On YouTube, ‘popular’ no longer means the thing everyone’s watching


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In the latest in a series of moves away from its early, freewheeling roots, YouTube has quietly changed the default filter on its highly trafficked main video page from ‘most viewed’ to something called ‘popular.’

Since its inception, YouTube’s ‘most viewed’ page has been the place to find the Web’s hottest -- and, in a sense, most popular -- videos. The area is still available but is sure to become less prominent now that it’s lost the default status.


YouTube has posted no blog entry about the change, and nowhere does it define or explain what ‘Popular’ means (This we know: It doesn’t mean most viewed). In December, when YouTube first introduced what was originally called the ‘most popular’ tab, a spokesman wrote vaguely that ‘most popular incorporates more signals about video related to freshness and activity beyond just a view count.’

But the site will not specify what those signals are. As for freshness, there’s already a ‘rising videos’ filter, which tracks up-and-coming clips -- so it’s more than just that. And there are already filters for most comments, highest rating and most favorited. Is this mysterious new ‘popular’ some kind of hybrid of the above -- or something else completely?

We may never know. In an effort to increase its appeal to advertisers, YouTube has tightened its grip on which videos it allows on its most visible pages, and we can only suspect that this is an extension of that trend -- a trend by which YouTube’s user-facing policies have become less and less transparent. Everyone understands what ‘most viewed’ means, and the clarity of that metric has allowed a meritocracy to develop among YouTube producers: Whoever gets the most views wins. But with a deliberately opaque algorithm deciding which videos to elevate, video makers will no longer know what it takes to get exposure for their content. That’s a worrying prospect for those who have built careers on the success of their YouTube work.

‘Wow ... youtube has changed the default to Most Popular,’ tweeted Marina Orlova, YouTube’s HotforWords. ‘Was nice knowing you all.’

Updated, Feb. 5, 8:49 a.m.: YouTube star Philip ‘sXePhil’ DeFranco writes in to shed some light on the ‘popular’ tab by sharing some info he says YouTube gave him. ‘Think of it as a Most viewed for interesting content. It is a mixture of views, audience attention (how long the viewer watches) and ratings. Why promote content that people aren’t enjoying even after they watch it? Unlike Most Viewed, if someone watches for 10 seconds ... and leaves, [Popular] will not reward the video.’

In other words, it’s one way to minimize the effect of gaming, in which users employ racy thumbnails or video titles to trick viewers into watching less than racy videos -- and the viewers quickly lose interest. This would be a logical explanation that, if true, it seems YouTube could have fit into a blog update.

Also: It appears that last night, after this post was published, YouTube added a new, smaller ‘most viewed’ module to its main video page above the popular area.

-- David Sarno [ follow ]