Hey Apple, Here's How to Actually Fix Spam in Episode Titles
On February 27th Apple sent out an email to apparently everyone who has submitted a show via Podcast Connect because Apple wanted to clarify how some of the iTunes tags should be used.
There was then some kerfuffle around using episode numbers in titles that Apple then clarified wouldn’t result in your podcast being removed. But I want to talk about the third bullet point, “Incorporating irrelevant content or spam”. Apple is asking creators to stop “keyword stuffing”, the SEO practice from the late 90’s where a creator would add as many keywords that they thought people would be searching for so that Google would surface that content to those readers. That approach was short-lived because instead of asking people what the keywords should be, Google could just index the actual document itself and use that to determine how relevant it was.
While I agree that keyword spam is a problem, just telling people to stop doesn’t address the problem of why people are doing it in the first place.
When there are very few things a creator can do to get their podcast discovered, other than setting a category and asking people for a 5-star review, their only option is to try and game the search system by adding as many keywords as they can to episode titles and descriptions. If I search for a topic in Apple Podcasts, guess what? Shows and episodes at the top of the results all have that phrase in their title. On one hand Apple says, don’t do keyword stuffing and yet they encourage that exact behavior on their consumer app.
Instead of just telling creators to stop, you need to give them an alternative way to show that if they create good content it can be found by listeners. This reminds me of Marco Arment’s story about trash can positioning in the men’s room at Tumblr where someone wanted to stop people dropping paper towels next to the door. The first attempt was to put up a sign saying “stop dropping paper towels”. Apple’s email was someone putting up that sign. What they should be doing is addressing the actual problem and move the trash can next to the door.
How can they do that? Well, they bought Pop Up Archive and their tool Audiosear.ch in 2016 whose whole mission was to index episode content and extract topics and meaning. Apple owns a tool that solves this exact problem! Of course, shipping a new feature is far more difficult than sending a clumsily-worded email, but I do hope that one day we see the fruits of Pop Up Archive acquisition.