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Mark Day in Smiley Intervention

Mark Day, a friend of mine in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been trying to break into stand-up comedy for the past year. Recently, he got a big break by having one of his brief video comic bits — The Smiley Intervention — featured on the front page of YouTube. Not long after getting in the featured spot, his video shot up to 750,000 views, and he got hundreds of new subscribers to his YouTube channel, the home of his videos.

Day is a savvy marketing guy, so I wondered what he had done to win that slot. Did he contact YouTube to tout his videos? Did he pay for the featured slot? No and no. He attributed his success to finding topics that are timely — like George Bush’s backrub of German Chancellor Angela Merkel — and keeping his videos short and (bitter)sweet.

I reached out to a few folks who had videos featured on YouTube’s home page, and they all said they hadn’t contacted YouTube or paid for the slots. However, in one case, video director Brett Mazurek told me he had met with YouTube staff and shown them a trailer for his documentary on Ugandan hip-hop, which was featured on YouTube’s home page earlier this week.

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YouTube itself is relatively opaque about how it chooses home page slots, including the “Featured Videos,” the “Director Videos” in the slot above that, and the various sections along the sidebar to the right of Featured Videos. The only thing that seems clear is that the video in the upper right corner of the home page is usually a paid ad or movie trailer.

Jennifer Nielsen, marketing manager at YouTube, told me that the Featured Videos were never paid slots, but that the Director Videos are from media partners and from users who have free Director accounts (these require registration on the site). She also explained that the videos highlighted in Active Videos and Active Channels on the home page are automatically generated by the system and are not editorially chosen.

“Featured Videos are not paid placements,” Nielsen said via email. “Our editorial team scours the site for the most entertaining, novel and unique content and they are the ones who decide which videos get featured. We also have a paid spot in the upper right hand corner of the site called a Participatory Video Ad (PVA). This is a user-initiated video advertisement with all of the YouTube community features enabled.”

The YouTube blog has had a few posts on the subject of Featured Videos. The editors there solicit video suggestions via email at editor@youtube.com, and say they go through all videos sent their way. At one point, YouTube blogger/editor Mia tried to dispell rumors in the YouTube community about paid slots:

We’ve noticed a rash of videos and commentary claiming that “the only featured videos we’re seeing [on the YouTube home page] are paid advertising videos.” This is totally untrue — anything you see in the box marked “Featured Videos” has been selected by a team of editors who are constantly thinking about what might appeal to you, the users, and trying to balance the types of videos and subject matter seen here. We don’t always nail it, but the intentions are never commercially oriented, we can promise you that.

But those promises fall on deaf ears in the wider YouTube community. Many video-uploaders I contacted were in the dark about how Featured Videos made the cut, and were anxiously awaiting this story to find out more about it. The YouTube blog itself is barely visible on the home page of the site, in a sidebar box titled “What’s New at YouTube.” And the YouTube blog has never explained the other video slots on the home page such as Director Videos, Active Channels and Active Groups.

The problem is that YouTube is not as transparent as it could be about what is featured on its home page, what slots are paid for, and what criteria it uses to choose the editorial picks. YouTube’s new parent company, Google, is famously tight-lipped about how it ranks search results, how it picks sources on Google News and other important decisions that affect the fortunes of many online businesses. YouTube considers itself to be an entertainment destination, taking Google further into the editorial realm.

Hiding the “YouTube juice” — the way videos are featured — could have worse implications for the site than hiding Google juice, because YouTube depends on the contributions of its army of video uploaders who might lose faith in the service if they believe promotional slots are rigged.

Maryrose Dunton, YouTube’s director of product management, explained on the YouTube blog how important user feedback and community are to the site:

Sometimes users make contact with other members of the YouTube team through other various venues — like video responses, groups, youtubetalk.com — or just by guessing our email addresses. As both our site, and our company continues to grow and expand it’s become more important than ever to us that we stay connected to our roots — the YouTube community. We’ve recently started to become much more proactive with reaching out to our members by email, by phone, and even by video (yes video!) to get feedback and have an open, two-way dialogue. We’re focused on constantly working to improve our site and product, and we need your help and feedback to be able to achieve that.

YouTubers Question CBS Videos

In the past year, YouTube has gone from a quirky independent site to a massive video repository and community, owned by Google and partnered with major media companies such as NBC Entertainment, Capitol Records, CBS, and yes, PBS. How those partnerships work remains another mystery to the broader YouTube community, who has complained to outlets such as the New York Post about creeping commercialism.

Lately, CBS has taken heat from various YouTubers, who say that the TV network has bought its way into the “Most Viewed” pages (not to mention censoring negative commenters on its videos). One YouTube user, Tom, wondered why people didn’t just watch CBS on TV, and titled his video commentary, Is CBS Scamming on YouTube?

Phill Flash also made a video pointing out that CBS — “a fine network, a fun network” — had 12 of the 100 “Most Viewed” spots for the day on YouTube on December 7. “I just wanted to point it out,” he says in the video. “I’m not sure if this is a good trend or not. NBC had a good run for awhile, and now I hardly see their clips. Maybe CBS took over, maybe somebody knows the exact reason why…I think it’s actually helping them, especially [David] Letterman and Craig Ferguson [on the ‘Late Late Show’].”

