When you should use YouTube as a delivery platform for recorded and live video, and when you should go for an alternative solution.
With more than a billion people using it each month, YouTube is one of the largest video platforms in the world, jostling with Facebook for the top spot. This makes it an attractive choice, as your content has the potential to reach a massive audience. However this also means that YouTube should be thought of more as a social media platform specializing in video, than as a video delivery solution.
This means YouTube is a good choice if you want to use it as a social media platform and take advantage of its existing user base. If you want to establish and grow your brand there and use it as a social media tool, YouTube offers you some great possibilities.
However, if you only need a video delivery solution and your primary use is to add video to your site or app, that same social media focus means YouTube has some drawbacks and limitations you should be aware of.
Getting started is easy
YouTube makes it easy to get started with both recorded video and live streams. Anyone with an account can upload a short video, with duration of up to 15 minutes. For longer videos and live streams you’ll need to verify an account using your phone number (get a call or text with a code, enter it into YouTube web application to confirm).
If you’re planning to record or stream from your mobile phone, the YouTube app has everything you need. You can record and upload videos, or start a live stream directly from the mobile app. The app doesn’t let you tweak all the settings for the videos so you’ll likely want to check and adjust settings in the YouTube web interface. All functionality related to content prodution and publishing is located in the Creator Studio section of YouTube.
Unless you’re recording or streaming from the YouTube mobile app, you’ll need an encoder that takes in the video from the camera, encodes it to one of the supported formats and records it to a file (or streams directly to YouTube servers in case of live video).
YouTube has fairly standard support for input formats. Their recommended settings are:
- non-interlaced 16:9 video with any frame rate, encoded using H.264 video codec (other aspect ratios will be letter/pillar-boxed, ie. have black bars on top/sides)
- stereo or surround sound (which YouTube downmixes to stereo) encoded using AAC
- MP4 container
- RTMP for receiving live streams
YouTube’s recommended upload encoding settings article contains detailed information of the supported and recommended bitrates, framerates and other useful information about their recommended settings.
YouTube also supports a few other related file formats, as well as HEVC (H.265) codec, so be sure to check their supported file formats article.
Live stream latency and DVR
For live streams, YouTube allows you to specify three latency levels: normal, low and ultra-low. Latency means the amount of time since you record the video until the viewer sees it, that is, how “late” the image is for the viewer.
The lower-latency streams are better suited if you need to interact with your audience: for example, react to something written in the chat. This comes at a cost of video quality for viewers with less-than-perfect internet connection. To avoid jitters, skipping and buffering issues, set up a higher latency stream when interactivity is not needed.
YouTube doesn’t publish the exact latencies. However in my measurements, normal latency was around 30 seconds (the recorded image took 30 seconds to reach the viewer), low was around 10 seconds and ultra-low latency meant 3-4 second delay.
A big drawback of the ultra-low latency is that it’s not supported in combination with DVR. DVR (from Digital Video Recorder) is a live stream feature allowing the users to seek in live stream, that is, jump to an earlier part of stream, watch or pause it, and jump back to the live stream.
YouTube supports DVR as an option for normal and low latency levels.
YouTube has API support for all operations related to upload, playback, and live streaming of content. These follow the standards of and tie in with other Google APIs, such as authorization using OAuth2 flow and registering the application in Google Developer Console.
Google also provides client-side libraries for YouTube API alongside all other Google APIs in their official client libraries.
The YouTube API is composed of several related APIs:
- The Data API is used for content registration and upload;
- The IFrame API allows customization of the YouTube player;
- The Live Streaming API is used for setting up live streams, and consists of bits of Data API and Content ID API.
Check the defaults
As a social media platform first, YouTube has defaults that focus on that use case. These defaults are likely wrong when using it to deliver your own content on sites outside YouTube, so it pays to check all the settings and make sure they are set to sensible values for the use at hand.
- opt out of ads being shown alongside your videos, unless you want to monetize your videos through YouTube Partner program
- disable interest-based ads so content unrelated to you (but related to the viewer) doesn’t show up in the player
- opt out of showing related videos after the video playback finishes
YouTube vs a dedicated video platform provider
Using YouTube to reach their user base is a no-brainer, If you plan to use it as a video platform for your site, it can be a useful tool for a first step, but for a more advanced integration and control over branding and audience, you’ll likely want to use a video provider specializing for those use cases.