Google is taking the next step in making podcasts easier to find. The company will now surface individual podcast episodes in search results, so if someone searches for a show about a niche topic or an interview with a specific person, Google will show them potential podcast episodes that fit their query. The company will also soon allow people to ask Google Assistant to play podcasts about specific topics, and it’ll find episodes to play.
For now, people have to search using the word “podcast,” so if you want to find a show that talks about golden retrievers, you’ll have to search “podcasts about golden retrievers” or “golden retriever podcast.” Once you choose one to listen to, it’ll open in Google Podcasts’ web app. The same command structure applies to Google Assistant, so users will have to say, “Hey Google, play a podcast about golden retrievers.”
Eventually, Google says it’ll support third-party playback, which is important for podcasts that are exclusive to certain platforms. (The publishers will have to define where they want the show to play themselves if it’s a third party.) It’ll also eventually drop the “podcast” search term requirement. It hasn’t said when the Assistant functionality will roll out.
To pull off the search indexing, Google is automatically transcribing all the podcast episodes it finds. (Android Police noted this happening earlier this year.) Podcasters who publish with an RSS Feed will have their shows automatically indexed, similar to how websites are populated on Google search today. The company has already indexed over 2 million shows. Zack Reneau-Wedeen, Google Podcasts product manager, tells The Verge that 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.”
“There’s so many more high-quality, varied podcasts than there used to be,” Reneau-Wedeen tells The Verge. “We’ve seen the problem move from what it was like to browse the Internet in the early- to mid-90s, where you knew all the websites you might want to visit, to the problem that we have in the 2000s on the Internet, where you need a search engine to really help you to discover and find all the content that might be useful or entertaining to you.”
This new functionality could fundamentally change how people find new shows because podcasts have lacked discovery tools. Right now, people typically find podcasts through friends or other shows, but they also likely have a hard time finding shows about specific topics because there’s no easy way to search by topic. Google including episodes in search clearly changes that.
However, what it could also change is how podcasters react to having their shows as searchable entities. Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the practice of titling webpages or altering URLs to make them more Google-friendly with commonly searched terms. It’s a well-established practice for websites that could make its way over to podcasts. Podcasters might start to change their episode titles, write their episode descriptions differently, or rely on flashier cover art to stand out.
This might not outwardly be a bad thing, but it could have negative side effects if podcast creators eventually rely on formulaic approaches to titles and descriptions that, prior to the new Google search feature, were places where they more openly expressed a show’s identity.
Reneau-Wedeen says the team is thinking about how search terms could be abused and is going to rely on Google’s web spam team to detect when people are trying to game the algorithm. “As podcasts become more ubiquitous, as more people try them out, there will be similar efforts to game the system, and that’s something that we’ll have to deal with,” he says. He also says the podcast team will rely on the Google search team to help surface authentic, authoritative podcast episodes if misinformation ends up becoming an issue for the podcast searches.
So yes, while podcast episodes in search could be huge for podcasters and give them unprecedented exposure to listeners, it could also come with risks to shows’ creativity. Presumably, podcasts that aren’t as popular or indexed as highly will also have a lower chance of ever being found at all.