Apple/iTunes Podcast Rankings: How Do They Work?
Virtually every podcaster goes through a stage of obsessing over their iTunes Podcast rankings.
iTunes (in both its desktop and iOS Podcasts app form) remains comfortable at the top of the podcast directories league table. According to Libsyn's January 2017 data, the iOS to Android ratio for consumption of podcasts is 4.5 to 1 – and that's with Android sitting in second place, ahead of all the others by some distance.
Having the Podcasts app installed by default on every iPhone means that iTunes is the single most important directory for your podcast to appear in, because it's so much busier than anywhere else. This is why so many podcasters fixate on the iTunes rankings.
Inside iTunes there are many different places to be listed, featured, discovered, or “ranked”.
So what's the deal with it all, and does any of it even matter?
iTunes Podcast Rankings: A Guessing Game?
First off, let's be clear about one key factor: Apple don't publicly disclose a lot of information about how the itunes rankings work.
That makes sense, because if they did, many podcasters (and marketers who sell to podcasters) would try to “game” the system, which would totally devalue the entire thing.
We're not completely in the dark, though. Apple's podcasting team have liaised with some of the medium's top and long serving media hosts for many years now. Media hosts like Libsyn and Blubrry.
Rob has appeared on many other podcasts too, often being asked about the iTunes rankings, New & Noteworthy, and the myths and misinformation out there that surround them.
I've also talked with him myself on a few occasions, and he'll be our main expert in this article as we look to establish what we think we know so far about the way podcasts are “ranked” inside iTunes.
There's a running joke that the only people you'll find browsing New & Noteworthy subcategories are podcasters looking to see if their own show is listed anywhere.
That might not be too far from the truth, though.
Yes, we've established that the vast majority of podcast listening takes place through iTunes, but according to Libsyn's February 2017 data, mobile downloads were at an all time high of 86%. This means that most of the iTunes listening is taking place via the Podcasts app on iOS, not on the desktop.
It seems like the days of downloading podcasts in the iTunes desktop app and manually syncing them onto an iPod are long gone for the majority of people.
So, with most of your listeners coming through the Podcasts app, here's what they'll see along the menu at the bottom.
- Unplayed – Downloaded episodes that they haven't listened to yet.
- My Podcasts – A list of shows they're subscribed to.
- Featured – The front page of ‘New & Noteworthy‘ along with a few of iTunes current featured collections. You can access the full list of categories from this page.
- Top Charts – Displays the top 150 overall podcasts, as well as an option to look at each category's top 150 podcasts.
- Search – The iTunes search engine.
There are a few different places inside iTunes where a podcast can be found. So what are they? And what do we know about them?
New & Noteworthy
This section is where podcasts can be featured for being, as it says in the name, either “new” (less than 8 weeks old) or “noteworthy” (iTunes has handpicked them to be listed here).
New & Noteworthy has a ‘front page' for the overall podcasts available in iTunes. Each podcast category (Arts, Business, Comedy, etc) then has its own New & Noteworthy section.
There are also New & Noteworthy subcategories, for example Arts > Performing Arts, although these can only be accessed inside the desktop app.
So, how do you get featured as “new” in New & Noteworthy in that first 8 week period?
It seems like iTunes calculate these rankings with an algorithm based on new subscribers, ratings, and reviews.
However, in episode 54 of The Feed, Rob Walch said that these algorithms do not apply to the front page of New & Noteworthy, nor do they apply to the Comedy category. Rob states that these lists are “100% hand-curated by Apple” and that you can't “game” the system to be featured there.
That means that by seeking new subscribers, ratings and reviews and attempting to get your show into New & Noteworthy listing, you'll be at least 2 clicks away when a potential listener opens up the Podcasts app.
The bottom line is that traffic likely isn't very high in these areas. We've seen very little spikes from the many podcasts we've had featured in New & Noteworthy over the years.
These ‘themed' collections are compiled by Apple.
They might be based on what's topical or newsworthy, or purely on what type of podcast is popular at that given period.
Currently, inside my Podcasts app, they have Women's History Month, Comedy Favourites, and We Mean Business on the front page.
There's also other features such as Scary Stories, True Crime, and Modern Radio Drama.
