Content Marketing Blog

How do iTunes podcast rankings work, really?

It seems like every brand has a podcast these days. From sponsored shows like Casper’s “In Your Dreams” and McDonald’s “Serial”-inspired investigation into its star-crossed 2017 Szechuan sauce revival to directly produced content like Brafton’s“Above the Fold,” brands have taken over the podcasting world.

We’re way beyond Mailchimp and Stamps.com ads here, people.

And why not? Podcasting is among the latest trends in digital marketing, providing yet another avenue for companies to engage target audiences, spread their messaging and establish their authority and expertise in whatever corner of the industry they operate in.

Unlike, say, whitepapers, blogs or eBooks, podcasts are a passive form of content, so listeners can stay tuned in and multitask. People who may not have time during the workday to sit down and read a whitepaper from start to finish can listen along to a branded podcast while devoting themselves to mundane tasks like checking email, generating reports or updating spreadsheets.

There are plenty of ways to promote your podcast – LinkedIn, email newsletters, your blog page, to name a few – but eventually you need to deal with the 800-pound gorilla of the podcasting industry: iTunes.

Making the most of iTunes as a distribution platform requires marketers to understand its ranking system so your show is exposed to the largest audience possible. But how do iTunes’ podcast rankings work, exactly?

Where’s the money? iTunes podcast rankings’ biggest challenge

Apple iTunes is one of – if not the – premier podcast platforms, and if you want to reach the most listeners, you’ll need to get your show hosted on the iTunes store. If you think you can get by with just your own landing page and SoundCloud, consider that every iPhone comes pre-loaded with the iTunes app. That’s a big, ready-made install base right there.

Like Google, Apple is pretty secretive about how its platforms rank content, releasing precious little information regarding its proprietary algorithms. You might think that both iTunes’ catch-all Top 200 list as well as the top-ranking charts related to various sub-categories would be driven exclusively by the number of downloads each podcast or episode receives, but it’s not quite that simple.

With Apple staying mum on the specifics of its iTunes podcast ranking method, are content marketers left searching in the dark?

Not quite.

Some intrepid folks have taken it upon themselves to probe the darkest depths of the iTunes platform, experiment with trackable measurements and shed some light on Apple’s process.

Dan Misener, head of audience development at Pacific Content, a firm that specialises in helping businesses develop their own branded podcasts, summed up the problem pretty succinctly, noting that there’s no easy way to tie podcast metrics with their monetary value. In other areas of the iTunes ecosystem – music, TV shows, movies and audiobooks – the vast majority of downloads are paid for, so there’s a simple monetisation link to identify.

Not so with podcasts.

While some do charge on a per-episode basis or for archived content, most are free to download. Obviously, B2B podcasts whose focus is on building engagement won’t charge at all, so we have to dig deeper into Apple’s KPIs to determine how its ranking system is set up.

The weird, wild world of iTunes podcast rankings

First off, it’s important to understand what Apple’s iTunes podcast rankings are trying to achieve. It isn’t solely a popularity contest – although raw downloads, play-button clicks and show subscriptions certainly factor into the equation. Rather, Apple approaches iTunes rankings with a similar mindset and goal as Google with its search rankings. It wants to support the best content that users will find valuable and enjoyable, and make those programmes more visible. Having said that, you still tend to see comedic, popular podcasts like “The Joe Rogan Experience,” “WTF With Marc Maron” and Bill Burr’s “Monday Morning Podcast” littered all over the Top 200 charts.

Figuring out what other listeners like – or at least what’s generated a lot of downloads – is a good start, but there are other engagement metrics to consider:

  • What percentage of listeners subscribe to the podcast?
  • What percentage of plays come from “drive-by” listeners(i.e., people who listen to podcasts in a one-off fashion and never subscribe to them)?
  • Did listeners finish the podcast? If not, when did they tap out?
  • What is its average star rating on the iTunes store?
  • What are people saying about it in the text portions of their reviews?

Now, a few of those KPIs are dependent on iTunes users agreeing to share their information with Apple. It’s difficult to say how many people opt into Apple’s data-sharing policy, but seeing as brand sites have their own blind spots with visitors who don’t enable cookies, content marketers should be used to that kind of uncertainty.

Libsyn’s Vice President of Podcaster Relations (yes, you read that right), Rob Walch, has done his fair share of experiments with Apple’s algorithms. In fact, you could maybe even go so far as to say that Walch is the foremost expert on all things iTunes podcast rankings – goofy professional title, notwithstanding.

Walch’s overarching conclusion? It’s all about new subscribers. Here’s how his ranking theory breaks down:

  1. Multiply your number of new subscribers on day 1 by 4.
  2. Multiply your number of new subscribers on day 2 by 3.
  3. Multiply your number of new subscribers on day 3 by 2.
  4. Add those three figures together.
  5. Then, add to that the total number of new subscribers from days 4, 5, 6 and 7.
  6. Once you’ve got that, divide the whole thing by 13.

That may sound like a lot of seemingly arbitrary math, but the important takeaway here is that bringing in a consistent flow of new subscribers will – we think – make or break your podcast’s iTunes ranking. Better get out there and start spreading the word.

The good news is that as competitive as iTunes podcast rankings are, they’re never static – in fact, Misener’s research suggests that Apple actively courts some degree of turnover among its top performers. So, focus on creating good content that people will want to listen to – even if just passively – and you’ve got a shot at hitting the upper echelons of the iTunes podcast ranking charts.

