The message that would push me down a bizarre technological rabbit hole came out of nowhere.“yo. replace ‘watch’ on any youtube video URL, with ‘wtch’,” the Twitter direct message from February read, ending with a heart emoji.I did what I was asked. I pulled up a random YouTube video on my recommendations, something probably related to video games, and clicked play. While that rumbled in the background, I took the ‘watch’ part of the URL and removed the letter 'a.'
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I hit enter, not sure exactly what was about to happen. After a second or two, my browser redirected me to another webpage. A blocky, computer generated figure appeared on the left-hand side of my screen. A series of random-looking numbers and letters displayed on the right. This wasn’t YouTube anymore. It was a profile for a player in the massively popular game Minecraft on a totally different website.I was confused. How had a legitimate YouTube URL somehow taken me away from YouTube itself? This wasn’t a fake YouTube page that had led me here. It started with a real video on the site, and I just tweaked one letter to make a new, still YouTube–affiliated, URL. And why did I land specifically on this page that was entirely different from YouTube?The answer would later reveal much more than just the machinations behind this one little trick.
Initially my tipster, who went by the pseudonymous handle KT, didn’t provide much more information. When I asked how it worked, they didn’t reply for several hours. “Did you figure it out yet?” they later messaged.“It’s a pretty unique way, dumb on YouTube’s end,” they added a day later. A few weeks later, the ‘wtch’ URL pointed to a different page. When replacing ‘watch’ with ‘wtch’ in the URL of a YouTube video, the browser didn’t redirect to the Minecraft profile anymore. It went to a specific YouTube channel with the username “HiddenName” and a box asking whether I wanted to subscribe to the channel automatically popped-up on the screen. Someone was changing what page the URL pointed to.
I followed up with KT, and this time they had some more details. KT said the ‘wtch’ trick was something to do with an “MCN panel.” After Googling around I found that MCNs, or multi-channel networks, are groups of YouTube channels that band together. This can be useful for branding, gaining a larger audience, and splitting sponsorship revenue. Brand agencies sometimes run these networks, and may use a panel or dashboard to manage all of those channels at once.MCNs are a little antiquated now. Creators over the last decade or so may have wanted to join an MCN so they could get access to the company’s panel that would help streamline and professionalize the creator’s workflow, displaying their revenue, paystubs, and other information.Today YouTube provides much of this information directly to creators. But companies still offer similar panels and services today. So, I found a company that appeared to offer one of these MCN panels. After getting in touch and arranging a phone call with someone who works inside one of these companies, I agreed not to publish his name nor the name of his company so he could talk more candidly about what was going on with MCNs, and hopefully, the mystery over the ‘wtch’ URL.“Everyone is super secretive about it,” the company source said. “It’s so stupid,” he added, referring to whatever was going on with these YouTube URLs. When I asked him to elaborate, the company source said people are taking custom YouTube URLs by submitting requests to YouTube, claiming that the URL should belong to them. Ordinarily, a YouTube channel’s URL may be something like youtube.com/channel/ and then a string of seemingly random characters. People can apply for their own custom URL too.
But what if you want a URL that isn’t really the name of your brand, or media outlet, or anything else? The source said that people who want a specific custom YouTube URL often message him, sometimes around ten people a month, in his position at a company involved with MCNs. The people would ask him to put in a request for a particular YouTube URL for them, something that those with an MCN panel can do, the source said. As a legitimate business, the company always denies such requests, the person said. Interestingly, the person said that those who are involved in these YouTube games are also generally involved in sites such as OGUSERs. That rang a bell: for years, my colleagues and I have covered that site, which is a forum where people trade Instagram and other social media handles. Typically, the usernames will be single words or nouns which are harder to register, and thus more valuable. Often, OGUSERs members will hack into those accounts and then sell them for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Some people collect them for the clout.I looked on the OGUSERs forum, and, sure enough, there was someone selling what they described as a “YouTube URL claim service.” The person who offered the service, who went by the username F, claimed to me in a chat on the messaging app Telegram that “I do not go out of my way to contact YouTube myself or offer any guidance that would go against their terms of service. My goal is to put my client in a position to where they get the URL they desire most safely and stand out in a positive manner moving forward so their investment pays for itself.”
