Is YouTube’s trending tab overrated?

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Is YouTube’s trending tab overrated? 

Back in 2019 I wrote an article about how YouTube is rigged against independent creators. In it, I cited research showing that YouTube channels run by mainstream media outlets had a far easier time making it onto YouTube’s trending tab compared to solo YouTubers; this was true even in cases in which videos published by solo YouTubers generated far more views. It’s clear, based on this research, that YouTube is lowering the bar for late night TV shows and cable news channels while reducing the exposure for vloggers and other small creators.

YouTube’s manipulation of the trending tab isn’t the only complaint creators lodge against the company, but it’s one of the ones you hear about most often, which is why I was intrigued by an article written by YouTube star Hank Green titled “Can we Stop Complaining About the Trending Tab Now?

Green makes two main arguments in the piece, one much more convincing than the other.

In the first, he contends that the trending tab is generic by design, in that it’s meant to appeal to an audience that doesn’t visit YouTube that often. In other words, it’s like a gateway drug that will help get more users addicted to the platform, thereby creating a trickle down effect that will boost all YouTubers, big and small:

Trending is for people who either do not yet have a deep relationship with YouTube and its culture, or who are simply less comfortable with a deep relationship with YouTube as a platform and a community. Those people feel more connected to a broader cultural experience, and that is the experience that Trending serves.

Every bit of the YouTube platform is about a personalized, YouTube-specific perspective except trending. It is the one place on the site that is about what’s happening outside of the culture of the platform. And so, yeah, it’s full of movie trailers and talk show Jimmys and Ariana Grande.

If you allowed too many niche, indie YouTubers into the trending tab, this argument goes, then you’ll alienate potential new users who don’t feel like they belong to certain subcultures. To be fair, this is an accusation that’s sometimes lodged at Reddit: that it’s too insular with its memes and rules, which makes the platform less welcome for newcomers. I’ve also heard this argument made about Twitter.

Green’s second argument I found more convincing: the trending tab just really doesn’t matter all that much.

What happens when you visit YouTube’s homepage? You’re served with algorithmically surfaced recommendations based on your past viewing history. I’ve found that the algorithm is highly reactive, meaning whatever niche video I’ve recently reviewed is then reflected in the recommendations the very next time I visit the homepage.

To access the trending tab, you have to click on a tiny button on the lefthand sidebar. “Getting on trending matters, it drives traffic, but not as much as you think,” wrote Green. “I’ve been on every part of the trending page, and unless you’re in the top three, it doesn’t drive significant traffic compared with homepage or sidebar placement.”

Speaking for myself, I almost never click on the trending tab. I can’t imagine it has anything close to the influence of the homepage.

Speaking of worthless social media tabs

Remember the Facebook News tab that got so much press a few months ago? Basically, Facebook aimed to curate handpicked news sources within a single section so it could direct more concentrated attention to authoritative media outlets. It even offered to pay a couple of them several million dollars each for the privilege of including them in the tab, which was the first instance of Facebook paying for content that wasn’t hosted on its platform.

As with most of Facebook’s moves around news, this one brought its own controversies; in this case, Facebook got criticized because it allowed far-right outlets like Breitbart into the News tab. It was bad enough that Breitbart was already seeing millions of shares within Facebook’s Newsfeed, but giving it the imprimatur of a news-specific feed? That was a bridge too far.

As it turns out, we were worrying over mostly nothing. Digiday reports that Facebook hasn’t made the News tab available to most users, and it’s buried pretty deep within the app. Publishers, thus far, are not impressed:

Publishers say that it is difficult to have a firm opinion about how News is faring because they do not have the data necessary to draw any conclusions. Facebook’s product team hasn’t yet made it possible for publishers to distinguish Facebook News referrals from referrals that come from other parts of Facebook, such as news feed. That capability is in the works, according to a source inside Facebook.

“When you don’t know how many people are using it, and what they’re doing, it’s like, ‘What’s the point?’” a source at a second publisher participating in News said. “There are more pressing things to worry about.”

I no longer have the Facebook app on my phone. I went to the browser version on my laptop and spent a few minutes poking around looking for it. If it exists anywhere on there, I couldn’t find it, which means Facebook doesn’t consider the tab ready for primetime. It certainly isn’t the first time Facebook has announced grand ambitions for news only for it to get distracted by other pressing issues.

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