An expert's guide to YouTube

Want to use YouTube like a pro? We've got some advanced tips on how to search, watch, and share.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
8 min read

In the past, we've done Newbie's Guides for certain services, but we wanted to switch things up and really dig into a product's advanced features.

Video-sharing site YouTube is the perfect service to start with because it's massively popular and incredibly simple to use, but also has a few powerful features that are tucked away. This guide is to help you learn how to use some of these advanced features and to serve as a simple reference page.

For the sake of simplicity, we're only covering searching, viewing, and sharing. We've skipped uploading since it's pretty straightforward and made simple with the service's recently launched multifile uploader. We're also not including any third-party downloading tools because that is against YouTube's terms of use and is already an official first-party feature on some content.


Using YouTube's search tool:
YouTube's search engine works a lot like Google's. In fact, it uses the same search operators to let you tweak your results. Here are some worth remembering the next time you're looking for a video:

    • Limit to words in the title. Putting "allintitle:" in front of your search keeps YouTube's results limited to those videos with the matching words in the title. This is great if you want to keep it from searching through descriptions or tags. Not so useful if the video you're looking for has a misspelled or misleading title.

    • Exclude a term. Add a "-" then the word you want to exclude will keep it out of the results. So if you're searching for explosions but don't want to see videos with diet Coke or Mentos, you'd type in "Explosion -diet -coke -mentos." Be sure to add the "-" in front of every word you don't want.

    • Play the wildcard. If you're too lazy to type a word, or think that YouTube will figure out the words you're leaving out, you can just put in an asterisk in place of that word. In practice, this means that searching for something like "Fallout: Broken Steel" you could just type "Fallout * Steel" and have it guess the word in the middle.

If you can't remember these off the top of your head you can find them in YouTube's advanced search box, which shows up as an option in the results of any completed search. It's also worth going there if you want to filter how long the videos in the results should be. This is a great way to find long-form content that's 20 minutes or more.

Search and browse with your eyes.
If titles and thumbnails are not enough, you can explore additional, related video clusters by using YouTube's warp feature. This is a feature that can still be found on some videos, but YouTube has since relegated it to its TestTube section. That doesn't mean you can't use it on any old video though. Simply inserting "warp.swf" in the URL instead of the word "watch" will send you into full-screen "warp speed" mode. To read more about how to use this feature check out our coverage of it.

To warpify any video just change the watch in the URL to warp.swf, and you get a special treat. CNET Networks

Third-party search tools
There are a handful of third-party YouTube search engines and tools that add a little bit of utility on top of YouTube's search. Here are some of our favorites:

YouTube Fast Search lets you play the video right next to the results, as well as create a playlist by dragging and dropping videos from the results page. It's also got a cool feature called VideoWall that creates a giant canvas of thumbnails, which you can play just by clicking on them.

CoolIris, which works on iPhones and computers alike, also presents videos in a giant wall that can be browsed or searched. You simply click on the thumbnails you want to play.

The YouTube search Firefox add-on. Puts YouTube's search engine in your browser, and uses Google's Suggest API to give you suggestions as you type.

VideoSurf gives you visual summaries of YouTube videos (and other video services). If it's a movie or TV show you can search by actor, and all videos get a visual time line so you don't waste any time waiting to see what's on that 10-minute clip.

Search The Tube is a search engine that only shows videos that can be embedded off YouTube. Keeps you from finding that perfect video that can't be stuck on a blog post.


Watching videos on YouTube seems pretty straightforward, but if you want to enhance the viewing experience there are some official, and unofficial, tools that can tweak the presentation.

Setting YouTube to automatically play the high-quality version
You've got to be logged in to make this work. Simply go to YouTube's playback settings (when logged in) and pick the "I have a fast connection" option. The next time you play a video it will automatically switch over to the higher quality stream. Worth noting is that this doesn't yet work for HD videos; you still need to click on the HD button to make it switch over to that stream.

