James Cridland

How to get the BBC back into Google Podcasts

aka: let’s give back control to content producers

It seems like it’s many months since the BBC removed their podcasts from Google Podcasts.

Their removal had a number of effects:

First, BBC podcasts are not officially available on the Google Podcasts app, which is the default podcast player for Android users. (The player is installed on every Android phone; clicking a Google Podcasts link opens the player, and coaxes the user to install the full app).

Second, BBC podcasts are not officially available on any Google smart speaker — whether the Google Nest Home Hub, the ultra-cheap Google Home Mini, or a variety of third-party products from all kinds of manufacturers.

And third, BBC podcasts don’t appear with those big play buttons in Google searches. Whether you run a Google search on Android, desktop or mobile, for any other podcast you’ll see play buttons appear — which take you directly into the Google Podcasts experience and let you play a podcast without any hassle.

This removal in context

The BBC isn’t public with its podcast download figures, but piecing together the data that they have allowed into the public domain and comparing those with top US podcasters in Podtrac, it can be calculated that the BBC is, globally, in the **top three largest podcasters.**They’re not a small player.

Google Podcasts has low consumption figures — Libsyn’s figures claim it accounts for less than 2% of total podcast downloads. Libsyn’s figure is, though, the only figure we have; Google Podcasts is available on many different surfaces, so it’s surprisingly difficult to measure. I suspect that many podcast hosts aren’t correctly measuring all plays directly attributable to Google Podcasts, and that the figure is rather larger than we think. Even so, Google Podcasts can ill-afford to lose content from a top three publisher.

Because the Google Podcasts player is pre-installed on every Android device, and Android has an 80% market-share globally, it’s clear that it represents a good potential for growth in most of the world. The app doesn’t take space on a phone, and nor does it download automatically, offering benefits in many countries that have less highly-specified phones.

The BBC monetises its podcasts outside the UK through Acast, too, and has an ambitious global audience target, which could be aided by podcast growth on the most popular mobile phone OS in the world. The last thing the BBC wants is to remove their own content from Google.

What does the BBC actually want?

I had a number of chats with BBC folk in London during the recent Podcast Day. None would speak on the record, but as far as I can work out, they’re fine with their content being available in the Google Podcasts app; they want it available on Google smart speakers, too. The only things that they have difficulty with are those play buttons in Google search results.

They don’t like the buttons in the Google search results, they tell me, because of concern about anti-competitive practice. The folks I talked to gave me some talk of openness and wishing to avoid a monopoly. They don’t like it that the button only goes to Google Podcasts; they worry that it’ll put other podcast apps out of business. I’m not sure why they care: but that’s their view, and we’re all entitled to a view.

They deny that their overall aim is to syphon people to BBC Sounds, their own podcast app. That app requires user registration and returns minute-by-minute consumption detail tied into those user analytics, which is massively useful information. It is clearly much more valuable for them if I listen in BBC Sounds than if I listen in a third-party player. In their shoes, I’d also want to encourage listening in BBC Sounds too, to be honest; so not sure why they’re denying it.

I’m not sure I agree with their stated reasons. But I do agree with the thoughts behind them. The BBC is right to want control of BBC content. Because it’s their content.

Podcasts aren’t a free-for-all

A few years ago, we had a small amount of podcast apps, who all operated in much the same way: using the data in the RSS feed, present podcasts to audiences, downloading the audio, and allowing a user to play the audio back. The podcast remained intact and whole.

Now, internet companies are manipulating podcast content, not just presenting it.

As one example, Google and Apple are both taking podcast audio and turning it into a mostly-accurate (ie “partially wrong”) transcript. To transform copyright audio into text and allow that to be searched through and even viewed, must be concerning for some publishers.

As another more obvious example, some companies are caching audio podcasts. Luminary launched this way with the best of intentions, though rapidly pulled back from doing so. Stitcher did this too, once upon a time. Spotify still does so for most podcast publishers, and there are others, too, who cache audio. I’m personally delighted with any company that wants to simultaneously save my podcast bandwidth and improve their listener experience, and would welcome the chance to signal to more podcast apps that they may cache my content. Others may not be so keen.

There is an existing solution

Right now, the only way to pull out of Google Podcasts is to do what the BBC have done — with a directive within the RSS feed, or a robots.txt directive, to tell the Google robots to go away. This is a too-blunt instrument that doesn’t give publishers the control that they may want.

As a website owner, I can either tell the Google robots to go away entirely, or I can opt-out of “snippets” in Google, so it won’t take highlight excerpts of my website in search results. Most websites don’t do this, but some people might find that a useful thing. I can also add schema to webpages to help Google display rich search results.

This highlights a potential way forward here — to give granular control to the content owners, and ensure that Google, or others, treat their content the way publishers want their content treated.

Instead, allowing a set of optional attributes into an RSS feed would make sense. My suggestion might be to add (somewhere):

  • transcript="no" - this publisher does not allow a transcript of the audio to be created, and understands that their search visibility may be affected. Defaults to “yes”.
  • search-play-buttons="no" - this publisher is opting out of play buttons in web searches, like those currently seen in Google, and understands this may result in lower play numbers. Defaults to “yes”.
  • audio-cache="no" - this publisher does not want podcast audio to be cached on any upstream systems, and understands that this may result in higher traffic and an enlarged bandwidth bill. Defaults to “yes”.

So, for most publishers, Google would continue as normal. But for the tiny percentage of publishers that did want more control, they could get it on a granular level.

I want the BBC’s content back in the podcast app that I’ve chosen to use. The BBC want it too. Google have historically been good at allowing content providers to adequately control their content on Google: but not, yet, within Google Podcasts.

So, c’mon, Google, how about it?