What you can do to improve your ranking …

Take a look at the Top 200 list for any podcast category, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single fly-by-night show with low production values and hosts who are in over their heads. This is the cream of the crop, so if you want to be an iTunes partycrasher, you have to create a product that stands up with the best out there.

Bring an engaging host onboard

A good host can elevate dry subject matter, save a floundering interview and keep listeners coming back week after week. Ideally, your podcast host will be engaging, funny, intelligent and opinionated. They should be able to get a conversation going with your audience.

Focus on the latest news and trends

In theory, iTunes’ “New & Noteworthy” section focuses on podcasts that discuss groundbreaking industry developments and give a unique perspective on those trends and topics that make it worthwhile for discerning users to tune in. That also means you should regularly update your podcast with fresh episodes to cover the latest news and industry buzz.

Feel free to go off on the odd tangent every now and then. Those little diversions can lead you down some compelling rabbit holes. But never go into a recording session without a few major topics outlined beforehand. This isn’t Second City, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re probably no Steve Carrell. You need some structure and direction to keep your podcast focused and relevant.

Promote your podcast with well-written copy

Very few people listen to a new podcast sight unseen. You need to draw them in by giving them a taste of what they can expect from a given episode or your podcast’s overall theme. A good episode summary should go beyond a strict play-by-play or bone-dry synopsis and entice iTunes users to give your podcast a listen. Don’t stop at iTunes either; you can gain more direct downloads by creating dedicated pages for each episode on your brand’s site.

Encourage more reviews

Most information out there suggests that both star ratings and review comments play a role in iTunes podcast rankings. Reach out to your listeners, even if it’s just a quick shout-out at the top or tail-end of an episode to have them leave a review on iTunes. A lot of iTunes users out there won’t think to leave a review, whether it’s good or bad, without a little prodding.

Promote your podcast everywhere you can

Treat your podcast like any other piece of content and get the word out. Add a download page on your website, promote it on social media and include it in your email newsletters – whatever it takes to increase awareness and drive visitors to your iTunes page.

… and what’s out of your control

For years the holy grail of podcasting was having your show highlighted in iTunes’ “New & Noteworthy” section. Many up-and-coming podcasts enjoyed a major boost in popularity after receiving Apple’s official seal of approval and being prominently featured in such a highly visible place on the iTunes store.

Unfortunately, according to Rob Walch, there’s really no way to game the system short of having an inside connection at Apple who’s either a big fan of your podcast or owes you a really big favour. Walch claims that there are no sophisticated ranking algorithms that determine what podcasts are given that primo spot on the iTunes store: All “New & Noteworthy” selections are curated personally by Apple staff members.

Of course, even if you did have an insider working at Apple, it may not matter. As recently as March 2018, observant podcasters noticed that many of the “New & Noteworthy” selections were coming up a little short in the “New” department. Eagle-eyed podcast editor Steve Stewart spotted multiple podcasts featured that were several months old.

This development would seem to contradict the widely held (and evidently mistaken) belief that only podcasts created within the last 8 weeks are included in the “New & Noteworthy” list.

Set realistic expectations

Every burgeoning podcaster’s dream is to land a coveted spot among iTunes’ Top 200 podcasts. It’s an ambitious goal, bordering on unrealistic, given the competition. “But”, you ask, “if Colin Cowherd can make it, why can’t I?”

Take a look at who you’re up against:

You’ve got heavy hitters like Conan O’Brien, Joe Rogan and Oprah herself in there. Not to mention massively popular podcasts like “Serial”, “This American Life” and “Stuff You Should Know”. Optimism is good. Confidence is even better. But you have to set some realistic expectations, otherwise you’ll always be disappointed by your podcast’s performance, no matter how well it does.

Set your sights a little lower and identify a sub-category that you want to target. iTunes segments podcasts into various categories, including Technology, Health, Education and Business.

You have a much better shot at cracking those highest-ranking charts than iTunes’ overall Top 200 podcasts. Not to mention, the people combing through those defined category pages will be more likely to actually download an episode of your podcast than someone who’s on the hunt for their next true crime fix. As always, you want to create content that’s relevant to your audience, so your first step should be figuring out what they’re interested in and what type of information they find valuable.

You can even use one of the many custom RSS feeds available to track iTunes podcast rankings for specific categories, which will make your job a whole lot easier.

One last bit of advice: Set up a dedicated RSS feed

Speaking of RSS feeds, be sure to create a specific RSS feed URL for your podcast and submit it to Apple. Why? Well, first of all, Apple won’t approve your podcast without one – kind of a deal-breaker there – but it also makes it easy for listeners to subscribe to your podcast and receive the latest episodes every time there’s a new update.

Creating a dedicated RSS feed for your podcast – rather than, say an all-encompassing feed that includes your blog posts, case studies, press releases and whatever other content is live on your site – helps podcast hosting apps like SoundCloud, Podcast Addict and Spotify pick up every new episode and make it available as soon as it goes live. That way, you can easily cover more ground and reach a wider audience beyond iTunes users.

Creating a high-ranking podcast isn’t impossible, but you definitely need to be dedicated to your podcasting craft to have a hope of cracking the Top 200 chart of any category on the iTunes store. And while Apple’s specific ranking method still remains somewhat shrouded in secrecy, hopefully it feels a little less mysterious now to all you burgeoning podcasters out there. With any luck, one day you’ll find yourself placed right up there alongside the Marc Marons and Karen Kilgariffs of the world.

In the meantime, happy podcasting!

Castleford