Choosing this option makes YouTube always play the high-quality stream. CNET Networks

Make HD videos fit the screen better
Viewing a video in HD resizes from the standard 710-pixel player into one that's 950 pixels wide. It still doesn't go to the edges of the page though. To get that extra 100 pixels or so you can install this small Firefox add-on that resizes them to fix the rest of the YouTube UI. Of course you could always just hit the full screen button, but this lets you access all the other page elements while it's playing.

Turn down the lights on any YouTube video
A select few YouTube videos have the option to "turn down the lights," which darkens the rest of YouTube's UI and shows you just the video. If you want to make this option available on all videos you can download YouTube Cinema for Firefox, which can do this for you automatically. It also lets you change the background color.

See also Quietube (story) and Theeter (story), which do the same thing using a special bookmarklet you can add to your browser. However, unlike the Firefox extension, both of these services require using the bookmarklet to turn it on when you're browsing videos on YouTube proper.


Watching videos on YouTube is a no-brainer, but if you want to control the way viewers see your videos or videos you're sharing, there are some handy tweaks.

YouTube recently introduced a relatively simple way to do this using tags. During or after an upload you have the option to add tags, and this is where the magic happens. Adding one of the below tags has different effects on your video, which gives you complete control over how it looks:

Controlling the size of the video by cropping or scaling:
• Add "yt:crop=16:9" This zooms in on the 16:9 section of the video, and gets rid of any black bars on the side or on the top of your video.
• Add "yt:stretch=16:9" takes any content that's been shot in anamorphic (with the black bars on the top and bottom) and scales it to fit the wide-screen player.
• Add "yt:stretch=4:3" scales widescreen videos to fit a 4:3 player.

Changing the default quality of the stream:
• Add "yt:quality=high" makes it so that the default quality level is the highest, whether that's HQ or HD. It depends on what type of content you've uploaded.

How to control the start time on a shared link or embed
With some small URL tweaks you can control the start time of a video when shared as a basic link, or when embedded. YouTube is likely to add this as part of the embedding options at a later date. In the meantime, the below methods are helpful if you want to share a specific part of a long video.

For basic links:
The time you want the video to start must be appended by hand with #t=_m_s at the end of the video's URL. You have control over the minutes and seconds, which are what go where the underscores are. So, for this URL www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfkxBVIJ0vc#t=0m21s, the video would start 21 seconds in.

Here's a video of how to do it:

Deep linking in YouTube from Josh Lowensohn on Vimeo.

For embedded videos:
Skipping ahead in embeds is a little harder than with basic URLs, but still manageable. Copy and paste the embed code wherever you intend to put it. Then find the two places where the source URL is. These two links come after "value" and "src" and simply contain the link to the video. Now, paste " &start=__" onto the end of that URL, placing the number of seconds you want it to start at where the underscore is. Since there's no minutes section like you get with the link trick above, you have to do the math and add an additional 60 seconds for each minute you want to go in.

Creating and embedding a self-playing playlist
Say you've got two or more videos you want to share--or just group together. Skip the link dump and make a playlist. Go into your uploaded videos and create a new one. Then simply check off the videos you want to add. Pick the "add to playlist" option, then click on the playlist you just created.

For one reason or another, YouTube isn't very up front about giving you an embed code to stick the playlist elsewhere. Don't worry though--it's still there. To find it, go to the playlist you just made from here: www.youtube.com/my_playlists. Then click on the "play all" link on a playlist to start playing it. Under the playlist option on the right, click on the link with the name of the playlist you're watching. This will take you to a page that gives you a rundown of the entire playlist, along with the option to send that self-playing list as a permalink, and the embed code to put it elsewhere.

You're looking for these three things (the highlighted link will have the name of your playlist, not mine):

CNET Networks

Third-party sharing tools:
Worth a mention here is Splicd, which lets you pick specific beginning and end points of a video. It plays these videos off YouTube's site, but gives you simple sharing links and a slightly higher degree of control than YouTube does.

See also the aforementioned Quietube and Theeter which both provide links that can be shared with others that format the video without the rest of YouTube's UI.

These are just a few tips to become an expert in all things YouTube. If you have any of your own, add them in the comments or shoot me an e-mail.