James Cridland

The Apple Podcasts Chart is screwed. How should we replace it?

A recurring theme in Podnews this year has been the level of manipulation of the Apple Podcast Charts. We covered this in May, highlighting a company who was charging thousands of dollars for a top placing; a week later, some relatively conclusive proof of a set of podcasts that were being manipulated; a video in September highlighting the scale of the issue; and many more. Apple have said nothing, and while some podcasters who have been manipulating charts have been removed, many more remain.

In a long thread on Twitter, Kevin Goldberg highlights the difficulty with professional cheats on Fiverr and other platforms, and notes that the Apple Podcast Charts are now a mix of authentic and gamed shows. He pleas:

Podcasters, please stop using these charts as validation. Advertisers, don’t base your rates on chart rankings. Listeners, there are tons of great podcasts out there, don’t rely on these charts.

Many podcasters are being targeted, through LinkedIn, Twitter or other means, by professional cheats — offering their services for as little as $5 (some with highly misleading artwork. At Podnews, we were contacted by a professional Apple Podcast cheat via Twitter for a chat. (Use your arrow keys to flick through).

Another high-profile, and highly experienced, podcaster contacts Podnews today to say:

I’m getting beaten by shows that didn’t exist a week ago, or are run by internet marketers. Super weird. I’m literally turning off my ad campaigns now because 1) they’re being hammered by these bad actors (or new algorithm) and 2) I don’t want to be associated with these guys.

An ad buying agency contacted Podnews recently, telling us that some podcasts were clearly being sold on their Apple Podcast Charts position: but, by the results achieved, were clearly not achieving large numbers of downloads.

Many podcasters are now discussing whether there is a new algorithm being used in the Apple Podcast Charts. I suspect that it’s simpler: the charts are now just being saturated by cheats.

The amount of listening within Apple Podcasts is going down. Spotify is now a clear second; but other podcast apps are also claiming more of the pie. The real truth is that Apple Podcasts is becoming more irrelevant by the day. The rampant cheating in the chart is only making this process faster.

Being fair, the Apple Podcasts chart has never been meant to be a popularity chart. It’s a discovery mechanism: weighted in favour of new subscriptions, new launches and hype.

Podtrac mostly measures actual downloads — and claims to measure 73% of all podcasts with more than 10,000 downloads per episode. Their US chart is very different to the one at Apple Podcasts. Podtrac is not without its faults, but it is, at least, a relatively complete view of the US podcast industry — excepting activity on Spotify, which currently caches most of the podcasts on their service. The company doesn’t, however, seem outwardly keen to engage.

The Swedish Poddindex, a genuine chart of the largest publishers of podcasts in Sweden, is another potential solution. It uses standard methodology, but is neither simple to implement nor available to smaller passion podcasters.

NPR’s RAD measurement or Podcast Pingback, both of which measure actual consumption, require Apple, Google and Spotify (at a minimum) to agree to add tracking code into their apps. Other podcast app developers have already said they’ll never implement this form of tracking.

Whatever the podcast industry’s plans are in the future, however, an actual “chart” is sorely needed. A way to compare your own product with someone else’s is a powerful creative stimulus — just look at follower counts on Twitter. Podcasting, particularly, needs a chart.

The question is whether we can get a truly global replacement for the Apple Podcast Chart — one less susceptible to being cheated, one more representative of the industry as a whole, and one that is just as accessible for passion podcasters as for VC-backed podcast publishers.

Is it time?