Digging Deeper::How Does iTunes Pick Featured Podcasts?

    by Mark Glaser
    February 21, 2006

    i-bcb0c64a849aa51d9104b605d637b889-Disney DVD News podcast.JPG
    While working on last’s week’s guide to podcast directories, I stumbled onto one of the great mysteries of the podcasting world: Just how exactly does Apple choose the featured podcasts in its popular podcast directory? And the more I looked at other directories, the more I had similar questions about what was chosen and why.

    So I methodically contacted each one to find out the reasons behind spotlight picks. Why is this important? In the nascent world of podcasts, new listeners want help choosing the best podcasts out of the tens of thousands of offerings. If there are ulterior motives behind the picks — a payment of some sort or a backroom business deal — then people visiting the directories should know this.

    What I found is that in most cases, the spotlight picks were made at the judgment of site managers who were simply choosing what they deemed to be the best podcasts. PodShow, Yahoo, Odeo and Apple all say that they accept no payments for their highlighted picks. PodShow is a commercial network of podcasts, so it features its own network podcasts in its picks and fan favorites slots.


    PodShow director of marketing Aaron Burcell told me PodShow’s other sites choose their picks in different ways.

    “We also own Indiepodder.org, Podsafe Music Network and Podcast Alley,” Burcell said. “Indiepodder.org is a user-supported independent podcasting community that is managed by genre node managers — they determine how content is featured, presumably based on their favorites. Podcast Alley contains featured content that is voted on by listeners of podcasts. And Podsafe Music Network reports ‘podplay’ of independent music that is reported by podcasters. As you can see, these are all different models. PodShow is an independent media network — naturally we feature our own programming there.”

    Odeo and Yahoo also depend on staffers to highlight the good podcasts. Biz Stone of Odeo likened the Featured Channel picks to staff favorites at your local book store.


    “Those slots are not paid for; we feature them when we find some that we like or that we think our users will be interested in,” Stone told me via email. “It’s similar to ‘Staff Picks’ in your local book or record store. We did a similar thing at Blogger for ‘Blogs of Note’ when Ev [Williams] and I worked there.”

    The bigger mystery has been Apple’s iTunes Podcast Directory, with its plethora of featured slots. At the top of the directory’s home page are three large graphical spots that catch your eye in a big way. I noticed recently that those slots now rotate to feature 12 different podcasts. Plus, when you dig deeper into genres, there are more featured content slots, usually for podcasts from larger organizations. The sports category, for instance, features ESPN, CSTV and MLB.com podcasts.

    I couldn’t get multiple Apple spokespeople to respond to my queries, but I did find a technical specifications page on the iTunes site that had one explanation for featured picks on iTunes.

    Under the heading, “Being Featured on the iTunes Home Page,” the copy reads:

    At iTunes, we’re constantly on the lookout for podcasts that are breaking new ground with this medium, have new or unusual content, or just capture our interest. When we find them, we like to feature them on the Podcasts home page. While there are no sure-fire ways to get your podcast featured (and no, we do not accept payments for promotion), there are some minimum requirements. To be featured by iTunes, podcasts must have:

    1. An image.
    2. A robust and accurate description.
    3. Proper language, category, and explicit tagging.

    In addition, featured podcasts must be regularly updated with new episodes. We occasionally feature a podcast after its first episode, but we generally like to see podcasts with at least 3 episodes, and we like to see that the most recent episode has been added in the past month. Ideally, the episodes should be released on a regular and predictable basis. More than 100 podcasts are submitted every day, so it is impossible to feature all of the good ones.

    While they might not accept payments for these slots, there might be other corporate or commercial considerations for Apple when choosing slots. For instance, one of the 12 top slots yesterday was for Disney DVD News, basically a marketing podcast for Disney promoting its new DVD releases. Disney made a high-profile deal with Apple, making its hit shows available for download on iTunes. Plus, Disney recently bought out Pixar, a company helmed by Steve Jobs, who also happens to be Apple’s CEO. The result is that any featured podcasts done by Disney (or its ABC or ESPN networks) smells of a sweetheart deal.

    iTunes also has a running list of “Today’s Top Podcasts,” with no explanation of what that might be beyond the amount of subscriptions that day. At one point, podcasters learned they could manipulate that list by simply pushing the subscribe button on iTunes multiple times per day. Again, Apple hasn’t responded to my query on how they can keep this list clean.

