UPDATED for Google’s latest announcements in August, 2019
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 lay context around my perspective on Google’s most recent foray into podcast optimization: the integration of podcast posts and feeds within Google results… including playback features and category browsing.
WAIT?! Podcasts are in Google?!
In case this is news to you… Check out nice summaries by Nieman Lab and The Verge (Fyi while this incaranation is quite new, Google has had XML guidelines for podcasts for a number of years)
This new feature to Google looks something like this, when seen in the wild:
This was originally posted in May. Check out how things have changed in just three months. (And thanks The Verge and Search Engine Land for staying hot on this topic; oh and see Google’s official announcement as well). Now instead of pointing people to Apple Podcasts landing pages, these point people to Google’s Podcast interface. Let the podcast platform wars start in earnest!!
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 pretty confident that ‘old school’ SEO rules are not going to apply to Podcasts, and that you will be a fool to rename your podcast / change the way you market your show purely to appeal to Google (UNLESS you are in a really niche podcast space).
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.
8/9/2019 update: My theory seems to have some credibility to it, The Verge quotes Google reps as saying: “Google will take certain signals into account when determining what shows to surface first, like how many people listen to a show or whether the show comes from a publisher that has “a lot of authority.””
Also, recently unveiled is that Google is transcribing podcasts on their own using machines, which will affect indexability.
(For more on RankBrain, check out Moz and Search Engine Journal RankBrain coverage)
So how does this affect how I should be promoting my podcast?!?!?!
1 – Do Not Try to Game Google with Stupid Spammy Crap in your Title/Metadata
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”.
Now, let’s start with a screenshot from when I first did this, in May of 2019:
Compare that with the same search result from August 2019:
The results have actually improved significantly in the last three months — namely that “Serial” is no longer classified as a “Fiction” show.
Importantly, none of the shows listed in the “Fiction” pack actually use the words “Fiction” in their title or metadata. It would be stupid, actually, to have a fiction show that says, “A Fictional Fiction Story About Aliens and Whatnot” — you should definitely have relevant, useful descriptor words in your podcast, but focus on what will make it appealing to LISTENERS not to the Google machine (more on that in a moment).
There are relevant use cases, like, “A podcast of short fiction from emerging writers” — but don’t just add a bunch of words that you think will make you appear higher in search, just to try and game the system. In fact, since Google is going to rely on their webspam team (again, according to The Verge), you will almost definitely get caught in the earliest rounds of spam penalties (whenever they get introduced) for podcasts if you take on this callous strategy.
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.
2 – Use Apple’s New Categorization Correctly
It looks like Google is using Apple’s recently introduced category overhaul for their own indexing (if you want to be a real podcast SEO nerd, you could go through ALL of the new categories that Apple introduced and see if this is consistent throughout… tbh I only really care about fiction so that’ll be my focus).
Google is now grouping shows into their own mini-lists and allows you to browse shows using the category links at the top of the page like they are “Breadcrumbs.”
I think this new feature is actually pretty cooll. Each show kinda has their own mini search result that’s browseable by tabbing through the cover art:
All the shows that appear above are pretty popular, so they likely meet the definition Google gave to The Verge of “a publisher with a lot of authority” but — hey, even those of us with NO authority can do this (this is from the RSS feed source of Black Tapes podcast):
So in case getting organized correctly in Apple Podcasts wasn’t important enough, this categorization also very likely affects your ability to appear in Google results. If you haven’t adopted the new standard yet, you better get on that!
3 – Get on the Lists / Make Friends
This next part is where it gets tougher, since this is where real PR and marketing work enter into it. Going back to the ‘balance’ of Search Results, beyond the top index, you see a ton of Lists for podcasts appear in the search results.
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). While you better believe Google’s own Podcast platform and everything you can put into it is super-important, I also think the ‘off-site’ factors such as the context in which your podcast is talked about on other podcasts, will be super important in terms of not just placing your podcast in the correct ‘neighborhood,’ but also in ranking it.
What you really need to be focusing on is creating a show of the caliber that gets you listed. And probably, as much or 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.
In the face of increasingly complex technical rules — which tend to allow the bigger networks, which can staff technical people to figure out these technical requirements — the best chance indie podcasters have to stay relevant is to independently build their own support networks where they can pool resources and ‘signal boost’ each other’s work. 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.
4 – Podcast Art is Important
Assuming we follow the notion that clickthrough and engagement is also an important ranking factor, it then follows: having appealing episode art which people click on is also critically important. Notice how — long before you ever hear any of these shows, you see the art!
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!
5 – You Can/Should/Must Create 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.
However, there is another super-important part of this:
Google tells us they are going to transcribe podcasts (already have done about 2,000,000 episodes) — well what if the machines doing this suck? What if they have trouble following dialogue in a fiction show that has high levels of dynamic range, all sorts of accents, non-English (or made-up) lines, rich sound design, etc? The likely result is a bunch of mush as far as a transcription goes.
I’m not 100% sure how smart Google is going to be about seeing your own webpage as the ‘canonical’ copy of a podcast, but I *Suspect* this is going to be possible, meaning you will have access to supplement your show’s context with more than the rather limited amount of info that can get stuffed in an individual episode’s RSS metadata description field.
Many/most big shows already do this, so they can have a particular fan experience across device platforms. Some of the cool stuff you might want to put on your own website and posts that relate to specific podcast episodes:
- Your own transcripts or scripts for shows (to supplement/enhance Google’s likely-to-be-crummy machine interpretations)
- More context around what type of show it is (this may be a more appropriate place to talk about how your show is a genre-bending sci-fi mashup of CHEERS and MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS).
- Abilities to cultivate your own audience, e.g. newsletter or Patreon signup, comprehensive episode archives, etc.
6 – Make a damn good show
Yes, all this marketing stuff is important and you really have to do it in order to get noticed, especially as podcasting breaks over ~1,000,000 published shows and the bigger networks are starting to suck up all the oxygen in the room.
HOWEVER — none of the SEO in the world is going to help a show that sucks come out from the backwaters of obscurity. You need to create 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.
What I Don’t Love About All This
Now, I have to eat a lot of my words from when this was originally published in May 2019, since the current product (August 2019) provides a FAR better user experience.
Let’s compare. 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 found this result (from May) tremendously uninspiring:
Things have gotten MUCH better. You’ll now actually see which podcasts had Seth Godin on as a guest. Who knows exactly how the podcasts rank (how would you know which are the ‘best’ interviews he’s given?) but I think this result does a far better job at giving me the results I was looking for:
However, I’m still concerned about how this technology stands to further 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 their entrenched network power 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.
My parting words to the audio fiction community: there is no zero sum game in promoting each other’s work. Love defies the 1st law of thermodynamics — more of it can be created, and it doesn’t cost anything, it only creates more, and more of it. And damn, does this world need more!