May 26, 2019

How YouTube's Algorithm Works

“Of all the videos posted to YouTube, there is one that the platform recommends more than any other right now, according to a Pew Research study published Wednesday. That video is called “Bath Song | +More Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs – Cocomelon (ABCkidTV).” YouTube recommended it more than 650 times among the 696,468 suggestions that Pew tracked, substantially more than the second-place finisher: the video for Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” featuring Cardi B.

The new study took 174,117 random walks through the YouTube universe. It used software to generate the hundreds of thousands of suggestions by selecting a random video to start and then automatically picking from among the top five videos that were recommended afterward. A recommended video was selected four times in sequence for each YouTube journey. It’s a fascinating, if not complete, methodology for exploring one of the world’s most important algorithmic systems, and one that’s remained largely opaque to researchers, let alone its users.

Kids’ videos dominated the 10-most-recommended posts. “Bath Song” was joined by “Learn Colors with Spiderman 3D w Trucks Cars Surprise Toys Play Doh for Children,” “Wheels on the Bus | +More Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs – Cocomelon (ABCkidTV),” and “Learn Shapes with Police Truck – Rectangle Tyres Assemby – Cartoon Animation for Children.” All are keyword-salad video titles that, apparently, make sense to the algorithm, if not to parents. Zoomed in close, the recommendations look strange. Why should the algorithm favor these particular videos out of all the kid content on YouTube?”

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