To get listed in collections such as these, it seems that Apple would need to hand-pick your show.
It is possible to contact Apple to draw their attention to your podcast if you feel it merits a place in a particular collection. But being successful would still depend on them checking out that show and thinking that it would further enhance the collection in question.
On the desktop app there's also a section titled All Podcasts. Rob (The Feed, 54) believes that this is “a lottery or random pick based on shows that released content recently,” adding that “this is Apple's way of letting anyone get featured, regardless of the size of the show”.
This feature is only available in the desktop app.
Just like the Popularity bar beside each episode in a podcast's feed, it's thought that these may be influenced by external websites sending traffic to specific episodes within iTunes.
Top Podcasts is another example of a “Top 200” chart (although in the Podcasts app it only displays the top 150).
These charts, according to Rob, are all “100% about the total number of new subscribers in the past 7 days, with a weighted average for the last 24, 48, and 72 hours”.
In episode 66 of Today in Podcasting, Rob went in to some more detail about this algorithm. Based on some previous experimentation, he's sure that the algorithm works like this.
- Number of new subscribers on day 1 multiplied by 4
- Number of new subscribers on day 2 multiplied by 3
- Number of new subscribers on day 3 multiplied by 2
- Add number of new subscribers on day 4
- Add number of new subscribers on day 5
- Add number of new subscribers on day 6
- Add number of new subscribers on day 7
- Divide total number by 13
So, it seems that new subscribers are the key to increasing your podcast rankings on this type of list.
He also revealed on episode 59 of the Podcasters' Roundtable that he'd experimented to find out how many new subscribers it would take to get in the overall top 100 chart. The answer? 244 within a 4-hour period.
Rob added that he hasn't seen any evidence to suggest that ratings and reviews play a role in the top 200 lists.
They gave the analogy that it's a bit like a lottery “based on a combination of subscribers, new subscribers, and ratings and reviews” which essentially gives you a “score”.
The higher your score, the more lottery balls you get in the draw – but this still “allows shows that are small to get featured in What's Hot“.
Catching Apple's Eye
Being featured in iTunes at any level, which will noticeably impact your downloads, seems to largely depend on being handpicked by Apple.
So what sort of things do we think Apple looks for in a podcast?
- Cover art is apparently one of the most important factors. This is a subject in its own right, but opt for a clean design with a clearly visible title. Your cover art should work just as well as a thumbnail as it does when viewed at full size.
- Appropriately titled shows. It's well documented that Apple hate keyword spamming in titles and are actively cracking down on podcasters who do this. Keep your title under 50 characters if possible.
- This is a real shocker, but they are probably looking for good content. Incredible, I know. More on this later though…
We've established by now that there are many different ways to be found inside iTunes.
In spite of all these different types of podcast rankings, lists and collections however, the most common and effective way to be discovered is through search.
It isn't an outrageous conclusion to draw. People are actively seeking out content they want to consume far more than they're looking for an app to suggest a bunch of shows to them.
Being found in an iTunes search will have a lot to do with the quality and relevance of your podcast's name, as well as your individual episode titles.
So What Now?
Okay, there seems to be a few different ways that you can “game” the iTunes rankings to be featured in certain lists, that might have a moderate impact on your download numbers.
However, every minute you spend doing that is a minute taken away from creating a great podcast series and looking after the listeners who're already subscribed to your show.
What's the point in spending all that time trying to get featured somewhere if your podcast actually suffers because of it?
You might get a few listeners who spot you somewhere in a New & Noteworthy list, but will they stick around if you're not working hard to make your podcast the best it can possibly be?
Don't get too distracted by things like iTunes podcast rankings.
This stuff is definitely useful, and good to know. But most people don't discover new podcasts in New & Noteworthy, or any other iTunes chart or list for that matter. Certainly not the lists that we can have any influence over.
And instead of fixating on all those people who haven't yet discovered your show, focus on those who have – your listeners, your subscribers.
You already have their attention, and if you keep serving up good content to them, they'll share it and tell others about it anyway.
That's a much more effective way of growing your audience in the long run.
For more on this, check out our series on how to grow your podcast audience.