Are Views From YouTube’s TrueView Ads True Views?

Some grumble about rankings, others cheer

YouTube channel rankings are fast becoming the newest obsession among the Web video crowd. And while those rankings have brought a lot of excitement to the burgeoning medium, they’re also causing plenty of angst, with some grumbling that the views game is rigged.

One point of contention is that networks like Machinima or Shut Up Cartoons can legitimately purchase views using YouTube’s TrueView ad product. Say a Machinima viewer watches a 30-second spot for a show from the Wigs channel—that counts as a view for Wigs.

“We’ve seen entire videos from other channels run before our videos from beginning to end,” said Rafi Fine, of The Fine Brothers YouTube channel, which has 2 million subscribers. “That’s like stealing our popularity. They’re fake views passed off as having a fan base. It's like having your show play as a commercial for American Idol, and counting all the people who saw the commercial as actual viewers for your show.”

Blip CEO Kelly Day noted that there are also “individuals and companies in the ecosystem that have found ways to take advantage of automated systems based on algorithms” but said YouTube “has historically been pretty adamant” about reacting to them. “Although,” she added, “like any other system, you can only minimize, not eliminate completely.”

Some are more that a little wary. Said one prominent YouTube programmer: “YouTube is ripe for gamesmanship in general."

YouTube, which declined to comment, sees nothing wrong with encouraging channels to promote their shows with advertising—just like every other medium. Officials note that users can skip TrueView ads after five seconds, so anybody who’s electing to sit through more than five seconds is likely pretty interested in that content. Plus, TrueView ads are delivered based on keywords purchased via an auction; YouTube officials insist there would be no way to buy enough views to crack the top 10 rankings. A source close to YouTube called the idea that you can "game" the platform "nonsense." 

One creator agreed. Doing some back-of-the-envelope math, he estimated that generating the level of views to make a big difference in the rankings might cost a channel $100,000 a week. “You’re definitely not making that money back in advertising, let alone profiting. This is really much ado about nothing,” he said.

While the channel strategy is off to a tremendous start for YouTube (over the past few months viewers are watching 10 million more hours of video per day), even the most successful partners bring in high six or eight figures in revenue, making it fairly hard to spend exorbidant amounts on marketing.

Rankings, however, can be volatile. For example, the channel YOMYOMF emerged in July, landing in Deadline's top 10. As of a few weeks ago it had slid to No. 37 on the list. Does that meant the Korean-American-targeted network stopped running ads? Maybe (the company declined to comment). But insiders also noted that the channel debuted with help from YouTube stars Ryan Higa and Kevin Jumba and they’re not always featured in everything YOMYOMF does.

Or consider the female-aimed Wigs. In June the channel broke out with 3.5 million views, landing it in fourth place on Deadline’s chart.

In August Wigs had slid to 64th place, generating just 134,000 views. It then climbed up again, to 54th place a few weeks ago with 238,000 views. Is Wigs doing a lot of TrueView ads? Executives behind the project, which features stars like Julia Stiles, Jennifer Garner and America Ferrera, declined to comment. But as one insider noted, Wigs has gotten lots of press, which could certainly account for view spikes.

Another way to generate lots of weekly views: get lucky and roll out a viral video. That causes a lot more fluctuation in the rankings than any ads, argued one creator. In fact, this exec contends that viral video views can actually serve as empty calories; the best indicator of a channel's long-term success is evidence of user engagement, like comments and sharing. “The idea of using ads to jump up in the rankings, there’s no way it makes sense. You’re going to get less money back,” the exec said.

Perhaps, but some argue that even a temporary boost in a channel's rankings can influence viewers and advertisers, making it look as though there is more of an audience for a particular channel than there is.

There are ways to tell how many views a particular channel derives from TrueView ads—if the channel allows it. But partners can opt to hide their own analytics, something that irks Benny Fine.

"Regardless of whether you're an established or unestablished channel, if you're using TrueView, you should be transparent about where the views are coming from, especially as we start seeing more ranking systems appear," Fine said. "TrueView dilutes those rating systems and the reason for even having them becomes irrelevant at that point."