrapped from 40,000 videos, the study found that creators, like Logan Paul, need to reach about 11 million views on a video before it hits the Trending section. Comparatively, segments from TV shows like The Tonight Show only need a couple hundred thousand views.

“No matter how often [Paul] uploads, he’s a lot less likely to trend frequently than someone like ESPN, whose barrier to Trending is about 500,000 views,” says Stephen, who goes by his first name and ran the study for his analysis channel Coffee Break.

The difference is vast — Paul trended four times over the roughly 18-month period that Stephen scrapped data from, while ESPN trended 85 times. Stephen noticed something similar for channels that YouTube’s internal system categorizes as news: 95 percent of news that appears on Trending is from traditional media. Creators like Philip DeFranco, who was awarded funding by Google as part of an initiative to create better news channels on YouTube, have to hit a far higher view threshold to appear on Trending.

“It paints a very clear picture of what’s going on with Trending,” Stephen told The Verge. “YouTube sees it as a place to land people on advertiser friendly content. And creators see a place for viral works to be spotlighted. The difference is so clear.”

YouTube creators have demanded the company do a better job of keeping Trending balanced, both because it drives views and represents the ethos of the platform. Many worry that YouTube is overly favoring traditional media, like TV networks, despite creators being crucial to the platform’s success. But YouTube’s creators are also a higher risk because some produce edgy content that can draw negative attention to the platform and scare off advertisers. Leaning on channels that have reputations for being responsible is brand safety, Stephen said.

Executives at YouTube have said the company is careful about what videos end up on Trending. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in a recent letter to creators that they’re “especially careful about the safety of these videos,” ensuring “they don’t contain profanity or mature content.” Wojcicki also admitted the company could do better, promising creators that 50 percent of the section would be creator content going forward. A YouTube representative pointed The Verge to Wojcicki’s letter when asked for comment on the video.

YouTubers understand the company’s predicament. Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, who has a reputation among mainstream media as one of YouTube’s most controversial creators, said in his own video that it’s impossible for YouTube as an organization to know whether every YouTube creator is going to consistently produce ad-friendly content. Curating the Trending tab to keep advertisers happy is just business, Kjellberg argued.

What was interesting to Kjellberg, however, is how Trending worked internationally. Stephen compared Trending videos in the United States and Canada — two countries with similar cultures, time zones, and languages. Whereas Kjellberg trended 45 times in Canada, he only trended once in the United States.

The finding suggests that moderation operates differently in the US than it does in Canada. “That means someone at YouTube went, ‘PewDiePie? Get him out of here,’” Kjellberg said in his video. “It’s not about edginess. It’s about what YouTube deems safe content. But I wonder with those 44 videos — what was it about those videos that were unsafe if that was the case?”

It’s possibly because Kjellberg is one of YouTube’s most infamously unsafe creators, having made headlines for anti-Semitic content. He theorizes the discrepancy between the two countries is a direct result of more moderators being hired to ensure all videos that appear are widely appropriate. It’s a sign that YouTube is working on its promise to tackle many of the issues that have come up in the past, including allowing harmful content to appear on the Trending list. Stephen supports YouTube’s efforts to battle harmful content; he just worries that many creators’ original, ad-friendly videos are being passed over.

“They’re significantly underestimating the importance of their creators and how their creators feel,” Stephen said. “I think they would do well to invest meaningfully in creators long term.”

YouTube agrees. The company previously told The Verge that its “core content strategy and investment remains centered on our endemic creators.”

But for now, creators take slights like being left off the Trending list as a sign that they’re being left behind.