YouTube Is Changing Your Least Favorite Feature: Annotations

New 'cards' are mobile-ready for video makers

YouTube is finally retooling a troublesome feature, making it more useful for content producers and hopefully a bit less frustrating for users.

Annotations, YouTube's clickable pop-ups (which, to be clear, are still available for the moment) are being joined in the company's toolbox by a new feature called "cards," which, to every advertiser's delight (and most users' chagrin) will now work on mobile.

The good news is that cards will take up a relatively minimal amount of video real estate when they first appear, showing teaser text that, if clicked, will pop up more information. At later points in the clip, a small "i" will indicate the presence of cards.

"You can think of cards like an evolution of annotations," YouTube writes on its official partner blog. "They can inform your viewers about other videos, merch, playlists, websites and more." YouTube, of course, wants to keep its partners happy, because its business is providing and maintaining foolproof architecture and selling advertising against the content created using it. Last year the company pulled in $43.7 billion in ad revenue ($12.5 billion from AdSense, $31.2 billion from its own sites, like YouTube and the search page).

Fred Seibert, founder and CEO of Frederator (which produces cartoons for kids both on traditional TV and YouTube), is upbeat about the changes, though he says not all users are particularly good at using the annotations feature.

"Overuse of annotations is not your friend," he said. "We really believe in a judicious use of annotations, but clearly many people don't." (YouTube creators: please take note of Frederator's handy guide outlining how not to be terrible at annotations.)

But Seibert is also pretty bullish on the concept generally—it allows a creator's products to interlock, and if you do it right, he says, users thank you for it. "It makes possible relationships in videos that really could never happen any other way," he says. "Let's say you had a traditional TV series like Breaking Bad and your compny also had a lot of other films that Brian Cranston was in—the notion that a Breaking Bad video could lead you to other videos that Brian was in, say Malcolm in the Middle, is a great thing."

And make no mistake, that opportunity to inter-promote is badly needed in its new form. "The challenge has been that, as more and more viewers have gone mobile, we haven't been able to take advantage of that proposition," Seibert said—the old annotations have extremely limited functionality on mobile devices. "I think 40 percent of our viewership is on mobile, and annotations are minimized for them. And now they're going to be able to participate on all levels."

Of course, the new tools could simply provide new ways to intrude, but that, ultimately, will help decide whose content rises to the top and whose is weighed down by too much promotion. "The proof of this," Seibert noted, "is always in the viewer."