Sure enough, YouTube and CBS touted the success of their partnership in a recent press release , pointing out that CBS had 29.2 million views of their 300 videos from mid-October to mid-November. In the press release, Kevin Donahue, vice president of content for YouTube, is quoted as saying, “We look forward to working with CBS to help them promote their quality programming while bringing timely video content to our user community.”

YouTube’s Nielsen explains that CBS and other media partner content is highlighted in the Director Videos area on the home page and not in the Featured Videos section.

“We help promote all of our content partners including CBS by rotating them through the Director slots on YouTube,” she said. “We also help promote users who are YouTube Directors by rotating their videos into the Director spots.”

One YouTuber posted a clip titled Cheating for Science to see if his auto-refreshing program (basically making the video start over and over again) would boost his video’s view count. As of mid-day yesterday, the boring 30-second clip had 23,000-plus views, apparently a successful hack of the system. But did CBS do something similar to pump up its numbers, with or without YouTube’s assistance?

“Somehow I doubt that,” said CBS spokeswoman Shannon Jacobs when I called her about CBS’s deal with YouTube.

Video blogger Mark Day came to the defense of CBS’s push onto YouTube. “CBS seems to have a blanket deal to put their content up on YouTube, and I think that’s kinda cool,” he said. “I like the Craig Ferguson show that’s on after Letterman, and he doesn’t have the hipster factor that Conan O’Brien has. I think it was smart for CBS to get his nightly monologues up online, and that’s giving him exposure he didn’t really have.”

Strangely enough, a search on YouTube for the term CBS brings up various video rants against CBS and very little content uploaded by CBS itself. Perhaps the fast growth of YouTube and the general chaos of a startup in transition has left these deals in an experimental phase.

Regardless, YouTube needs to follow up on their rhetoric on the blog and be clearer to their community about how and where they are promoting independent content and commercial content that’s paid. Otherwise, its users may well defect to sites such as Break.com, which is currently offering $400 per video and $2,000 per animation highlighted on its home page.

YouTube should be commended for trying to balance the Featured Video picks on its home page, and not making it a completely commercial space. Most YouTubers are realistic about how the company will need income to stay in business.

“I am well aware that YouTube’s hosting costs must be extremely high — somebody has to pay for it in the end, or their service cannot possibly exist,” said Keith Hopkin, who had a featured video on YouTube’s home page back in February. “Here’s an idea: Maybe there should be some sort of independent web director’s guild that puts in a pool of money to pay for elected director’s videos to be featured on YouTube.”

What do you think? Should YouTube be more transparent about home page picks and the way it’s promoting commercial content? How should it balance its need for income with the sensitivities of its online community? Share your thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE: Dana McClintock, vice president for communications at CBS, just got in touch with me to shed a bit more light on how CBS works with YouTube. He confirmed that the Director Videos slot on the home page was the main way YouTube was promoting CBS material.

McClintock found the huge viewership for CBS content on YouTube to be a good sign, and touted YouTube as a great way for CBS to get feedback on its content:

“I’d like to attribute [the big video-view numbers for CBS clips] to the fact that it’s good content,” he said. “If people didn’t like it, they wouldn’t click on it. People are drawn to it. The fact that our content is among the most popular on the site, with all the other great stuff they have up there, is certainly encouraging and interesting.

“We get all kinds of comments [from YouTubers] and they range from very bad to very good. It’s important and vital to interactivity to have a thick skin and understand what the community wants. Just because somebody doesn’t like a piece of programming doesn’t mean you bring production to a screeching halt — far from it. You can have a wide range of criticism. YouTube is great because it generates so much feedback. You can have a pretty good sample size so you can weed out the extreme on either end.”

UPDATE 2: One other thought came to mind while thinking about this story. From a YouTuber’s perspective, it’s good to know how and why YouTube features certain content on its home page both for the sake of transparency and so the user knows how to better promote their home-spun videos.

But for YouTube (and parent Google), the way the deal with CBS works out is an important test case and barometer of deals to come that could be crucial in how YouTube finally moves toward profitability. Those Director Video slots on the home page obviously had a huge effect in driving traffic to CBS and other media partner videos. Part of that is due to the prominent position on the page — up at the top — and part of it is that those slots are a mix of commercial and non-commercial clips.

So YouTube and CBS can tout the partnership as driving tons of views to its videos, perhaps resulting in a bump in ratings for its late-night TV shows. And this could be the way YouTube sells other media partners it’s trying to woo — thereby keeping the video-sharing site out of court in copyright cases potentially brought by those companies.

But the downside of that firehose of traffic from the Director Video slots is that YouTube can’t send people to poor-quality clips that would turn off the community, or they lose some of their value. Worse still, there’s a bit of a deception factor going on, because the Director Videos don’t include much information on them, except for the video’s title, so people can’t inherently tell if they are commercial or not. Plus, the whole section is not in the form of a banner ad or marked as a sponsored area, so people assume they are either random or hand-picked due to good quality.

How YouTube sells this area of the site and discloses the way it works those deals will be of vital importance to both its long-term financial health and the trust it has earned with its home-grown community.