Facebook has a 'view' problem, which is good news for YouTube

Facebook might be generating buzz among video creators and advertisers for its growing video numbers — 4 billion views per day — but YouTube has the platform where it is still safe to assume people are actually watching the content. And as the two companies battle for Web video supremacy, YouTube’s “watch time” metric might be the key differentiator as it tries to fend off its newest and biggest rival.

Of course, watch time already has mattered a great deal to YouTube since at least 2012, when the company famously made a change to its search and recommendations system to focus more on how long people were spending time on its platform rather than the number of videos they were clicking on. The shift has contributed to YouTube’s continued growth, according to Jamie Byrne, director of content strategy at YouTube. “Our mobile user sessions now average 40 minutes [per session],” said Byrne. “Something like that happens when you focus on watch time.”

Overall, watch time has increased dramatically this year, rising 60 percent in the second quarter when compared to the same quarter last year. “That’s faster than in the past three or four years, and this is for a 10-year-old company,” said Byrne.

It’s easy to see why watch time is so important to YouTube, especially now that it has what many perceive to be a true challenger. Facebook counts a view three seconds after a video has started playing. The approach has helped the company drum up huge viewership totals for content natively uploaded to its platform.

YouTube is vague about how it counts views — it can be anywhere from the initial click to play a video to 30 seconds in, depending on a variety of factors — but YouTube has been working hard to convince advertisers the view counter isn’t important, regardless of how prominently it’s placed on video pages. “It’s not the metric you should use to measure your business,” said Byrne. “If you’re optimizing for views, you will make decisions on content that get people to click on thumbnails to drive up the number. Do you want somebody to watch just two seconds, or watch for two minutes?”

Trouble is, the view is an easy stat. “There is definitely a fixation on the actual view,” said Vincent Juarez, principal and media director at Ayzenberg. “I think it also depends on the audience. I’ve heard of situations where, on the analytics side, progressive marketers will look at a variety of KPIs, but when talking to senior management they’ll focus on views.”

To be sure, this is not only a YouTube vs. Facebook problem. When comScore also accepts views after three seconds and social platforms like Vine and Instagram are counting them at six and 15 seconds, the view is hard to define. “It’s why it’s important to look at different metrics and figure out actual engagement that give us a sense of overall sentiment,” said Juarez.

For YouTube, engagement means watch time because it wins at watch time.

A recent blog post by YouTube star and VidCon founder Hank Green demonstrates this perfectly. According to Green, a video he recently uploaded to both YouTube and Facebook generated roughly 300,000 views on the former and 150,000 on the latter. Upon closer look, he noticed that 30 seconds in the YouTube clip still had kept 86 percent of viewers, whereas on Facebook the retention rate had plummeted to 21 percent.

It’s a different story when engagement is measured by likes, comments and shares. A study by video analytics firm Tubular Labs, for instance, found that the average duration of a top Facebook video is 1.5 minutes, but those videos average a 3 percent engagement rate. Top YouTube videos averaged 12 minutes in length but a 0.65 percent engagement rate.

That probably won’t be enough to change perceptions among Web video producers like Green and Fred Seibert who are unsatisfied with various aspects of Facebook’s video business. “An autoplay is not the same thing as a chosen play,” said Seibert, CEO of Frederator Networks, citing another criticism that’s been leveled at the company.

One thing’s for certain, though, the Facebook backlash has begun. “The view is the thing that everyone talks about and it’s the thing creators sell to advertisers in order to make a living,” said Green in another, more fiery post. “Ad agencies and brands are confused enough without Facebook muddying the waters by calling something a view when it is in no way a measure of viewership.”

When reached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson pointed to a blog post written by Facebook video product manager Matt Pakes, who refuted the claim that three seconds was too short to be considered a view. “If you have stayed on a video for at least three seconds, it signals to us that you are not simply scrolling through feed and you’ve shown intent to watch that video,” he said, adding that Facebook also provides detailed metrics so page managers can see viewership levels beyond the public view count.