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The State of Play, Mid-2019

Last week, a good portion of the podcast community got glimmers of something they’ve long wanted: seemingly structural-level solutions to discovery, one in the form of playable Google search listings and one in the form of an upcoming Spotify app redesign. However, you don’t get without giving, and what is given, some would argue, is a gradual ceding of more power over to the rising layer of active platformization, which brings a ton of theoretical changes to the relationship between publishers and audiences.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Let us first attend to the details.

At Google’s I/O developer conference on Tuesday, the company made a quick mention that Google Search would soon begin indexing podcasts such that playable episodes would appear as actionable entries within relevant search results. “Soon” turned out to be an understatement; the feature went live for both desktop and the mobile web by Thursday.

Here’s how it looks like:

As you can see, the execution is a little awkward, particularly when it comes to the fact that the feature is often — though not always — appended to the Apple Podcasts listing entry in the search results. This arrangement provokes direct competition right off the bat. After all, if I searched, say, The Longest Shortest Time after learning about the show for the first time, I would immediately find myself at a portentous fork: either click-through to the Apple Podcast platform and begin building my listening relationship there, or click-through an episode play button and get routed through to the Google Podcast platform, where I’d begin building my listening relationship there. If I were the Apple Podcast team, I don’t imagine being too psyched about this.

For what it’s worth, I’m still hesitant to invoke the “platform war” framework at this juncture, and that’s mostly because I think the Apple Podcast listing-appending feels possibly unintentional on Google’s part: my sense is that the in-search Google Podcast feature generally seeks to attach itself to the most relevant response, and it happens to be the case that Apple Podcast listings tend to be the most relevant response to podcast-related queries. For this to be a “podcast platform war,” I think, there should be overt intentionality. Then again… I don’t fault doomsday preppers for building underground shelters.

Anyway, the introduction of this new feature also yields some other potential complexities to consider, mostly associated with the everyday doldrums of SEO management. In particular: this is probably going to change how people think about naming their shows, as they now operate within a universe that contains a powerful search engine with robust rules.

Meanwhile, also on Thursday, Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reported that Spotify is in the midst of testing a new, redesigned version of its app that’s meant to theoretically position podcasts on equal footing with music within the experience of its platform. (To make podcasts “first-class citizens” on the app, one could say.) Here’s the key quote from the write-up, courtesy of Spotify CFO Barry McCarthy: “We want you to get there in two clicks versus seven.”

This is, of course, a gambit to more consciously drive existing Spotify users towards its non-music assets as the company works transition from a streaming music service to an all-consuming audio platform. This is probably going to be a tough process, as it requires some balance in maintaining the music-centric UX that brought its user base onto the platform in the first place while pointedly introducing the new podcast-centric stuff to encourage the necessary identity shift. All this Indiana Jonesing depends on the company’s assessment of the users’ relationship with the platform, plus their secondary assessment of the trade-offs they can make, and the tradeoffs they can’t.

Again, the overhauled app still appears to be in its testing phase, and the article made no mention of a concrete rollout timeline. I’ll let you know when the redesign pops up on mine, and it probably won’t slip by me: over the past year or so, Spotify has become one of my primary listening points, mostly because it fits well with my data plan when I need to stream.

Now, I don’t believe in making ~thought leadery~ predictions one way or another about whether either of these things are really going to move the listening needle. They might, they might not. We’ll find out. But if there’s one thing I definitely believe about what we’re seeing here, it’s that we’re looking at the culmination of two long multi-sided processes, and that we’re a long way past an Apple-centered environment.

Quick history rundown: The redesign hubbub caps off an exceptionally busy few months for the platform’s aggressive efforts to firmly plant its flag in the podcast community. These efforts chiefly took the form of three podcast acquisitions since February — Gimlet Media, for $230 million; Anchor, for $110 million; and later Parcast, for $56 million — that were fully couched in the Swedish tech giant’s commitment to an idea of itself that goes far beyond music assets.

