Earlier this month, I noticed something strange on the iTunes podcast charts: a bunch of shows I’d never seen before were in the top spots, even pushing “The Joe Rogan Experience” out of the top 20. Others noticed, too. A day or so later, everything went back to roughly the way it was before, leaving many of us wondering what the heck was going on.
Then “Jarin khan” came into my life, via an unsolicited LinkedIn message.
After screwing around with “Jarin” a bit, I started thinking: okay, let’s see what they can do. Obviously, I was not to going to endanger my job and use anything I produce professionally at WBUR. But I had just the podcast for the job: WAVes, a one-off, six episode podcast from 2017 that showcased work by my friends and me. It featured ambient music, weird storytelling, profiles of bands I liked…and an episode that’s ten minutes of drone music. It had about 300 downloads and no reviews. Definitely not bound for the top spot without some help.
“Jarin” informed me that their Fiverr account had been disabled and sent me to another similar service. That seemed like a red flag, but I trusted that PayPal and my neurotic attention to checking my credit report would give me enough protection. So I shelled out five dollars and “Jarin” — whose account now featured a profile pic of different person — confirmed that my rocket ride to the top would go down on October 19th, the very next day.
That morning, WAVes was actually on the iTunes Arts chart — almost at the bottom, but there nonetheless. As the day progressed, it kept climbing, and then appeared on the All Categories chart.
It topped out in the early afternoon: second spot on the Arts chart and the fifty-fifth on the All Categories chart. I received a message letting me know the deed was done and that I could pay monthly to keep it positioned high.
What have I really gained from this?
It should be obvious to anyone who takes a closer look that my podcast, WAVes, is over a year old and has exactly zero reviews. So the fact that it’s charting is very fishy. As of Sunday, two days after all of this activity, the podcast racked up 170 more downloads than it had previously. Much of that activity, not surprisingly, was from Bangladesh.
This doesn’t seem like a good strategy for podcasting success. But what about podcasts that already have a lot of subscribers and reviews and just want to get an extra boost in the charts? Could they ever be caught doing this? Several people jumped into my Twitter DM’s to tell me that these charts might only be important to bigger publishers. But anecdotally, I find a lot of new podcasts to check out there, and I have to say that it definitely makes a show more visible; more than half of people listening to podcasts are thought to use Apple Podcasts as their primary listening app, and many popular apps rely on Apple’s podcast directory.
So why do the charts work the way they do? Apple’s explanation for why they don’t simply track downloads and subscribers is actually a pretty good one: The Joe Rogan Experience would be pinned at the top, followed by powerhouses like Serial and This American Life. There would be very little movement otherwise. They hope that the charts can be, in part, a discovery tool, and that’s why the algorithm takes into account podcasts that are on the move.
I don’t know if podcasters use click-farms regularly. Apple has said it’s working on cracking down on this. But my experience shows that this cheating thing sort of works — though I’m still waiting for the call that my podcast has been optioned for a TV series.