The emergence of YouTube as an e-commerce selling tool has been well documented on ReelSEO as far back as 2010 with "Video E-Commerce and Video SEO for Retailers". Many experts have blogged about using the power of YouTube to promote products and burnish brands. My employer, Transamerican Auto Parts, already took its YouTube marketing strategy seriously as a tool to bring more conversions from web shoppers visiting our site, When I came on as an SEO Specialist, I pushed the company to take its YouTube strategy seriously as an SEO tool to bring more web surfers to the website in the first place. The company agreed and the results have been positive and quantifiable.

The video department was consistently following all the proven techniques for how to shoot and edit video for YouTube. What was not yet being adopted into the workflow was optimizing the videos once they were uploaded.

In this post, I provide a tutorial with step-by-step instructions and example files, of how to use just one powerful tool to help optimize YouTube videos, Closed Captions.

Background recently took on a distributor with a large share of its business selling jeep winches located in South America. Due to road conditions Jeep winches are popular in that region, especially waterproof winches because of the tropical climate. The distributor asked if 4WD could make its product videos available in Spanish. first gathered quotes from full service solutions like VIA and Transperfect that perform every step from transcription, translation, and overdub to uploading the Spanish language version of the video.

As those solutions were being considered, YouTube announced a new service for automating video caption translation. 4WD decided that experimenting with this new YouTube functionality would be a great way to ease into making videos available in Spanish. This would allow to see how much of a quantifiable difference the translations made in distributor sales.

Why Add Captions?

  • Captions are searchable and increase SEO value.
  • Captions allow users to watch your video at work or other places where having the sound on might not be appropriate.
  • With YouTube’s built in translator, captions files can be added in English and then translated to other languages at the video viewer’s request.

Note: In this tutorial, we're going to show you the proper method to creating a timed-text .SBV (Superbase Form Definition File) closed caption file for YouTube.  With YouTube's auto-transcript feature, you can also upload a plain text version of your transcript which YouTube will then use to create a time-coded closed captions file based off their speech-to-text recognition technologies.  This is a simple way to add closed captions to your YouTube videos but keep in mind that just like machine transcription, it's nowhere near perfect.  If you want to really optimize your closed captions for search, you'll want to create and optimize your own SBV closed caption file as we'll show you below.

Tutorial Materials and Instructions

The example files, including the example video “Smittybilt – X20 10,000 Pound Winch – Jeep Winches & Recovery” are downloadable from this Google Docs folder.

  • Log into your own YouTube channel.
  • Upload the example video to your channel.
  • You will need to stay logged in while completing the closed caption steps.

Adding Captions

Make sure you are logged in to your YouTube channel to complete the steps below using the example video.

Step 1 - Transcribe The Video Onto A Word Processing File

YouTube allows you to skip this step by using YouTube’s “machine transcription.” I would not advise using it. If you have music in your video, if the video has dialogue that takes place outside and the people speaking are not individually mic'd, if people speak over one another, if the people speaking are small children, if the people speaking talk even a tiny bit fast, the machine transcription is going to deliver wildly unreliable results. In fact, it is kind of a fun parlor trick to use the machine transcription just to laugh at what it claims the video dialogue is.

  1. Go to "Smittybilt – X20 10,000 Pound Winch – Jeep Winches & Recovery" video.
  2. Open any word processing file.
  3. Transcribe the dialogue from the video into the word processing file.
  4. When transcribing the video, separate each idea with a carriage return/Enter. This will make it easier to cut and paste the transcribed text into the SVB captioning template.
    Note: Word For Word Transcription Is Not Always Necessary.  It is not necessary to transcribe the dialogue word for word. The way people speak does not always look correct on the written page.
  5. Correct the grammar.
  6. Break up contractions. “You’ll love the new X20 because with it you can’t go wrong” should be transcribed to “You will love the new X20 because with it you cannot go wrong.” Breaking up contractions will help the Google Translator translate the caption file into other languages.
  7. Break up compound sentences. “If you frequently go off-roading in the snow, then the X20 winch is a must-have piece of equipment” should be broken up into “Do you frequently go off-roading in the snow? Then the X20 winch is a must-have piece of equipment.” This will also help Google Translator translate the caption file into other languages.
  8. Do not skip transcribing any jokes or any personal points made by the speaker. These make watching/reading the videos more engaging.
  9. Add keywords wherever it makes sense. Take the sentence above as an example. Replace "the X20 winch is a must have piece of equipment" with "the X20 winch is a must-have Jeep accessory."