    Elle Webb, who runs the popular Podcasting News site, told me all this mystery around picks and Top 100 lists might be besides the point.

    “I’m not convinced that rankings are especially useful,” Webb said via email. “We don’t promote rankings at Podcasting News, preferring to focus on creating a clear, easy-to-navigate directory. One of the biggest benefits of podcasting is that it opens up a tremendous world of niche content, and one of the big challenges is making this world something people can explore.

    “Focusing on the top 10 or top 100 podcasts is horseless-carriage thinking. When there are 5,000 or 50,000 podcasts that you can listen to, on demand, the top 10 list isn’t as important as it used to be. If your interest is in a niche like media critiques, or techno music, or knitting, you don’t care what the top 10 podcasts are. You just want to find the podcasts about the niche that you’re interested in.”

    That might be so, but as these niches fill up with many podcasts for each one, we’ll still want to get the best ones, rather than subscribing to 10 knitting podcasts or 48 techno podcasts.

    And until Apple does come clean about its methodology for featuring podcasts and charting them — and explain it prominently for listeners — it will remain under a cloud of uncertainty, making those picks less than trustworthy.

    • John V.

      great piece…really well observed….although, is anyone surprised Disney got a sweetheart deal from Apple?

    • I run a site called PodGuide.TV (http://www.podguide.tv) which is exclusively dedicated to reviewing video podcasts. Last week I wrote an article querying why some great video podcasts never get on the “featured” list in the iTMS, and made 10 recommendations that Apple seems to have ignored.

      The article was pretty popular, making both the front page of Digg.com, and del.icio.us most popular list, and subsequently we generated a lot of subscriptions via our site (which we track for a weekly Top 20 list) In fact, we drove so many subscriptions that a couple of the previously little known video podcasts were pushed up in the charts at Apple.com, in one case (GeekBrief.TV) being pushed almost overnight to #9 on the technology chart.

      It will be interesting to see if these now highly placed video podcasts actually make the “featured” list.

    • A month ago iTunes gave my YOGAmazing Video Podcast the top left corner on the iTunes Podcast Directory Homepage. This is the most prominent location to be placed in for getting your Podcast promoted. I paid them no money and I have no contacts within Apple and my Podcast is not owned by a corporation. They believed in my show and in turn gave me some serious PR as well as a ton of new subscribers to my Podcast. It’s all good in my opinion. Great story!

    • Great article. As a musician I’m no stranger to “pay for play” although the one comment makes me beleive they do occasionally look for “indie” podcasters. I was really bummed when all the “rehased radio broadcasts” appeared on the front page. Oh well, I’ll have someting to tell the Grandkids about the good old days before corproate podcasting.

    • This week iTunes UK featured my almost year old podcast–The Gastrocast–but as far as I know iTunes US has never had it up. In fact, after struggling to remove two bad links to my show in iTunes and correcting it with a special all shows feed, I am again back up to two links–one good and one which never updates. I’m going to leave it alone because last time they removed everything and I lost more than half my audience for a while.

      In a way it is nice to not have a directory where you have to vote to get noticed, but on the other hand there are no great directories for “fringe” podcasts. Oh, if you podcast about technology, or music, or podcasting you get plenty of attention. But food, drink, gardening, lifestyle podcasts are lost in a void in most diretories which fill up with shows which happen to mention food or drink once but never again.

      There still is no great directory, or way, for non-podcasting, non-technologically inclined people to find the wealth of information out there apart from googling your interest with the word “podcast” in the line. About 70% of my first-time traffic comes this way.

      Thanks for a great piece.

    • Thanks for all the good comments on the post. I do want to clarify that Apple does indeed feature independent podcasts quite frequently in these high-profile slots on iTunes. And they say that they accept no payment for the slots.

      The problem as I see it is that they don’t clarify how they decide on what gets featured, which leaves me (and many others) wondering if there are some kind of backroom deals going on between Apple and Disney, for instance. Apple Computer is far from being Billboard magazine or some kind of independent editorial voice.

      The world of podcasting is literally screaming out for someone with some credibility (and no involvement in podcasting itself) to come up with independently produced charts and/or reviews highlighting the best stuff. Podchef makes a great point: we don’t have an easy way for the great listening masses to find what they want.

    • “The world of podcasting is literally screaming out for someone with some credibility (and no involvement in podcasting itself) to come up with independently produced charts and/or reviews highlighting the best stuff.”