As well as selling a service for getting hold of specific YouTube URLs, some people sell the URLs they have managed to obtain, the source at the company said. So ‘wtch’ was almost like one of those hard to get and nice to have Instagram handles, only for YouTube. Scammers have been doing this sort of thing with YouTube for years, but it’s only really taken off recently, they added. One reason might be that the money around Twitter and Instagram handles has dried up, they said.When it came to the ‘wtch’ trick, the person thought what happened was that someone had, it was now clear, obtained the custom URL youtube.com/wtch. The company source couldn’t tell if whoever controlled ‘wtch’ had put in the request to YouTube themselves or bought ownership of the URL from someone else, although the latter was their best guess.I had to speak to the only person who would really know: whoever controlled the ‘wtch’ URL.
KT, my original tipster, revealed how they had managed to find some information about how this ‘wtch’ trick was playing out. They had been in touch with the person behind it. KT gave me this person’s Discord username and I reached out.“Hiya,” they replied, using the handle SeedTech. SeedTech asked me to verify I was really who I said I was. So I showed them my Twitter account and told them in a few minutes I will tweet a link to a specific article. That convinced them.SeedTech confirmed much of what I had heard earlier, and also mentioned that people do buy and sell custom YouTube URLs. They explained that to get a custom YouTube URL, channels needed to have at least 100 subscribers, a banner and a profile picture, and a desired URL suffix that is not less than 5 characters in length.
‘Wtch’ however was only four characters. How was the possible? SeedTech said that the custom URL actually included an underscore, and was ‘_wtch_’. YouTube only counts letters and dashes towards the character count, SeedTech said, so the URL appears to be only four characters. SeedTech sent me screenshots of what appeared to be an option in their panel that let them choose where to redirect visitors to their custom URLs towards. They then made a tweak themselves and told me to check the ‘wtch’ URL.I did what I had done a month earlier. I loaded up a random YouTube video, again, probably something video game related, and removed the ‘a’. This time after pressing enter, a YouTube page appeared, asking if I was sure I wanted to leave its site. After clicking “GO TO SITE,” I landed on vice.com. SeedTech had proved they controlled ‘wtch’ by changing the redirect to the company I work for.
‘Wtch’ was SeedTech’s plaything. He could make it redirect to whatever page he wanted. Maybe he could sell it. Or he could keep it. At the moment, it was more of a collectible.SeedTech said there are different types of redirects too. Whereas some may just go to a specific page, others are conditional. In that if, say, YouTube believes the visitor is over 50 years old and in America, they’ll get sent to one page. If they’re in the United Kingdom, female, and under 50, they’ll go somewhere else.
They also made a distinction between the sort of URLs they had, and true “vanity” ones. With theirs, the custom URL for the channel could be youtube.com/wtch, but when clicking on various tabs on the channel’s page, such as “videos” or “playlists,” the URL would switch to a less elegant looking one, such as youtube.com/c/_wtch_/videos. True vanity URLs, though, preserve their custom name even when flicking through tabs. Such as youtube.com/motherboard/videos. SeedTech said they haven’t been able to get one of these more desirable vanity URLs.
One slight mystery remained though. I mentioned that before the URL redirected to a particular channel, it had been taking visitors to a Minecraft profile. SeedTech asked me to clarify.“I was actually not aware of this, I think this may have been done by crazy when he has access to the channel,” SeedTech said, seemingly referring to another user.YouTube did not respond to my multiple requests for comment sent since mid-February.As for why SeedTech wanted the ‘wtch’ custom URL, they said “I wanted the wtch URL since It's a common misspelling of watch, and seemed likely to get some traffic, I know Watc + Wath did.” They were right; I visited it multiple times at least.Subscribe to our cybersecurity podcast, CYBER. Subscribe to our new Twitch channel.