Written by Audio

Google and Podcasts

podcasts01

This week we heard the first news that Google is starting to get into the podcast game. Recode had the first decent report on the move.

Currently, Apple dominates podcasts. Indeed, the word “podcast” might seem to imply to casual listener, that listening to a podcast means having an actual “iPod” to listen to them on. It doesn’t, although Apple’s inclusion of podcasts into iTunes fairly early on gave the medium a massive boost. At a time when you had to sync your mp3 player with some software on a PC, podcasting was technically complicated business. Tying it into the same system that got your music on your portable audio device was a smart move by Apple.

But in a mobile world with WiFi networks and 4G, podcasting should have become simpler. Apple spun out its Podcasts app, and a myriad of apps appeared on Android devices.

So why then are podcasts listened to on mobile devices still so heavily skewed towards Apple? It’s reported that Libsyn-hosted podcasts see more than five times as many iOS downloads as Android ones! That’s astonishing. And awful.

It’s so skewed because Apple fully supports podcasts, and when you turn on a new iPhone, you have the Podcasts app waiting to go. You can browse easily within the app for something to listen to, and when podcasts you might have caught because someone shared a link on social media, suggest you subscribe, they invariably mention that this podcast can be found in iTunes – where you can leave a review!

And so it becomes self-fulfilling. Indeed, too many people continue to believe that if they’ve got their podcasts in iTunes, then a simple link to that page is all they need to share. (See also my Top Tips for Podcasters.)

Yet while all of this is going on, there are more Android handset owners than iPhone owners in pretty much every market. Way more.

Podcasters are missing out. More to the point, they’re missing the opportunity to more than double their audience. But it’s not their fault. There’s just an in-built bias towards Apple in the podcasting ecosystem.

If we assume that an Android user is no more or less interested in audio than an iPhone user, then that leaves a lot of low hanging fruit ready to be picked. I’ve written about this in the past as The Android Problem. Yes, I know that iOS users buy more games and spend more money per device – maybe their more engaged with smartphones overall. But that doesn’t account for those massive discrepancies.

Earlier this year when I last wrote that piece, I was hoping that Google would get into this game, because podcasts are the obvious part of the iTunes store that the Google Play store is missing.

But what Google is talking about, as far as I can see, is something a bit different to Apple. Apple essentially allows anyone to place their podcast on iTunes. You complete a form, upload some graphics and meta data, find a host to serve your podcast and you’re away. If you have a podcast, you have to place it on iTunes.

podcasts03

But Google looks like it’s suggesting something a little beyond this. Yes, they want podcasters to upload their wares. And yes, they say that you’ll be able to search for and browse for podcasts by category – the same ones as Apple. But from what they’re talking about in their blog piece, they also want to automatically recommend appropriate podcasts – which sounds a little more like services such as Stitcher.

Since Google bought Songza, they’ve been implementing smart technologies to deliver music appropriate to the time of day and what you’re doing. Initially this was solely available in the paid-for Google Play Music subscription offering, but in the US, there’s now also a free version of this, with advertising support and limitations on how much music you can skip. (Regular readers may recall that as a UK listener, I was tortured with getting access to this, and then losing it for several weeks!)

Incorporating podcasts into this sort of thing is interesting, and listening to Google Play Music product manager Elias Roman on The Feed, it’s clear that this is a major part of what they want to offer. Indeed, it’s worth noting that as well as Android, there will be iOS and web apps to enable wide adoption of what they’re planning.

But at the moment, there’s nothing to actually listen to, and in any case, only US podcasters seem able to upload their podcasts to the site. I understand that a service that’s potentially supported by advertising may want to launch on a regional basis, but whisper it: Americans do listen to podcasts from outside America too!

podcasts02

Google also seems to pushing very hard the fact that their app – presumably Google Music – will be the default pre-installed way to listen to Podcasts.

Anyway, this all leaves lots of unanswered questions:

1. When will anyone be able to upload a podcast to Google, regardless of geography? At the moment the site geo-blocks non-US uploaders. Even if the service isn’t available outside the US, it’d be nice to be able to get international podcasts hosted there!

2. Will podcasts in Google Play be essentially open to all as with Apple, or is Google looking for premium suppliers only? It would seem to be the former.

3. Advertising – how will it work, if at all, and what might I earn? The US-only free Google Play Music service is ad-supported. There’s obviously a revenue-sharing operation currently working with music rights holders. I assume that’s why this whole thing is limited to the US at the moment as it’s the advertising market Google is most comfortable with. But what kind of deals will be on the table for podcasters, if any? Who can earn what? And in the longer term, what if anything will that mean for podcasts and podcast networks that already have very profitable ad operations? I note that the likes of Panoply and Gimlet are already on board with Google, and they are already ad-supported. The episode of The Feed I mentioned above is well worth a listen because a lot of basic questions are answered, but advertising was not – aside from the fact that Google will not be dicing or slicing your podcast or removing adverts already embedded into your podcasts. [See my follow-up post for more on this]

4. What does this all mean for other podcast app providers on Android? Is Google effectively killing them off? Do the likes of PocketCasts or Doggcatcher have enough points of difference to keep going? iOS has other podcast providers – PocketCasts is one of them. Will I be able to directly subscribe to a podcast in PocketCasts from Google Play – in the same way that I get to choose my choice for apps like browsers and music players. It doesn’t sound like it’ll work that way.

5. Are we going to end up in a messy world of platform exclusives? Let’s hope not.

6. Might this pave the way for better metrics? I think this is critically important from an advertising and accountability perspective. Google says that it will be taking a copy of your podcast from your feed, re-encoding it themselves, and then hosting it for listeners. That means that your metrics will come from Google, and at this point that sounds like a basic play count a la YouTube. What Google is talking about doing is different to iTunes. Apple does not host your podcast – you sort out your hosting requirements yourself – perhaps with a specialist like Libsyn. That provider may well offer a measurement service so you can see detailed statistics on your podcasts’ performance. Now Stitcher also caches a local copy of podcasts, but I understand that it pings your feed so that your host’s stats are broadly correct tallying Sticher plays with wider downloads (Stitcher also has a bespoke stats platform you can view). Will Google do this? I must admit, that I don’t know what happens with TuneIn, and whether it caches a copy or just redirects to your host. And there are a myriad of other places of varying scales. Some hosts provide some of this, taking account of duplicated and failed attempts to download. But if podcasts are held in multiple systems with multiple sets of metrics, coming to a cumulative picture of your podcast’s performance becomes hard. Every podcast provider would love to be able to determine whether just because a podcast was downloaded, was it actually listened to, and was it listened all the way through? That really helps support advertising. Google could potentially supply that information back to podcasters as it does to YouTube creators via their analytics platform.

7. How will Apple react? In some respects, they’ve never really developed podcasting beyond separating the app out of their overall music player. Will they be incorporating podcasts into their Apple Music offering?

There are just some of my initial questions.

Further down the line, it’ll be really important to see how Google promotes the very existence of podcasts in its software. This is how consumers can be motivated to at least try podcasts and see if they’re something they find interesting. I still have a feeling that Google needs to work hard to promote Google Play much more – particularly its Music offering which is where podcasts will sit. That will be key to how successful this is.

But overall it can only be fantastic news that Google is properly supporting podcasts now.

Oh, and Google is sticking with the name “Podcast.” So no need for anyone to reinvent the terminology now.

[I wrote a follow-up post covering advertising in particular]