Use the product description that is on your e-commerce website as a guide to show you which product features are being highlighted. If the video you are transcribing is long, here is what I would suggest. Don’t bother transcribing the entire video. Watch the video once so you can see which product features are being highlighted at what point in the video. Go to the product description page and copy the product features into the word processing file you are using to transcribe the video.

Step 2 - Add Transcription Text To Template .SBV Caption File

Open the YouTubeSubtitleTemplate.txt file. WebDev-il did an excellent job of explaining what you should notice about the file:

“You'll notice the first line of each new caption has the start time and end time. These times are separated by a comma (no spaces) in the format H:MM:SS.000 with milliseconds after the decimal point. This is followed by a line break and then the text (each line on a new line). A blank line (2 line breaks) indicates the end of the caption and the start of the next time code. This is very important. If you miss this blank line then YouTube doesn't seem to understand your SBV file.”

The first thing that the speaker says in the example video is “Hello, Cole here”. Then he runs right into “Today I want to show you Smittybilt’s X20 ten thousand pound winch.” The dialogue starts at 0:03 in the video and the word "winch" ends at 0:07.

So in the template the first line should be changed from


The second line should be changed from

“Hi, it's Craig here with 4 Wheel Drive Hardware (”
“Hello Cole here from”

The third line should be changed from


The fourth line should be changed from

“4 Wheel Drive Hardware ( has been in business since 1976.”
“Today I want to show you Smittybilt’s X20 ten thousand pound winch.”

Now why start the subtitles at 00:00:02.000 if the dialogue actually started at 0:03 in the video? Why add “from”?

ALSO ►  Top YouTube Video Ads: 10 Strategies Video Marketers Can Learn From Them

We want the viewer to read the entire name of the winch, which is long. So we are going to give the sentence with the name of the winch its own space on the screen. Since the captions are searchable, we should try, whenever it makes sense, to add the name/website of the company at (at least) the beginning and end of the caption file. Any time the company is mentioned, we should type the name of the company and the website address in parenthesis after as it is in the template file:

“4 Wheel Drive Hardware ( has been in business since 1976.”

Keep the captions reasonably close to the time frame in which the words are spoken, but there is no need to be a stickler about it. In the video, from 0:34 to 0:43 the speaker actually says:

“So if your favorite trails have water crossing and mud pits or you frequently go wheeling in the snow or salt water, the Smittybilt X20 is a must have piece of equipment for your rig.”

Open the SmittybiltX20CaptionFile.SBV document to see how the dialogue was cut and pasted from the transcription file to the caption template.

Rather than crowding the screen with all the text of the quote above and potentially getting in the way of images of the X20 winch, I broke the sentence up. The breakup of the complex sentence also helps ensure better results from Google Translator.


Do your favorite trails have water crossings and mud pits?


Do you frequently go wheeling in the snow or salt water?


The Smittybilt X20 winch is a must-have piece of equipment for you rig.

Even though I broke up the sentence, I kept the captions in the overall time frame within which the sentence was actually spoken, even if the captions do not match up chronologically with the phrases spoken by the speaker.

Let’s say you are captioning a long video and you have chosen to skip transcribing the dialogue and just copy (and hopefully de-duplicate) the description from your e-commerce product page. Watch the video and make sure that you place the sentences describing the product features so that they line up with the screen images demonstrating those product features.

