Monday was apparently YouTube's birthday. Tuesday was mine. I'm in the mood to wax poetic.
It's very trendy this week to write flowery editorial articles about YouTube's positive cultural impact over the last five years. It's hard to let an anniversary like this one—especially one trumpeted so loudly by YouTube themselves—slip by without getting all nostalgic. Most of the articles I've read follow a pretty basic, though entertaining, formula: "YouTube Has Forever Changed The _________ Industry.”
Some people insert "music" in the blank, touting the rebirth of the music video online. Others scribble in "education," and laud the new found creativity in classroom assignments and teaching methods. You could probably put any field of commerce or industry into that blank and come up with an article to match.
I thought I'd go the opposite route. Instead of piling on top of what is already a mountain of mostly-deserved praise, I thought I'd talk a little bit about YouTube's future. Now, I'm no expert. I actually have zero experience in running video platforms that serve two billion views per day. But it's not hard to speculate at some possible events or turns in the immediate future. These aren't predictions, really. And they aren't outlandish or original. Instead, I just want to lay out several obvious possible paths that YouTube might take this coming year, and chat about why they might happen and what makes them interesting.
Without further ado:
What if, by the time their 6th birthday rolls around, YouTube…
…is turning a steady net profit?
What if they do it this year? What if it happens faster than we think it will? Will we simply adjust and move on and find a new company to harp on about revenue? Or will the longtime critics only use it as a chance to point out how long it took them?
See, I've always had this sneaking suspicion that YouTube was going to absolutely dominate with their eventual revenue, that it would be stronger than we thought possible. Once they find the right combination, they're going to perfect their system until their raking in the dollars. At least… they might.
This is a company owned by Google, who has a pretty good track record at creating quality products that do very well in their market. What if their 6th birthday sees an entirely different public debate, not one of their ability to make money, but one of exactly how much money they're capable of earning? I won't be the least bit surprised. Every bit of conventional wisdom says that it's only a matter of when, not if. And when they do start turning a profit, look out… because it's going to make waves in the world of online video.
…is still losing money?
Every year we think, "This is the year.” And every year we're wrong. YouTube is still spending more money than they make. It's a story old enough that we aren't really surprised by it anymore. It's entirely possible—some would say likely—that 2010 passes without YouTube crossing the profitability finish line.
…has publicly announced they don't care about making a profit and would everyone please back off now?
Not likely—at least an announcement like that.
I'm sure they want to turn a profit. They'd be idiots not to. But I've never been convinced that they feel the same sense of urgency we seem to think they should. I've wondered if Google didn't view YouTube as a loss leader—a necessary purchase and expense to gain a foothold in the world of video advertising. It's not that crazy a notion.
At its core, Google has always been an advertising company. It's why they got into mobile operating systems… why can't it be the reason they got into video? I'm not sure we can expect any public statements about profitability being unimportant… but I don't think we'll see the same level of urgency that we think they ought to have.
…has completely abandoned Flash?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Just kidding. This is not going to happen. At least not this year. And not while Google and Apple are making like mortal enemies. Just having fun.
…has made live video a service for the masses?
I have a hard time believing that a site as gigantic as YouTube, with the social aspects they have, won't eventually create some level of live video service. Yes, I know there are plenty of live video platforms. I know there's Skype and UStream and a bunch of other players in the "live streaming video" space… but none of them are YouTube. YouTube is synonymous with online video. It's not reasonable to think they won't follow the trends and continue to add and tweak services.
And yes, I know that YouTube has streamed live sporting events and concerts already. That's part of the evidence suggesting they may look at live video even closer.
The possibilities are staggering just for businesses alone. Imagine a Chatroulette with room for twelve broadcasters, able to host a live video web conference with ease… for free.
Schools, government, families, civic organizations, entertainers… every single industry that you might plug into our sample headline at the top of this article would also be revolutionized by large-scale adoption of live video. If the web is moving toward more dependence and reliance on live streaming video—and I think it is—YouTube has to be a part of it… a very large part.
…has created some new kind of ad variation that we've not seen before?
I have to believe they've got people working around the clock to get creative with advertising. Surely there's a room somewhere filled with original thinkers whose only job is to brainstorm new methods for advertising.
We've seen pre-rolls, pop-ups, and overlay ads. We've seen sponsorship ads that take over the entire page design. We've seen Hulu's ads, which work a lot like television commercials.
What if YouTube dreams up something really slick and unexpected and new in the world of online advertising that opens a new stream of revenue to them? They employ plenty of innovators. It wouldn't be such a surprise for them to release something innovative. Why do we have to assume we've thought of everything already?
…makes video SEO significantly easier through captioning or other technology?
This is certainly possible. There is no way that automated captioning will ever entirely replace the need for video SEO or for tags and titles. However, YouTube will get better at indexing the audio and video content in submissions without having to rely so much on tags and titles. It's only a matter of time before voice-recognition and video analysis software reach that kind of performance level. Which will only help make it easier for viewers to find what they want to watch–which is what we're all after anyway, right? This could be the year that YouTube makes a quantum leap in their ability to automatically "understand" a video's topic and audience.
…finally allows users to truly browse the site?
Yes, I know there are advanced search options that yield results that are many pages deep. But a lot of the time when I head to YouTube, I simply click Browse. At that point, I can filter by popularity, views, HD, and date–though only "today," "this week," and "this month" are options. I would like the ability to filter by "in the last two days" or "for the last six months.”
Regardless… I only get five pages of results. After that… I'm screwed. Even if I go to the left sidebar and filter by genre… I'm still left with only five pages of results. I don't always have a specific video I'm looking for, or even a specific type of clip in mind. But I've always found YouTube's "browse" feature to be alarmingly limiting. I keep thinking they're going to improve it. Maybe this will be the year.
I guess it's time to give the Magic 8-Ball a rest. There are a lot of different directions YouTube might go in their 6th year of existence. There will definitely be major headlines in 2010 regarding YouTube… what might they be? Chances are good that the company will do something none of us expected, but it's fun to speculate anyway. Where do you see YouTube going this year? Where do you wish they'd go this year?
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