A thought exercise.
Back in “the day”, I used to work a fair bit in search engine optimisation (SEO) with my digital agency and I remember the good, the bad and the ugly.
The bottom line is: we all know how valuable well optimised and high-quality content is on our website and we all know, too, how shady some of the tactics can be and how, erm… questionable, some of the SEO peddlers out there in the world can be, too.
Did podcasting just enter that world in earnest?
I’m lucky enough to have spent some time with the Google Podcasts team over the last year or so, at Voicecon, Harvard and most recently at RAIN’s Podcast Business Summit back in March this year.
During any time that I’ve spent with Zack, the Google Podcasts product lead or one of his team, I’ve enjoyed talking and exploring with them the possibilities that Google’s heavy interest in podcasts brings to the market and with their audacious goal of “doubling podcast listening” being both ambitious and exciting, one begins to wonder how the might of Google’s eco-system could affect podcast discoverability and overall listenership for the long-term.
During RAIN’s summit in March, Zack told the audience about Google’s “backend” transcription which essentially takes your audio, transcribes it on the backend (i.e., not giving you the physical transcription) and then uses that transcription to make your audio searchable – the current status of its rollout is uncertain, depending on where and how you look, however, this isn’t something that’s far away in the worst case.
Last week, Google’s rollout of its most recent feature brought online something else interesting: in-page podcast players are now present in Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) which is to say that if you search for a podcast, you’re not only shown the podcast’s website but a list of playable episodes directly within your results.
This got me thinking about the future and in particular, what this could mean for podcast SEO over the next few months, years, decades.
We know that there’s a podcast discoverability challenge. We know that many companies are trying to solve this, from the 37,563 “Netflix of Podcasting” companies that spring up every 25 minutes, to Spotify trialling podcast recommendations based on your music preferences and listening behaviours.
My gut tells me that Apple will do something in this space this year, too and that probably over the next year, Facebook will do something very specific with spoken word audio.
But Google holds a unique position: for many people, it is the “homepage” of the Internet. Disagree with that if you will, but ultimately even if that isn’t the case, it’s the first place that the vast majority of us go to search for, well, anything.
Put together the two features that I describe above and we can begin to plot a course for Google’s podcasting ambitions; the thought both excites me and scares me, in equal measure.
First, the “good”:
- As podcasters, we don’t have that much in the way of search engine optimisation options. Sure, we can optimise our shows for podcast directories like Apple, Spotify and the rest and of course, we can optimise our websites to be found for terms that we deem to be important to our discoverability. But, given that Google can now look “inside” our audio, there exists an opportunity for us to be naturally more strategic in the content within our episodes based on some decent keyword research.
- Based on how YouTube videos are given certain preference and/or prominence – will audio receive the same treatment?
- To that end, we may find ourselves attracting listeners who are seeking specific information and who have never been podcast listeners before because as they search, the best and most relevant content just happens to sit within a podcast episode. Plus, Google now suggests a point of interest within a YouTube video and an “exit” point for the same video based on what I ask it – it suggests a relevant “clip” of a video based on my query – what’s to say that if I search for a term within Google, the results displayed won’t include a podcast episode, just one from a trusted source (according to Google’s algorithm), with timestamps attached – essentially Google saying “Hey, I found the answer you need, it’s at minute 5:27 to 7:36 of this 42 minute podcast episode – just listen to that bit”? Will Google push people to algorithmically defined “clips”, based on search queries?
Note: my zippers are fine.
Now, the potential “bad and ugly”:
- To my first “good” point, there also exists the risk that our content will suffer, or that certain types of podcasters, will choose to optimise for “traffic” versus actually producing great content for people – the very essence of podcasting could be forgotten. That’s a leap, sure, but how many people will enter the medium because they see it as a quick way to “gain rankings”? Urgh.
- To my third point above (and this may be good, it may be bad, it may be ugly – you decide), if people are coming to our show not via recommendation and without the desire to listen to the whole episode having being served a “suggested clip” by Google, will that affect our subscription potential (e.g. getting people to listen to 1. More than the clip and 2. More than one episode) and if so, is that a worthwhile trade-off weighted against the potential new, non-podcast-aware, listeners we may receive? Further, how will that affect our downloads against IAB standards, our own brand KPIs (key performance indicators) and our ability to develop fans and friends versus “traffic”?
- How long before podcasters begin getting pitched “SEO services” like businesses used to do “back in the day” at overly exorbitant prices and being promised “rankings”. Double urgh.
These are just my initial thoughts. There’s so much more to consider here and I’m sure Google is considering all of these points, they’re a very smart bunch of people and Zack’s team seems to be genuinely interested in furthering the podcast industry in a positive manner.
What say you?
I did a special bonus podcast episode that dives a bit deeper on this, too. Have a listen on Spotify.