YouTube Thumbnail Isn’t Center Frame Anymore

For the last few videos I’ve uploaded to YouTube, I’ve discovered a disturbing trend. The default thumbnail (image that represents the video) isn’t predictable. YouTube appeared to be departing from the model of using the center frame and the 1/3 and 2/3 frame.

At the risk of spreading potential Twitter rumors, a little birdie says the center frame as thumbnail is RIP.

This is a really big deal if it’s not another technical glitch. I’ve discovered that almost nothing makes a video like the thumbnail. Not the title, creator, or content.

Many sites allow you to select from as many as 12 images. Some sites let you keep selecting/refreshing until you find just the right one (and even crop it). And there are even sites that allow you to upload a jpeg to represent the video.

So why would YouTube make it more difficult? Because thumbnails are often manipulated and because… YouTube can do whatever it wants now. The switching costs for viewers/creators is huge, and so we have a virtual monopoly. 

Here’s hoping reason prevails. It would be a shame to subject a creator (and viewer) to a random thumbnail. Unless a different thumbnail appears each time someone refreshes the video (which is far too complex for servers) then there’s a simple solution…

Upload OVER AND OVER until you get the one you like.
Yeah! That’ll spin some bandwidth.

This is especially an issue a problem as Google provides a new way to search video thumbnails without ever going to YouTube. Did you notice that if you now search Google for the word YouTube, you can refine your video search without leaving Google’s homepage? Interesting move and one that would appear to be good for viewers but unclear as to whether that helps/harms revenue for Google. Fewer display ads (Google results don’t have them) but perhaps a higher CPC (cost per click) and more opportunities to serve the text ad.

youtube google search refined

23 Replies to “YouTube Thumbnail Isn’t Center Frame Anymore”

  1. The videos I uploaded last night followed the 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 formula that YT has been using, I checked the thumbnail points before I rendered and they were spot on. I know there has been issues with YT adding erroneous time to vids (a second here or there) and that throws the vid and presumably the thumbnail (if it was gamed, not that anyone would do that of course) off what you think it will be. Or maybe it’s just a random bug.

  2. You’re right that thumbnails can really make a video, but Youtube’s users have ruined the usefulness of thumbnails. How often do you see a thumbnail and know you’re being worked? Youtube’s users killed the thumbnail long before Youtube began, allegedly, changing the frame from which the thumbnail comes.

  3. All right, tonight’s weird Hankism is him buck naked in my living room, jumping all over my sofa, and saying “there’s a party in my butt, there’s a party in my butt. There’s a party in my butt.”

    My batteries ran down or it would already be on youtube.

  4. I kinda agree with EARNEST, a lot of users really tried to game the system to get viewers – Athene Wins seems like one of the worst, if you’re asking my opinion – which you probably aren’t, I know…

    I feel like a tool for mentioning this… but it looks like our online porn breatheren might have a solution that works for content creaters such as yourself as well as for the aggregating sites like Youtube:

    Many sites are now allowing for a mouse-over effect which shows you several frames of the video – about 8 -12 frames of various stages of the video. This makes it difficult for people to just place the ubiquitious BOOB SHOT as the main Thumbnail (unless your Hot for Words) and it gives the viewer the chance to see more than just one, random thumbnail – which should help viewers to better decide if the video is worth watching.

    I won’t put up any links here since I don’t want to get accused of spaming – but if you’re interested I’ll send you a link per mail so that you can check out the…ahem, technology involved. cough cough cough.

    Don’t ask me how I know this….

  5. Can I just say, I love you people, but the misspellings are driving me crazy. Well, not so much misspellings as incorrect word usage. The “your” and “you’re” mix-up abolutely drives me bonkers. It should be:
    (unless YOU’RE Hot for Words)

    Remember, people, “you’re” is a contraction for “you are”; “your” implies ownership.

    Thank you. I’ll leave now.

  6. actually I saw it after pressing the “say it” button, but wasn’t able to change it after that…

    Nalts there’s this really cool WP Plugin that lets users edit their (see I get it, “their” not “there”) comments – it’s called something like “Ajax Edit Comment” or something.

    It might save Marilyn’s nerves and my embarassement 🙂

  7. Critic, I hate to tell you this, but you spelled “embarassment” wrong.


    Really, I am! 🙂

    PS: I have also looked at a post after clicking “say it” and wished I could get it back after noticing a typo. I feel your pain.

  8. I’ve had the same problem on a couple of my videos now, so I uploaded a test clip with SMPTE time code on it to see exactly where the clip’s frames fell.

    On my test clip, which is 10 seconds and 0 frames long, the thumbnails fell at 1 second 29 frames, 3 seconds 28 frames, and 5 seconds 27 frames.

    If YouTube were on a 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 ratio, you should see thumbs at 2s15f,5s, and 7s15f.

    If it was a 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 ratio, it would be more like 3s10f,5s, and 6s20f.

    Obviously, the keyframes came nowhere near these. Interestingly enough though, the keyframes all coordinate to the keyframe “drag points” YouTube sets up. (You know, those parts of the clip the video snaps to when you drag the cursor across the timeline.)

    My guess is that for some reason, YouTube is now associating these snap points as the thumbnail options.

    You be the judge. The linkon my name goes to the clip. Check it out and see what I’m talking about.

  9. Interesting. Middle is still working for us, even as of today. We even wrote a post on it, and linked to this post as well to see if anyone see’s something similiar changing. You can click the name to read about our experience…

  10. Mark8t:

    The problem with the video you guys put together was that each image was on the screen for between 4 and 8 seconds. that’s something like 120-240 frames per image. I’d bet that if you created that same video, except using 1/2 second clips right at the key moments, YouTube would totally miss them. Just look at the video attached to my name above this. I have a universal time code display on there, and the “center” frame, the one your tool says should be at 5 seconds even, is at 3 seconds and change.

    There was a time when you could literally plan your thumbnail out to the frame. If you had a 5010 frame long video (2:47 long), that frame 2505 was going to be the one used. Apparently now, on that same video, it could be give or take a good 35 frames or so.

    Yeah, you can still work with this, but it means that you won’t know *Exactly* where that keyframe will be. If you’ve got a video in motion, 35 frames each way is over two seconds. A lot can happen in two seconds.

    Anyway, I read your post, and I liked it, but I think the reality is that at least for now, YouTube is no longer using the center frame of your video, and instead using the closest snap point to that center frame. The formula seems to be that they set one of these snap points every one second, 29 frames in a video, so I suppose if you divide your video into 59 frame increments, and then pick the closest one to the actual center, you could still set the thumbnail exactly, but that sounds like a lot of work.


  11. What’s the deal with thumbnail for non-partners? I’ve tried the “center” thing and it’s not working. I really need a good thumbnail to attract viewers.

  12. Okay, I understand how people have bastardized the thumbnail feature by putting a picture of a hot girl on their dumb video. But come on, seriously, there are other ways around this.

    If the video is really a disappointment, people will give it thumbs down. If YouTube was any smart, they’d stop putting the thumbs-downed videos as “featured videos”. They should put them at the bottom of search results and related videos.

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