By now, it seems, everyone is aware of some portion of the changes that YouTube has implemented over the past few weeks that will soon or already has affected creators’ and artists’ ability to monetize their video and/or channels. To put it mildly…it’s a clusterfuck.
How did we get here?
Let’s give a brief history: in the beginning, YouTube was an internet website where anyone with an internet connection with video content could upload their video (user generated content) and make it available for others on the internet to watch (stream). This was absolutely free; however, there were costs involved in providing such functionality and, as a result, Youtube begin monetizing the content by placing ads on video. Over time, YouTube became the number one destination on the web to discover and share video content. A then burgeoning Google had become quite good at monetizing online content by automating the process of placing and selling ads in search results and websites. Recognized the huge potential of YouTube (the size of its audience) and its challenges with scaling the platform (due to lack of capital) acquired the little video engine that could, making it the home for online video. Under Google’s ownership, YouTube blossomed and became an earning powerhouse, utilizing their ever- improving ad technology to monetize the user-generated content. For years, any video on YouTube had advertising slapped on it and, for the most part, people were happy. Users were able to upload their video content online and not worry about it not being accessible or disappearing, Google/YouTube was able to cover the cost of providing such a valuable service to the world, and advertisers of all types were able put new eyes on their brands and products.
However, on March 17th, 2017, the Times of London published an article about advertisements run by the British government and private sector companies appearing on videos made in support of terrorist organizations. This was a big issue because, in essence, YouTube was making money from terrorist propaganda and the horrors therein. After the story broke, Google released a blog post stating that they will immediately begin working to ensure that ads would not appear next to what the advertiser deemed offensive and undesirable content. Google, being one of the most valuable tech companies in the world with some of the best engineers on payroll, was taken at their word. If they could essentially monetize the entire internet, they could surely figure out a way to solve this issue.
Not long after a the fix was announced, the Wall Street Journal reported that ads for companies like Coca-Cola, Amazon, and Microsoft were still being displayed on offensive content…like videos of kids that attracted sexual predators, those centered around racist and Anti-Semetic views, homophobia, and a plethora of others.
It’s been damn near a year and Google/YouTube is still trying to figure out how to address this issue while also accomplishing their business objectives. The issue of monetization, maintaining an open platform, and trying to address the concerns of multi-nation and multi-billion dollar advertisers are what have been driving all of the recent challenges that are affecting creators of all types in regards to monetizing their content on YouTube.
Analysis of all the Recent YouTube Changes
March 20, 2017
This was the first blog post after the damning report from the Times of London report and the first of many actions by Google to address the concerns of advertisers. Stating that, in regards hate speech, “We will be implementing broader demonetization policies around videos that are perceived to be hateful or inflammatory. This includes removing ads more effectively from content that is harassing or attacking people based on their race, religion, gender or similar categories,” the site began its first round of demonetization efforts on the platform. They also announce additional tools for advertisers to control what content their ads appear on and an accelerated appeals process for creators who feel their content was unjustly demonetized.
April 6, 2017
Less than a month later, YouTube announces a change to the criteria that needed to be met in order to join the YouTube Partner Program (to monetize your channel). They start off with the standard corporate fluff and then focus on what was one was the main reason for the change.
“Today, more creators are making a living on YouTube than ever before. However, with this growth we’ve started seeing cases of abuse where great, original content is re-uploaded by others who try to earn revenue from it.”
They talk about how they made it easier to report such channels and then they announce the most biggest change of 2017, the monetization threshold; the platform would no longer serve ads on YPP videos until the channel reached ten thousand lifetime views. This change likely had a little to do with the workload that was being required in order to handle the escalate appeal process. YouTube probably came to the conclusion that, if they reduce the number of people in YPP, then that would also reduce the number of appeals they have to deal with. The wording they use to further justify this change indicates that they possibly thought they wouldn’t have to implement any additional restrictions on YPP, as they state, “By keeping the threshold to ten thousand views, we also ensure there will be minimal impact on our aspiring creators.” The wording here is very interesting in hindsight, seeing that they’ve since gone much further and did not “keep” the threshold at that number.
June 1, 2017
The most interesting thing about the next blog post from YouTube is the date. When the Times of London story broke, it was explosive and for a business of YouTube’s size and required immediate and forceful response to address the concerns of advertisers. By this point–with little to show in satisfactory results–advertisers had begun suspending their accounts, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars a day in revenue for both creators and the platform. Confidence in the platform’s ability to fix the problem had meant minimal initial drop-offs in capital, but the grace period was over and the advertisers weren’t taking any more excuses.
