Search Engines Can Save the Podcast: Lessons From ‘The Office’

Earlier this year, eMarketer released a report documenting the meteoric rise of Internet radio . Market leader Pandora, emerging beast Spotify, and various other players are clearly riding a wave of explosive growth… but in this and other similar research, there’s a face clearly missing from the party.

What happened to the podcast? Did it ignore any crucial items on its to-do list?

“If at first you don’t succeed, remove all evidence you ever tried.” – David Brent, Wernham-Hogg Paper Company (portrayed on “The Office” by British actor Ricky Gervais)


Let’s look start with the brighter days.

The 1980s and 1990s brought vast improvements in the technology used for transmitting digital audio. The dot-com crash shook out many of the earliest players, after which innovations in RSS and blogging software paved the way for improvements in aggregation and syndication of digital audio content – and the dawn of audioblogging.

British journalist Ben Hammersley, writing for the Guardian in early 2004, suggested that this revolution would pair nicely with the rising popularity of the early generation iPods – and suggested it might be called “podcasting.” Apple took the ball right to the hoop, publishing podcast directories, integrating podcasts with iTunes, and even building podcasting features into its QuickTime and Garage Band software.

Consumer interest in podcasts (as measured by search queries) exploded by late 2004, and hit its all-time high by early 2006. And “The Ricky Gervais Show”  was quickly recognized as the most successful podcast of all-time.

“Accept that some days you are the pigeon, and some days you are the statue.” – more wisdom on losing, from Ricky Gervais via David Brent

Since 2006, however, searchers’ interest in podcasts has slowly leveled off – along with a lot of the promise originally seen by digital media enthusiasts.

In early 2011, marketing research firms Arbitron and Edison Research teamed up on Infinite Dial 2011, one of few recent studies evaluating podcasts alongside more popular digital platforms such as social media, mobile devices, e-readers and video (online & on-demand). Surveying U.S. consumers ages 12 and up, here are a few things they learned:

  • Awareness of podcasting has tapered off at 43-45 percent since 2009.
  • Just 25 percent of U.S. consumers had ever listened to a podcast.
  • Only 12 percent listened in the past 30 days.
  • In naming the most “loved” media channels, audio podcasts and video podcasts were mentioned only 9 percent and 7 percent of the time, respectively.
  • Joining podcasts at the bottom of the heap: LinkedIn (how many 12-year-olds do you know on this site?) and MySpace (no comment).
  • And which platforms actually inspired more love from their users, compared to podcasts? A few hot properties (Pandora, Facebook, YouTube, Hulu), traditional media heavyweights (network/cable television), and yes – even local AM/FM radio has outdone the lowly podcast. [Sadly, HAM radio seems to have missed the cut.]

Where does this leave the podcast? Once an usher of liberated 21st century communications, today it’s the Christian Laettner of digital media: all the potential in the world, but really just a big disappointment. For comfort, we can again turn to the prince of podcasting himself:

“Where there’s a will… there’s a relative!” – Ricky Gervais, once known as David Brent

In this case, the relative is search – both search technology as well as search marketing.

How Can Search Technology Help Create a New Future for Podcasting?

Google Translate can already convert any audio into text, which means that it ought to be within the realm of possibility to apply this technology to embedded audio within a podcast – provided someone can make a strong business case. More on that in a second.

There are already plenty of podcast search engines; that light bulb went off years ago. Do a Google search and you’ll find a bunch of them (including a Search Engine Watch post, “Video and Podcast Search Engines”). But this stuff is all from six or seven years ago. Why can’t you find fresher results? It’s not like podcasting fell off the face of the earth. Again, there needs to be a justification that makes business sense.

How Can Search Engines and Podcasts Come Together to Create a New Digital Medium?

Despite losing some of its digital street cred to newer kids on the block, let’s not forget that there’s still an audience out there worth fighting for. 31 million Americans ages 12 and up listened to a podcast in the last month – and they’re likely to be a pretty digitally-savvy lot.

Google gets about 360 million search queries per day, according to comScore. If we’re to assume that these podcast listeners conduct search queries as often as as non-podcast listeners (highly likely to lowball our estimate), we’re left with a conservative guess of 43.3 million search queries conducted by this podcast-friendly audience every day. Strip out search queries that navigational or transactional in nature, and you still have at least 80 percent left over.

Here’s where it gets interesting. If Google were to add podcasts to the news, videos, maps, and other filters along the left side of search results, even a paltry click-through rate of 0.1 percent could turn into a million clicks or more per month. Isn’t that enough to persuade Google to index this content, and offer the public an alternative to searching for podcasts within via iTunes?

Quicker, more comprehensive, and blended with results of other formats… if it works for virtually every other type of format, shouldn’t podcasts be indexed in search engines the same way?

If search marketers were given the opportunity to extend their keyword lists into podcast inventory (e.g., the way keywords work in contextually-targeted Google Display Network campaigns), they could offer clients an additional reach opportunity with the same ROI-driven accountability that drove them to invest in paid search. You think that might be a compelling alternative proposition to the advertisers who pay a flat rate to sponsor a podcast that mightbe reaching the right audience?

“If you’re gonna be late, then be late and not just 2 minutes. Make it an hour and enjoy your breakfast.” – David Brent, master of the missed opportunity.

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