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Information v. Experience

Does Google's core expertise — as a search engine that powerfully indexes of the world's information — gives it a clear and solid edge in addressing podcasts?

We probably need several more months before we’re able to firmly grasp the significance of Google’s re-entry into podcasting, but there’s been a rising body of argumentation that I think is addressing right now: the notion that Google’s core expertise — as a search engine that powerfully indexes of the world’s information — gives it a clear and solid edge in addressing some of podcasting’s various structural problems.

Here’s a version of the argument, from a blog called SmartBrief:

Currently around 500,000 active podcasts exists, and Google predicts that number will double in the next few years. Google is paying attention to these statistics and is moving toward incorporating podcasts into search results — much like it does with video where search results are broken down into separate boxes at the top of the screen.

Leaders at Google understand the power of podcasts, and they know that podcasts can do what Google is designed for — answer a query. Podcasts contain large amounts of information on a particular topic, and Google wants to make it easier to access that information through search.

Look past the specific source of this analysis, because the broad argument itself is one I’ve encountered multiple times from podcast execs and producers themselves — not just in the wake of Google’s re-entry announcement, but well over the past few years. It is a viewpoint expressed in discovery-solving efforts that seek to organize podcasts around topics, keywords, subjects, and it grounds critiques against wide swathes of podcast programming that argue they are way too inefficient as vessels of information; that they are often the polar opposite of information-dense.

Your mileage on that perspective — and on the specific claims of Google’s ability to assert its distributional authority over podcasting — varies based on your view on the extent to which people’s relationships with podcasts are transactional (i.e. I’m listening to learn or acquire specific things).

I happen to think that this interpretation of the podcast-listener relationship only represents a minor share of why people listen to podcasts; in my opinion, audiences generally come to the medium in pursuit of experiences. (After all, it’s more efficient to thumb down and scan a newsletter than it is to skim through a podcast episode.) But then again, I’ve often been accused of being in the bag for narrative-style podcasts, so what do I know? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Anyway, the point of all this is to say something about the likelihood of Google being able to leverage its core search and indexing expertise to deliver and distribute podcasts in a new and improved way. Again, we’ll see — but I suspect it’ll come down to this tension between information and experience.