      I felt I had to respond, because that’s exactly what PodGuide.TV is doing for video podcasts – individual reviews highlighting the best video podcasts (over 300 so far), from someone not involved with podcasting (me), along with independently produced charts (we do a top 20 weekly from people who subscribe via our site).

      I don’t know about the credibility – hopefully that’ll come with time.

      We also have a Food & Drink section, so as soon as podchef makes the move to video podcasts, we’ll be more than happy to feature it.

    • amy

      Great Article! Kepp us posted on those independently produced charts…

    • Our show was recently removed from the iTunes Music: Featured Podcasts room. I have some contacts in Apple who were gracious enough to lend some insight as to how the ranking system works. It alludes to the number of subscriptions a show has and how old they are as determining factors for ranking and featuring:

      Hi Dean —

      I manage the podcast directory here at iTunes.

      The Top100 lists are driven purely by an algorithm that looks at new subscriptions during the past week, with subs during the past day weighted heavily and older subscriptions weighted less (decay algorithm). We do not and have no ability to affect these lists.

      To an increasing degree, the subject rooms (read Featured Podcasts) are also driven by data. With a huge, diverse, and rapidly growing set of podcasts in our directory, user behavior is our best gauge. It’s true that success tends to self-perpetuate, so we attempt to create algorithms that continually percolate material through the lists. But the best advice we can offer is to ask your users to subscribe to the podcast using the iTunes directory and, if they like what they hear, to write good things about you in the reviews.

      For more background on the operations of the podcast page, please see the tech spec (http://www.apple.com/itunes/podcasts/techspecs.html ) and the features doc (attached).

      So take it for what it’s worth. I find it to be the most reasonable answer I’ve found up to this date.

      As a result, I’m going to conduct a little experiment, and record a small announcement. In it I will mention that we were removed from the Music: Featured Podcasts room, why this happened, and how we think our listeners can help us out. We have a substantial listener base. It will be interesting to see the out come.

      E. Dean Sahutske

    • What frustrates me about iTunes “Featured Podcast” policy (or lack thereof) is that they don’t seem to rotate the list regularly. They need to keep the list fresh. Every time I look at the business section, for example, it’s the same podcasters (many of which are big-time players). I work for a small investing company that has been attempting to get into the featured section, but there are no real guidelines. If Apple is actually basing the inclusion criteria on number of subscribers, then it seems like a Catch-22.

    • Wowee, great post… and the comments are equally interesting.

      I’ve been struggling with the whole “featured podcast” thing since my last video-podcast was a huge success and now I’m making content that is significantly more niche. My first show was Kitkast, a sexy show featuring myself in lingerie, which even though I haven’t posted a new video since March, still makes the top 100 podcasts every once in a while. My new (well, 3 month old) show is called Galacticast, a sketch-comedy sci-fi video-podcast. The former still gets a TON of subscriptions because people are always discovering iTunes for the first time and searching the inevitable words “sex” or “porn”. Unfortunately, less people search for sci-fi and anything labeled comedy gets lost in the fuzz. Help me Obi Wan, you’re my only hope!

      It is a shame that there isn’t more diversity on iTunes… every week it’s the same old thing “French Main TV” (a show with only 3 episodes over the course of 8 months), “Ask A Ninja” (which is great, but everyone knows about it already) and “Rocketboom” (which is constantly in the media). There is great stuff out there, but unfortunately it doesn’t get much promotion because it doesn’t get featured.

      /rant ;)

      Take care,
      Casey (aka: Ms. Kitka)

    • Perhaps even more important than the ranking is the policy (or lack of policy) around de-listing defunct podcasts. This is a complex topic due to the wide variety of scenarios. Some (many) podcasts put out a few episodes and then fade away. These should be delisted after 6 months or something. However, if someone releases reference material, fiction, training podcasts, etc and then stops: those continue to be useful for years to come even if they never are updated again. it created a difficult scenario for any of the podcast indexes, not just iTunes.

      For example, my podcast is focused on MMORPG gaming and while I’m satisfied that a search for MMORPG turns up the VirginWorlds podcast in the featured 4, I’m frustrated by the fact that one of the other podcasts typically ranked in the top 4 has been defunct for over 6 months.

      Apple NEEDS to rank podcasts with update frequency in mind and they need to delist obviously defunct ones as well.

      Is it just me or does Apple seem rather standoffish about the way iTunes works?

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