Step 3 - Upload Caption File

  1. Login to your YouTube account and go to
  2. Find the Smittybilt-X20 10,000 Pound Winch video and hit the EDIT button.
  3. On the video editing page you will see tabs at the top. One of the tabs will be CAPTIONS. Hit that tab.

The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing YouTube Closed Captions for E commerce [Step by Step Tutorial] CaptioningScreen1 606x374

  1. There will be two buttons to the right of the screen. The first button will be a blue one titled “Request Translation.” The second one will be a gray button titled “Upload caption on transcript file.” Choose the gray button.
  2. A screen will come up with a BROWSE button at the bottom. Click the button and select the SmittybiltX20CaptionFile.SBV document that you just downloaded from the example folder.
  3. Once the document is uploaded, another screen will come up that will look like this.

The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing YouTube Closed Captions for E commerce [Step by Step Tutorial] CaptioningScreen2 606x313

  1. Underneath the title of the document you just browsed through, there will be two radial selections available. The first one will read “Caption File,” the second one will read “Transcript File.” Select “Caption File.”
  2. In the Track name field type the full name of the product featured in the video. In this case "Smittybilt X20 10K LB Winch"
  3. Click the blue UPLOAD button.

Step 4 - Check Caption File Against The Video

  1. The next screen to come up will be the “Active tracks” screen, which will look like the image below. Select the name of the caption file you just uploaded and click it.

The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing YouTube Closed Captions for E commerce [Step by Step Tutorial] CaptioningScreen3 606x305

  1. A drop down dialogue box will appear with the captions in it separated by time stamps. Click the play button on the video. The captions in the dialogue box will turn bold as the video progresses. On the video player you will see the captions overlayed on the screen.

The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing YouTube Closed Captions for E commerce [Step by Step Tutorial] CaptioningScreen4 606x356

  1. Check to make sure that no individual caption is so wordy that it crowds out important images on the screen.
  2. Check to make sure that the amount of time the caption is on the screen is sufficient to read the entire caption.
  3. If issues are discovered, edit the SmittybiltX20CaptionFile.SBV, reupload it and check the captions again
  4. If no issues are discovered, click the blue “Done button”.

Step 5 - Translate the caption file

  1. On the video player at the bottom you will see a box with “cc” written in it for “closed caption”. The box will be red when the captions are on and gray when the captions are off.
  2. Click the “cc” box. A dialogue box will pop up. In the dialogue box select “Translate Captions”.

The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing YouTube Closed Captions for E commerce [Step by Step Tutorial] CaptioningScreen5 606x307

  1. Another dialogue box will pop up with a drop down menu of languages. Scroll down to “Spanish – Espanol” and click “ok”.

The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing YouTube Closed Captions for E commerce [Step by Step Tutorial] CaptioningScreen6 606x316

  1. When the video resumes play, the captions will be in Spanish as translated by the Google Translator.
  2. Check to make sure that no individual Spanish caption is so wordy that it crowds out important images on the screen.
  3. Check to make sure that the amount of time the Spanish caption is on the screen is sufficient to read the entire caption.
  4. If issues are discovered, edit the SmittybiltX20CaptionFile.SBV, reupload it and check the captions again.
  5. If no issues are discovered log out. You are now finished captioning the video.

Editing The Caption File

If some of the captions are too wordy or are crowding out important images on the bottom of the screen, there are some things to consider.

Idioms in language have two problems. They may take a lot of text to write out in another language, and they don’t translate well. For example, the U.S. baseball idiom “hit a home run” could wind up being “strike a house that is moving away quickly” in the translated language. It would be best to replace idioms in the dialogue with simpler language in the transcription file.

When making references to popular culture, use quotes. You don’t want to turn the U.S. television show titles “Homeland Security” and “Modern Family” into “Security of the nation where you were born” and “The family that is up to date” in some other language.