But the acquisitions and redesign should be situated within a broader timeline of tinkering. Remember that the most recent iteration of Spotify’s podcasting adventures largely took the form of Intellectual Property Acquisitions, where the company sought to sign exclusive deals with talent like Joe Budden, Jemele Hill, and Amy Schumer as well as bringing in the previously independent music podcast Dissect. Recall also the iteration before that, which mostly revolved around ideas of Windowing and Exclusive Content Partnerships, as with the case of pre-acquisition Gimlet Media’s Mogul and the second season of Crimetown. All that, of course, was predated by Spotify’s very first attempt to dip their toes, dating back to 2015, via a small, controlled distribution play that saw the platform serving up podcasts only from a select group of partners. (The company has since opened distribution to all.)

Spotify’s podcasting adventures can possibly be interpreted as a series of fits and starts, but it’s also process of testing and discovery. In the near future, we’ll likely be treated to a scenario in which the company ends up pulling together all those learned components — the talent deals, the windowing, the content partnerships, the distribution — into a multi-sided operation that resists simple “X move caused Y outcome” analysis. Any single effort isn’t the point; the increasingly active process is the thing that’s more worth the attention.

So goes with Google. The search giant’s modern podcast efforts can be traced back to 2015, around the same time Spotify first began playing with podcast distribution. Back then, the Google podcast experiment was largely funneled through its Google Play service, built off the bones of Songza. That experiment didn’t seem to ultimately amount to very much, but the conversation around that effort did surface a bunch of new ideas including, perhaps especially, the potential importance of the concierge format. What followed after were more apparent fits and starts, including the acquisition of the short-form audio app 60dB in 2017 — maybe for Google News? Maybe for smart speakers? — and some minor adventures in original programming, a la City Soundtracks.

Fits, starts, and then crescendo. Last week’s in-search episode discovery feature rollout is the culmination of two signals that came out last year: the first took place last April, when the company announced its intention to “make audio a first-class citizen” within its search universe, and the second took place a few months after that, when it started rolling out the Google Podcast app, which is meant to do to Android what iTunes/Apple Podcasts did to iOS. Some were quick to call the latter effort a failure, and though, sure, there were technical hiccups here and there, we see now that the app itself is just a piece of a larger multi-sided thing. What looked as a series of separate beats now feels, in fact, like the start of a drumroll.

Again, maybe last week’s developments from Spotify and Google will be the definitive trigger for fundamental podcast distribution shifts. Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see. But they’re part of a longer, increasingly concerted process that’s pushing in that direction, so we should begin anticipating the world that comes after that. To frame it as a cliched question: how does a dominant Spotify and/or Google impact the way we think about podcast distribution?

Obviously, I have no idea. I’m just a pundit. But here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Assuming Spotify and Google does indeed each accrue meaningful podcast distribution power, should we read their podcast activities as competitive with, or additive to, the podcast world Apple has fostered? In other words: is this necessarily a zero-sum game?
  • Is it possible to sketch a theory of the ecosystem that sees “Big Podcasting” as a separate from “Open Podcasting/Everything Else,” the latter as perhaps mediated by Apple? Is it possible for the two things to exist in parallel?
  • With regards to Apple, there’s an obvious question, and there’s a less obvious question. The former: how will Apple respond? The latter: should they respond? This should bring us to a more root question: what is the game that Apple plays, and what is the best version of that game specifically within the podcast context?
  • If Spotify and Google do end up commandeering the bulk of new podcast listenership, what’s the move for third-party podcast apps? What new opportunities are they best positioned to pursue? Should they double down on niche communities?

Questions, questions, questions. Mmm, yes, punditing.

MeanwhileFrom BuzzFeed News: “Supreme Court Says Consumers Can Sue Apple For Allegedly Monopolizing The App Store.”

Anyway, let’s stay on Spotify for a bit longer…