Apple has been a dominant force in podcasting for years, with its listening app and its charts playing a supporting role in many shows’ successes. In a perfect meritocracy, the most organically popular podcasts would be the ones with the largest audiences and the best placements on those Apple charts. However, a new report from James Cridland’s Podnews reveals that algorithmic one-upmanship has entered the scene — podcasters can now buy their way to a high placement in Apple Podcast charts.
That’s what a company called Podcast Influencer promises — and, in fact, guarantees. The company says it has “a thorough understanding of select algorithms” and it promises potential clients “the potential to access & create lucrative partnerships with some of the biggest advertisers in the world.” In other words, you can leverage a big audience to big ad-revenues. It’s not all that simple, of course, and Podcast Influencer isn’t offering to broker your show to ad buyers. But it does guarantee a quick spot to a top-50 listing for $5,000 per month, or a top-10 placement for $15,000 per month.
James Cridland (who illustrated his report with a rotten apple) notes that Apple’s method of determining chart placement is not necessarily related to size of the listening audience. “The Apple Podcast Charts are, most experts agree, put together based on the total amount of new subscribers in the last seven days. Most suggest that the figures are weighted so that recent subscribers are more valuable for a chart placing, and all agree that the main chart is nothing to do with downloads.” The article goes on to speculate that marching up the Apple charts might involve artificially boosting subscriptions, possibly using bots. Cridland quoted Kevin Goldberg’s article on this subject.
Podcast Influencer did not respond to Cridland’s inquiry.
This might all seem clammy, but no matter how the service works, its emergence shouldn’t be surprising. Where there is an algorithm, there is an attempt to hijack it. Influence marketing is a multi-faceted service online. A froth of influence peddlers stage their businesses in Spotify, accept fees to place tracks on their popular playlists, or broker the placement on others. The freelance marketplace Fiverr has a dedicated section for these entrepreneurs — at least 150 individuals who charge $5-30 to place a track prominently in Spotify. If it works, the payout there is direct — more spins pay more royalties.
How about the decades-old category of Search Engine Marketing (SEO)? Google owns what is probably the most influential algorithmic technology in the world, capable of reshaping industries when it is tweaked. Google helps website coders create sensible SEO. But in the mid-2000s, when word got out that Google’s brain relied on keywords in website text to determine influence, mindless keyword stuffing rampaged across the web.
So it seems inevitable that the Apple podcast charts would be targets of manipulation. It is doubtful that a high placement without correspondingly high listener metrics will lead to riches. Whether Podcast Influencer is “rotten” or not, we can hope that the success of any podcast business is based on terrific content consumed by highly engaged audiences.