The job that’s actually paid the bills while I’ve produced audio drama podcasts for the last 10+ years has been in digital marketing, most specifically in the field of organic SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Or in other words, learning & abiding by (or bending) & developing strategy around the whims of Google.
It’s thanks to SEO that I was able to get my sites, finalrune.com and radiodramarevival.com to rank in Google for terms like “Radio Drama” and “Audio Drama” — rankings that as a result got me noticed by the Wall Street Journal back in 2010 and launched the audio production enterprise that FinalRune has grown into today.
Yet, as much as I have spent far more of my life online than I care to admit, I never felt like I’ve been as innately given/driven to built traffic for my shows on social media, which has been a far more important medium for the growth in podcasts. Look at how breakout hits like Welcome to Nightvale and Limetown used Tumblr and Twitter to build massive audiences — there is an inherent exponential impact in social media that doesn’t really exist in the world of SEO. In terms of discovery, only so many people are going to be Googling ‘post apocalyptic podcast’ or ‘horror audio stories.’
Which is all a way to inform my perspective on Google’s most recent foray into podcast optimization: the integration of podcast feeds within Google results [including playback features].
WAIT?! Podcasts are in Google?!
This new feature to Google looks something like this, when seen in the wild:
As Nick Quah points out, it raises a somewhat interesting question from a U/I perspective — the result is appended to a link that goes back to Apple Podcasts, but hitting ‘play’ on the HTML5 player brings you into Google Podcasts player, and, presumably, Google will be launching more features to try and use this integration to keep you within the Google-verse for podcast listening.
So what does this mean for podcast creators?
Nick Quah’s suggestion is that “the introduction of this feature also yields other potential complexities, mostly associated with the everyday doldrums of SEO management. In particular, this is probably going to change how people think about naming their shows, as they now operate within a universe that contains a powerful search engine with robust rules.”
However, I’m not as certain that ‘old school’ SEO rules are going to apply to this space as much as this might suggest. In other words, just because Google indexes podcasts, doesn’t mean that renaming your podcast episodes to topical titles is likely to help your rankings.
I make this claim because Google, overall, is moving beyond keywords and towards machine-learning and user signals (‘stickiness’) to rank web content, and surely ‘stickiness’ is nowhere more important, than in the realm of podcasts!
What the heck is machine learning and stickiness and what does it have to do with search?
10’ish years ago when I started in SEO, ranking in search engines had two primary components, 1) the actual words that appeared on your site (and in an age where tons of websites were made in Flash, you had a huge leg up just putting your content out as words on a page), and 2) the links outside of your site that linked to you, which Google saw as a proxy for your popularity/influence, in the same way that academic papers referencing other papers are seen as a vote of confidence for that paper.
Sooo much has changed since then, particularly around Google providing results based on context clues (e.g. if you Google ‘pizza’ from a mobile phone at 9pm at night it’ll show you a different result than from a desktop computer at 3pm in the afternoon) — but perhaps most powerfully is how the explosion of mobile devices and voice search changed the way people use search.
Unbelievably, over 15% of the phrases input into Google on a daily basis are completely original, the first time the search engine has ever heard them. Voice search encourages people to use natural language to search vs. the kinds of simple phrases used in the past. In other words, a modern day web searcher is more likely to search “what kind of weird podcasts are out there other than Welcome to Nightvale?” rather than “weird fiction podcasts.”
While the old-school SEO factors (on-page content optimization and off-site ranking signals like links and brand mentions) are still very (and perhaps the most) important, Google’s long-term strategy involves machine-learning, specifically, their “RankBrain” platform.
Essentially, RankBrain is an evolution of Google’s old-school model, where, rather than results being static, the machine does it best guess as to what your query might be, and then gauges the user’s response to that query to help inform how good a job it did. So, if you Google one of these weird phrases, visit a site, and then immediately ‘bounce’ back to the search results page, Google will interpret that as a failure (you didn’t find what you want and so you reverted back to the search results page) and be less likely to show that result in the future.
The corollary will also be true… If the result shown has a positive signal (the user ‘sticks’ to it) then Google will be more likely to show this result in the future.
So how does this affect how I should be promoting my podcast?!?!?!
If you look at how this feature looks in the wild today, it’s clear that whatever ranking factors Google uses, they are not primarily derived from the wording that appears in Podcast titles or metadata.
Take, for instance “Fiction podcasts”
I don’t think anywhere in the feeds of Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown, The Blak Tapes, etc. they ever refer to themselves as ‘Fiction podcasts’
And — hello! — Serial?!?! (Actually, there is quite a funny idea thinking that Serial might actually be a fiction show, let’s save that idea for another day).
My best guess as to how these shows got selected to appear in a ‘pack’ at the top of the “Podcast series -> Fiction” results is all the results below them: Lists.
Google LOVES lists. Structured data is how Google figures out a huge number of its add-on features (everything from movie listings to reviews to airline travel to movie tickets), and so, even though there is not really a comprehensive database of all podcasts in any sort of meaningful format (I think pretty much everyone agrees the default categories in iTunes are limited and woefully out of date) — Google has taken, as proxy, all of the ‘best of’ lists for Podcasts and are using that as a signal for what category your podcast best fits.
