YouTube has made a significant change to its software to boost what it deems “quality” children’s content, sending waves of traffic to certain video producers and burying other channels. The change came as the company tries to convince parents its service is safe for kids, and convince regulators that it isn’t violating the law.
The update immediately alarmed many YouTube creators who already feel that their livelihoods hang at the whims of mysterious algorithms.
YouTube’s software algorithms determine how videos are placed in search results and viewing recommendations, and so the company is notoriously secretive about them. Thousand of video creators rely on YouTube’s cloaked system to reach their audience and earn advertising money. Many adjustments to the software are routine, but the latest change stood out. “Most of the time, we don’t even notice it,” said Melissa Hunter of Family Video Network, a YouTube multi-channel network and consulting firm. “Whatever was tweaked about a week and a half ago was very noticeable.”
Kids’ entertainment is massive on YouTube, the internet video-sharing arm of Alphabet Inc’s Google. It’s also incredibly controversial. Because YouTube lets people post clips with few limitations, it has faced blistering criticism for making inappropriate and disturbing footage available to kids. In response, in recent years YouTube has made two notable changes. In 2017, YouTube purged dozens of channels behind violent and sexual videos featuring kids or cartoons, and earlier this year it shut off the ability for users to comment on videos starring children following a scandal after evidence surfaced that video comments were used to identify young girls in clips that could be seen as sexually suggestive.
YouTube confirmed the recent software update, but declined to detail the reasons behind it. “We make hundreds of changes every year to make it easier for people to find what they want to watch on YouTube,” Ivy Choi, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We recently made one such change that improves the ability for users to find quality family content.”
Since the change, some videos aimed at preschoolers saw a precipitous drop in traffic.
YouTube bars minors under 13 from using the site, and recommends children use YouTube Kids, its app with more content filters and parental controls. But the app’s reach is small relative to YouTube’s main site, and people at the company have privately acknowledged that older children gravitate from the app to the far larger media catalog on YouTube.com.
Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer, has recently stressed the “educational” value of YouTube. He told investors last week that YouTube would place “a lot of effort” into its Kids app. “It’s a product you’re going to see us focus more on and continue to evolve, add more curated content there, and make sure it’s safe for kids and give parents peace of mind,” he said on the company’s earnings call. Mr Pichai said the approach also applied to “family-oriented” videos on YouTube.com. “Rewarding trusted creators is a big way we can help,” he added.