YouTube Is Standing Tall

The site is even more popular in the wake of the Viacom rift.
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Google's

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YouTube division looks stronger than ever -- and its vitality has little to do with copyrighted video clips or amateur fads.

Rather than dropping as some has predicted, traffic numbers for YouTube continued to make steady strides after the video-sharing site was ordered by

Viacom

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to remove more than 100,000 copyrighted video clips.

According to the research firm Hitwise, YouTube's market share of U.S. Web visits to increased by 13.9% in the two-week period after Feb. 3, when YouTube was told to remove clips to popular Viacom-owned TV shows such as

The Colbert Report

and

South Park

.

And YouTube's average weekly traffic has now increased by 7% a week since the beginning of the year.

But perhaps even more importantly, most users arrived at YouTube without searching for popular Viacom program titles -- or titles owned by other major media players, for that matter. Instead of gradually tuning out of YouTube after Viacom yanked its content, it seems a growing number of users keep tuning in because of the short, high-quality and hard-to-find content the site offers.

Searches for popular TV content were nowhere near the top of the list of the biggest queries driving traffic to YouTube, Hitwise says. Searches for

The Colbert Report

and

South Park

were ranked in the thousands when it came to sending traffic to YouTube. And even the top copyrighted content search -- that for

Thomas the Tank Engine

-- ranked 102nd.

But short, high-quality clips that viewers have a hard time finding on television tend to be much more popular. For example,

Charlie the Unicorn

-- the adventures of a jaded unicorn, which is produced by FilmCow.com -- ranked 17th. A video by satirical musician Weird Al Yankovic ranked 18th.

The finding is important because many observers have feared that while YouTube received massive publicity for the offbeat amateur video clips that populated its site, it was really the popular copyrighted TV shows that drew users to the site in the first place.

"What is it about youtube.com that has made it so successful so quickly? Is it the amazing quality of user generated content? Is it a broadband fueled obsession with watching short videos?" investor Mark Cuban asked in a post on his well-known blog, titled "The Coming Dramatic Decline of Youtube," in September 2006. "No & No," he answered, arguing instead that the company's success was based on hosting copyrighted material and giving away hosting space instead.

But the most recent data show that neither amateur videos nor copyrighted material may play as big a role in driving search traffic to YouTube's site as the popular viral videos that make frequent rounds on the Internet. As for amateur videos, even the search term for "lonelygirl15 " -- random clips of a girl narrating mundane events about her life and arguably the biggest draw among rosters of YouTube "amateur" stars, ranked 136 in terms of search queries.

And even that clip, which is more entertaining and coherent than the uploads of most self-indulgent, camera-wielding users, has turned out to be the work of a trained actress with a crew.

Unique content with a decent amount of production quality that is explicitly geared towards short lengths seems to be the big driver of traffic to YouTube, at least as far as searches are concerned. "The viral nature of some of these clips, the discussion that is generated about them on social networking sites, and the short length of the clips -- which seems to still be the sweet spot on the Internet -- gets a lot of people searching for them," says Bill Tancer, general manager of global research for Hitwise.

Tancer says that audiences may not yet be willing to watch longer, television-style video on the Internet. This may be especially true given the spread of digital video recorders, which allow viewers to record and revisit television programming easily, as well as YouTube's trend toward attracting older viewers.

Older viewers may be less used to watching television content over the Internet than younger viewers and, therefore, more likely to turn to YouTube for short content that they can't find elsewhere. A year ago, 59.7% of YouTube viewers were under the age of 34, compared with 43.8% now -- a drop of nearly 16%, according to Hitwise's data.

Of course, the searches that drive users to YouTube may be different from the clips they view the most once on they reach the site -- or the clips they search for through YouTube's search function itself.

But much of the worry over Viacom's decision stemmed from the notion that users were routed to YouTube when searching for popular television shows they knew from television. Given that YouTube has an excellent system for suggesting video and keeping viewers hooked for clip after clip, getting users to the site would likely be more of a challenge than keeping them watching.

But it seems Viacom's muscle-flexing may not make a big difference one way or the other when it comes to this.

Evidence of YouTube's continued strength -- as well as signs that it has the kind on content to stay on a roll -- could hardly come at a better time for Google. The company's stock has stagnated lately as investors look to

see whether the company can diversify its revenue stream into new markets.

And a stumble with YouTube, which Google sees as its ticket into the graphic and video ad markets, would put a big dent into that ambition.