Meaning, saying “Fred’s Best Fiction Podcast of Audio Drama EVER!” is unlikely to get you a positive placement here. What you really need to be focusing on is creating a show of the caliber that gets you listed. And probably, more importantly even than that, is networking with the people who are influencers in the space such that you are on their radar to ever get listed in the first place.
Another thing to notice is, thinking about the RankBrain context. The Google bot is likely to award placement to the shows that get the most organic clickthrough. And you know what is almost more important than the title of the podcast in this placement? The Artwork!
Apple has been giving us advice all along that Artwork is hugely important to success in podcasting (you are optimizing for small screens and trying to suggest enough about what the show is about such that someone scrubbing through listings on their phone can self-identify if the show is for them) — and Google agrees!
Fred’s 5 tips for Ranking your Podcast, with or without Google:
- Follow best practices around episode structure and naming, but don’t try to “Game” the system. Both Apple and Google’s advice is that keep a consistent episode title format, without a bunch of extra ‘junk’ in the episode title and a title that is enticing (What can you write into the name of an episode that will make it enticing to someone?). I don’t think you need to worry about getting banned by Apple because you include an Episode ## in your title but I would definitely keep them in an orderly fashion, internally consistent, and probably follow a naming structure consistent with other top podcasts in your niche.
- Artwork is king! Despite the adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ this is DEFINITELY how people judge podcasts. It’s a bummer but it’s true. Does your artwork ‘speak’ to what your show is about, just at a glance? Does it look OK when shrunk down to 300px x 300px? Can you imagine it being in the top 100 of iTunes? If not, find an artist to help you out!!
- You should still make your own website. This is a general rule for anyone doing anything serious online about anything. While it’s really encouraging to try and build a following on social media, or using the DIY website builder w/ Libsyn or Podbean, etc. ultimately I am a much bigger fan of people ‘owning’ their own digital real estate on their own websites. It’s harder, and it can actually be harder to rank this way (as Google may not immediately see your site as an ‘authority’) but for long-term viability of your effort, having your own home is better than ‘renting’ on social media platforms.
- Make a damn good show. In general, you should be trying to make audio content people actually want to listen to. Your success doing this will increasingly get measured by platforms as real-time data gets sent back to the host platform, so I suspect everyone including Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, etc. will count (to varying degrees) the ‘listen through’ rates to shows as a ranking factor… if not already, then certainly in the future.
- Make friends! I think the only hope indie podcasts will have to stay relevant in the increasing network-ization of podcasting is to create some of these same infrastructures of our own. Already there are Discords, Facebook Communities, Slacks, etc. for all sorts of producer / fan communities within the podcasting space. These communities are critically important to making sure the indies remain relevant in an increasingly monetized podcasting environment.
- If you happen to be doing a niche podcast, everything I said about “SEO” may be wrong. For a show in the fiction genre where there isn’t a clear thing someone is searching, I think relative popularity and how interesting your show is will likely remain the most important factor. HOWEVER!! If you are making a podcast on a really specific topic, it probably will be to your favor to describe very particularly your show and how it fits the niche (ASMR podcast on hand-forging iron tools out of scrap parts found around the house) so that the very specific audience you are appropriate for, finds you.
What I Don’t Love About All This
Honestly, I was/am hoping for more about this Google product. What I see happening now is just more reinforcement of what’s already happening in podcast, namely the consolidation of power into the hands of the networks, and the people who have the resources to influence the influencers, commission amazing Art, and use the network affect to amplify their own voices.
New creators are only further put to the fringe if Google is dominating feeds with all of the shows that are already popular. And imagine! It’s hard enough to learn how to write, cast, record, edit, sound design, score, and package up material… Now you need to have a PR background, SEO skillz, AND social media management to have a hope of getting noticed? Eek!
Luckily, there are a growing number of indie creator communities who can counteract this to some amount… “Signal boosting” each other’s work, talking it up on both social networks and blogs, and — increasingly!! — actually getting positions of influence such that indies can continue to have a voice in the podcasting mainstream.
As a podcast user, I also love the potential, yet unrealized, by this product. Say, for example, I am a huge fan of Seth Godin and I want to look up podcasts that he has been a guest on. I find this result tremendously uninspiring:
This is an old fashioned Google ‘ten blue links’ listing, which I would argue would be much improved by a customized result aggregating the probably upwards of hundreds of shows Seth has done guest spots on… And perhaps, it could use user engagement data to float the better interviews to the top auto-magically. Now THAT would be useful.
I also think the ability to customize my podcast experience for my tastes and preferences has huge potential. For example, I HATE sports and will never listen to a sports podcast. So why does Apple keep showing them to me? It feels like that aspect — highlighting user experience and figuring out a better way to do customized recommendations — is far closer to Google’s core ‘brand’ and would do a much better service to the world, than just stuffing more real estate in search listings to existing key players.
Finally, I do think this is kind of cool. Look at the “Feature Snippet” that appears when you Google “Welcome to Nightvale” —
So, what do you think? Does Google including podcasts into search results mark the beginning of the endie for indie creators? Or is it really not much interesting at all? Or am I completely missing some bigger point?