Google Can’t Figure Out What YouTube Is
Is YouTube a music service or a movie rental store? A space for news outlets or beauty vloggers? Is it for video essays or game streamers? For years, Google has wanted the answer to be a simple, “Yes, all of the above.” Today’s shutdown of the YouTube Gaming hub shows the actual answer is a lot fuzzier than that.
YouTube occupies a unique position somewhere between a TV-like service — where it gets its name — and a social network. Its core function of hosting and sharing videos is useful to a wide variety of communities with wildly different needs. Some of these needs are even contradictory, such as shopping channels that need to monetize products, versus news channels that attempt to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest. Google has attempted to reconcile this clashing platform identity in recent years by spinning off pieces into independent hubs, but it’s unclear if that strategy is working or if it helps those who get left behind.
YouTube Gaming was meant to be one of those hubs. When it first launched in 2015, YouTube Gaming was a separate mobile and web app designed to leverage the massive gaming community already on YouTube and turn it into a competitor to Twitch, which is owned by Amazon. At the time, YouTube proper lacked features that would make the site better for creators making gaming content, like the ability to browse livestreams or explore all videos related to a single game. A separate app would let Google more carefully serve the needs of this one community without changing the entire site for everyone else.
There was just one problem: People didn’t use it. In September of 2018, Google told The Verge, “There was confusion with the gaming app,” which led users to skip it. They just used the main YouTube app instead. While 200 million users watch gaming content on the main YouTube app every month, so few used the separate app that Google has decided to get rid of it entirely. Now the features the app spawned are being moved to a tucked away section of YouTube.
Google faces a similar problem with music on its platform. A 2017 study estimated that 46% of all the time spent streaming music across 13 major world markets came from YouTube. That’s more than all other music streaming services, like Spotify or Apple Music, combined. This has led to a reported $6 billion in ad revenue paid out to the music industry as of September 2018, though some reports suggest that YouTube pays out less than other streaming services. In 2018, after accidentally conquering the music market, Google tried to do it intentionally by launching YouTube Music. Eventually, the company says, this will replace the existing Google Play Music service.
At least, that’s the plan anyway. Google said YouTube Music would get all the best features of its older music service, but in the year since, progress has been slow. One of Google Play Music’s defining features (aside from a cumbersome name) is the ability to upload your own music library and play it across your devices. So far, this feature hasn’t come to YouTube Music. In a statement to OneZero, Google confirmed it still plans to build this feature, but didn’t provide a timeline for the transition. Meanwhile, the app can play music files stored locally on your phone, but it’s a far cry from what Google’s own standalone music service can already do.
Someday, the company may decide to change course on YouTube Music, just as it did with YouTube Gaming. The company doesn’t break down how or where it makes money through YouTube, so it’s hard for an outside observer to tell what niches within the platform — with its two billion monthly users — are worthwhile to Google.
But this conflict points to a larger issue Google faces with serving its users. The features and infrastructure required by one community may differ drastically from another. Someone who uses YouTube for music doesn’t need to browse livestreamed games, while someone who watches for games doesn’t really need to upload their own music. Neither might want to rent movies on the platform.
YouTube also plays host to niches that get far less attention. Dr. Sophie Bishop, Teaching Fellow in Digital Economy and Society at King’s College London, has studied the beauty vlogging community. For beauty vloggers, she explains, features like being able to sell or link to specific products would benefit creators, but so far Google hasn’t provided them.
“What Instagram has provided that YouTube hasn’t is this shoppable experience… in a way that’s reasonably attractive and complies with different kinds of regulation,” says Bishop. “Because of the way the beauty communities make their money, there needs to be an ability to purchase or label products.”
Instagram allows its creators to sell products directly on its platform, complete with browsable photos and a full checkout system. Google has announced that YouTube will eventually get similar functionality as part of a broader update to its Google Shopping platform. While this might help product reviewers, YouTube’s algorithm can work against them. In recent years, the site has prioritized longer watch times, making lengthier videos more successful than shorter ones. Longer videos means better placement in the algorithm, more opportunities for mid-roll ads, and more money for creators. This benefits educators, video essayists, and other creators who relish more time to discuss topics at length. Yet it works against people who make tutorials or succinct product reviews.
“It takes as long as it takes to put makeup on your face,” explains Bishop. To meet the length requirements, beauty vloggers have increased the number of products they review or the time it takes to get ready, which doesn’t always go over as well. “Beauty bloggers are coming under quite a lot of scrutiny because of the environmental implications of literally ordering 30 dresses [just to try] them on.”
Then there’s yet another underserved YouTube segment: news outlets. Journalistic organizations don’t need to sell products with flashy checkout features. Instead, they’re better served by features that help users find context and more information about the story they’re presented. Google has demonstrated it wants to take news more seriously by adding some new features to YouTube to help users get more information on a news story. However, the problem is that these features only show up when a user actively searches for political topics. If users aren’t searching for news, these features are invisible.
Dr. Grant Blank of the Oxford Internet Institute suggests that better search tools could help keep viewers out of political echo chambers, but not if users don’t know about them. According to Blank’s research on the topic, users who seek out information on a topic tend to find a broader view on a subject and, in doing so, avoid falling into echo chambers. This falls apart when users don’t know how to find that information in the first place. “Many people are reluctant to use tools like search, because they feel like they don’t know how to use them,” Blank explains. “So simple, basic search training on how to find things would be helpful for lots of people.”
Another Google product, Google News, has a better version of what YouTube has attempted to do. A feature called Full Coverage collects related stories from a variety of news sources so readers can get a clearer picture of the topic. The button to activate this feature is attached to most stories, right in the app. “The [Full Coverage] button appears to pay more attention to the political slant of the particular new organization, if there is one,” explains Blank. “It seems to me that would tend to reduce the possibility that people would find themselves in echo chambers.”
YouTube has no such feature. You can find related videos on the sidebar just like on any other video, but they might not be germane to the topic or represent a wide range of perspectives like the Full Coverage feature. Depending on your viewing history, you might not even get videos on the topic at all. If a viewer lands on a Fox News video about the president, there may be no way for that viewer to find any coverage from another outlet unless they’re specifically seeking it out.
This reveals the fundamental conflict within YouTube. By trying to be a music service, a gaming platform, a product review site, a news broadcast, and so many other products at once, it can’t excel at being any of them. Even Google’s other products are often better at serving the niches that exist within the video platform. The YouTube Gaming app may be gone, but it will live in the sidebar as a stark reminder that, below the surface, YouTube’s communities have needs that a generic, massive platform just can’t meet.
Google Can’t Figure Out What YouTube Is
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