As part of its constant rollout of new formats and features, YouTube has come up with some widely varying ways to grow its popularity and profitability. But today’s announcement also has the opportunity to do some good. Starting this week, the video giant will start giving all videos on the site access to its auto-captioning technology. This is good news for the hearing impaired. But also, it will eventually lead to better searching and advertising opportunities on the site.

For deaf viewers, this is a big step. While online video has made major advancements over the past few years, the majority of content does not have captioning, meaning deaf viewers are cut off.

Video creators have been able to add captions to their content on YouTube since 2006, but transcribing is a costly and time consuming process. Last year, Google started giving some of its videos access to Google Voice transcribing technology, but it was a limited number of educational channels.

Now both creators and users can request video transcriptions. The gains for the hearing impaired are obvious. Google demonstrated the feature today at a press conference with students from the California School For the Deaf.

Google is still using the same technology that it implements in Google Voice, though there are some differences. According to CNET:

“At a press event
Thursday at YouTube’s San Bruno, Calif., headquarters, a company
spokesperson said that video presents a distinctly different challenge.
Where Google’s Voice search is often taking audio from phones that
might have noise cancellation, and only one speaker, videos can have
several speakers with multiple dialects. There’s also the problem of
background noise.”

But also, simply having videos captioned with searchable text could be huge for YouTube’s search capabilities. Another major video site, Hulu, added caption search to some of its videos at the end of last year, which has been a big boon for people looking to find specific video clips on the site.

With Google’s current technology, transcriptions can take anywhere between a few minutes and a day, and are not always the most accurate. However, Google is refering to this announcement as a beta launch and will continue to evolve the technology as consumers interact with it. Meanwhile, creators can change and update the captions on their own videos if they find transcription errors.

YouTube estimates that the number of captioned videos will grow exponentially in the coming months. YouTube spokesperson Chris Dale tells me that there will be “millions and millions” of videos transcribed by the end of the year. In terms of search:

“You can currently search videos that have traditional captions on them. Right now viewers cannot search auto-caption videos. But don’t rule that out down the road.”

Because of the quick rate at which YouTube expects videos are expected to get
captioned (see photo at left), the site cannot promise search integration right now. However, content creators can easily add traditional captions to their videos and have them addded to Google’s search engine. This will be a big deal for YouTube.

As SpeakerText founder Matt Mireles told me in January of video transcription:

“I
think that
within five years, people aren’t even going to remember what it was
like before we had this sort of interface of text linked to video
that’s searchable, linkable, and quotable. This will be standard… If
you search on YouTube today, it’s kind of like searching the web before
Google. The results are terrible.”

Given that YouTube is owned by Google, its easy to assume
that the site is focused on improving its search technology. Making
video content searchable is one way to do that, and translating video
dialogue to text is an easy way to boost search video usability.

Of course, easy is a relative term. Auto-captioning will be a big project for YouTube in the coming months. But the payoff could be big. Another benefit is helping brands serve ads relevant to specific parts of YouTube videos. This is all a bit down the line, but with auto-captioning up and running, it’s a lot closer than it was, even just a few months ago.

Images: YouTube