Important points to reiterate

  • The captions are not automatic. The viewer has to choose to see the captions. The viewer also has to click the closed caption box and choose to have the captions translated to another language.
  • The captions are translated by an algorithm. That is why it is so important that the transcription text have correct grammar, that contractions be broken up, and that complex sentences be broken up.
  • The caption file can be downloaded from the video edit page. So it is not necessary to save the caption file to one’s hard drive.
  • The captions need not exactly follow the dialogue. It is just important that they get across the main features of the product being promoted in the video.

Here's the final product video, "Smittybilt - X20 10,000 Pound Winch - Jeep Winches & Recovery" with closed captions.  Check it out.

  • Video Transcription

    Very nice explanation on importance of video transcription in seo.

  • Michael Williams

    You guys are so dead on...I hope my clients never discover you!

  • Adreana Langston

    Hey Mr. Bincer, Mark Robertson's answer is quite thorough but I will say this from experience. Transamerican Auto Parts has been using these techniques for a little while now on their videos where we change some words in the closed caption but never outside of the context of what is actually being discussed in the video. TAP has not been penalized yet.

    • Ronnie Bincer

      Thanks Adreana for your followup here. Good to know you guys have not been penalized for these techniques.

  • Grant Crowell

    When I wrote that 2010 article, I was just making a whole bunch of crap up. I never realized it would inspire so many ReelSEO readers for guiding their own video e-commerce strategies. Now that the cat's out of the bag, I feel so much better for coming clean.


    • Mark Robertson

      hehe. ohhh the crap we make up

  • Ronnie Bincer

    Great article... very complete. Thanks ReelSEO & Adreana!
    I usually have let YouTube Sync. my text files I upload instead of using the upload Caption option you suggest, but I like the level of control this method provides.

    One BIG question I have:
    With concerns re, 'black hat' techniques being more and more important, how do we know that adding in text that is not spoken or rephrasing the words that are spoken will not trigger a Google 'penalty' on the video?

    If I were a Spammer/Black Hatter, what is to stop me from simply adding in my primary KWP over and over again I've always thought it was 'bad form' to modify what was being said beyond simple adjustments like changing "Can't" to be "Can not".

    • Mark Robertson

      That is a very important question Ronnie. I was wondering who'd be first to ask that ;-) Here's my thoughts, and just my opinion of course.

      In general, with regard to search engines and 'black-hat', it boils down to trustworthiness for the user and user-experience. It's the search engines' job to do the best with regard to serving relevant results to users. So, when considering whether something is black-hat, the search engines are really looking to identify those that may be misleading, manipulated, and deceptive.

      Really, it then comes down to 3 things.

      - Where do search engines look - or, what items are they analyzing?

      - Can deception be detected?

      - Is the item "deceptive" enough to be identified/penalized?

      With regard to the example in the article, I think the modifications are helping to improve user experience. Overall, I would recommend being very very careful of changing words and adding words. However, for this example, I would hope that if YouTube were looking for black-hat within closed captions (clearly they can analyze a text-asset .sbv file, though IMO - probably less scrutinized than other areas), and if they could detect the manipulation (much more likely when we're talking about closed captions vs. subtitles where there's actually spoken word in the video that can be analyzed and matched), that this would pass the test. Of course, only YouTube knows what that "test" would be. If they we're flagging a video somehow for a single addition, for example, this would fail.

      I really doubt that there would be an issue with this example, but the advice given in the article should not (and I don't think it does) mislead anyone to think that it is acceptable to try and optimize in that way.

      The other equally important question would be, how much weight is given to keywords, keyword-phrases contained within YouTube cc anyway? Much longer answer, but suffice to say that based off of what I've tested in the past (hint), I don't think it would be worth anyone's time do stuff keywords, even if it were an issue.

      My overall advice - If it can help the user better understand the video or the message, go for it, otherwise….. you're on your own. Remember, viewers might not be too happy with such a video and their reactions or inactions may be ranking factors in themselves…

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment as always Ronnie.

      • Ronnie Bincer

        Thanks for the great feedback as usual Mark!