During this time, YouTube was making a decent amount of money for the platform were livid about the dramatic cuts to their earnings as a result of the advertising boycotts and the aggressive move to address advertisers concerns resulted in a massive demonetization effort across the platform. Of course, YouTube was aware of the affects of these efforts recognized they may not have communicated it well to the creators on the platform, acknowledging, “We recognize there is still more work to do. We know we have to improve our communications to you, our creators. We also need to meet our commitment to our advertisers by ensuring their ads only appear against the content THEY think is suitable for their brands.”
One of the biggest issues creators had about the efforts were that some videos that they created YouTube stated were ineligible for monetization were nonetheless still deemed suitable to be on the platform and for consumers to watch. Google addressed this issue head on by stating “…while it remains the case that videos that comply with our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines can remain on the platform, our advertiser-friendly content guidelines focus on what is specifically eligible for advertising. Content that does not comply with AdSense Policies and our ad-friendly guidelines will not be eligible for advertising.”
The agonizing balancing act that YouTube was managing here is very obvious. They were trying to remain on-brand as an open platform for a plethora of content while still trying to police said content in a way that laid the some of the responsibility on another part of the larger company. Some may that making money from YouTube is a business and, in business, you need to have a through understanding of every aspect, but that can be a bit much to ask of small content creators and those unaffiliated with larger production companies. Besides, even if you understand all these policies and made content that was suitable not only for the platform but also advertisers, you could still see a reduction in earnings as the change may alienate subscribers and send them elsewhere.
August 7, 2017
Two months later YouTube announces features for their creators to help them understand the monetization status of each video as well as a re-introduction of the appeal process with a quick and easy way to tell if your appeal was approved or not. The new icons they announced and their meanings are as follows:
Indicates videos that can earn money from the broadest set of advertisers and from YouTube Red.
Indicates videos are still eligible to earn money in YouTube Red, but will have limited or no ads because the video has been classified as either not suitable for all advertisers, or has been fully demonetized because we believe it doesn’t meet our advertising guidelines.
These indicators were added as a way to address transparency concerns and enable creators to appeal the misclassification of their video(s). This was very welcoming news and showed that YouTube was hard at work at not only addressing advertiser concerns but also those content creators.
December 4th 2017
In their end of the year post, YouTube reflected on the preceding year and signaled that additional changes regarding YouTube monetization were ahead in 2018.
The community had gotten accustomed to changes, advertisers had resumed advertising on the platform, creators realized that the new criteria to monetize their channels, while more challenging, wasn’t impossible and most people were happy. But YouTube still had challenges and issues on the operational end as a result of the various changes they made throughout the year since the advertising boycott; towards the end of this blog post they made it clear that there was more changes to come, centering around providing more manual curation prevent falsely flagging videos for containing guideline-breaking content as well as ad fail-safes to make sure advertisement ends up where it should.
January 16, 2018
YouTube opened this post by reflecting on the challenging year that was 2017, stating, “2017 marked a tough year for many of you, with several issues affecting our community and the revenue earned from advertising through the YouTube Partner Program (YYP),” before assuring creators that they would spend 2018 finding ways to stabilize their revenue. Of course, what they were really doing is trying to find a way to stabilize thier own revenue…by offering less to the creators overall.
They raised the minimal monetization standard they’d set only a eight month earlier from ten thousand views to four thousand hours of watch time over the course of 12 months and a thousand subscribers. YouTube claims that these new requires “…will allow [them] to significantly improve [their] ability to identify creators who contribute positively to [the] community and help drive more ad revenue to them.” The post continues to say that, on February 20th, after a 30-day grace period, that this standard will be applied across all platform participants, meaning “channels with fewer than 1,000 subscribers or 4,000 watch hours will no longer be able to earn money on YouTube.”
This is a monumental challenge, especially when it comes to the watch hours. Previous changes in recommendations (i.e., from “total views” to “watch time” when it comes to prioritization) has meant that creators who were able to game the system with short, snappy videos were somewhat hampered when it came to discovery by new views. This change can further hinder them as channels that specialize in videos that run less than 10 minutes are likely not going to be able to meet the watch hours threshold if they don’t already have subscribers that number in the upper hundred thousands.
It has been a rough year for YouTube and their creators in regards to revenue stability. The changes they made throughout the last year and has lead to the current situation of YouTube monetization. The company obviously is very engaged in trying to find a reasonable solution that benefits a larger selection of creators as well as advertisers but, for now, YouTube has a lot of ad inventory that can’t be used and creators and artists have a lot of quality content for which they have no clear path to obtain monetary compensation. This kind of imbalance could lead to an exodus of creators and leave the platform in a similar position to when it had the advertisers’ boycott. Everyone should probably expect more announcements and more changes throughout the rest of 2018 as the YouTube struggles to find a comfortable position in the world it has built for itself.