In April 2016, Google Play Music added the ability to play podcasts through its Android app. “Finally,” everyone said, “Google has their own podcast feature like Apple added to iTunes ten years ago!” …and so, all was right with the world. Well, not really, because Google really screwed it up.
First off, they only support audio podcasts. If you’re a fan of a video podcast (and there are a lot out there where visuals are important), you’re out of luck. If the podcast has an audio version, you can subscribe to that…but it’s 2016. Why only restrict it to audio?
I’m pretty sure I know why. On the back end, Google actually downloads every episode of every podcast listed and serves it themselves. Presumably, this is to ensure that every episode is served up quickly via their servers and not limited if someone is hosting their podcast on a slow server (like archive.org.) An hour audio podcast would probably be under 50 Mb, which is a pittance compared to other data they’re storing. However, if they were to store video, especially when some podcasts are using HD video, then they’d be looking at storage requirements more in line with what YouTube needs.
Google’s insistence to host their own podcast media is not without problems. If something goes wrong and Google is unable to read the episode, it will mark it as “Invalid audio” and skip it. There’s no notice sent to the podcaster at all. Even if the podcaster happens to log into the portal and look at the episode listing for the show, there’s nothing they can do about it. Those icons to the right of the episode? They are for “Episode details” (which just shows the episode description), “View analytics” (more on that later), and “Block episode” (which takes it out of the listing). There is no way for a podcaster to say “Hey, go re-analyze this episode.” If you notice a problem with the audio on an episode and swap it out, there’s no way to trigger a reprocessing by Google short of contacting support or pulling the episode completely and posting it new (which would make it show up as a new episode to all non-Google Play Music subscribers too.) Given that Google Play Music tends to make up a very, very small percentage of a typical show’s listeners (always <5%, but varies depending on the show’s topic), this is not a good solution.
As a result of Google hosting the episodes, any download tracking you may have on your episode is not counting Google Play Music plays or downloads. Stitcher also hosts their own copies of podcast episodes, but they will ping the download server when someone plays the episode so that you will still have appropriate download stats.
In order to provide podcasters with tracking, Google has provided their own reporting. However, they’re nothing like you might expect from the company that brought you Google Analytics. The stats are absolutely barebones. You can view your daily stats by show or by episode and filter by date. It will show you a play count and a download count…and that’s it. Do you want an overall network report that includes multiple shows? Do you want a total count? Do you want a weekly or monthly count? Too bad. You only get day-by-day on a per-episode basis for the date range you selected.
That report would be bad enough if that was all we got, but it actually gets worse. In these reports, Google intentionally fudges the numbers. They openly admit it. At the top of the report page, they say, “For low values the data may appear as 0 for privacy reasons.” Uh, excuse me? What privacy reasons? If I have a podcast that gets just one download, why not tell me it got one download? It’s not like it says who that one listener was.
“Okay, fine,” you say. “Maybe I just need to have a popular show that will get enough downloads.” Nope. Google will still mess with your numbers for the sake of “Data anonymization”. According to Google, if you have metrics less than 10, it will say 0. If you have a daily value above 9, they will randomly add or subtract 9. With 19 downloads, it might say 10 and it might say 28. Podcast download stats are already fuzzy enough. Why complicate the matter?
…and it still gets worse. Google admits that they’ll also double-count users in certain situations. Let’s say that you listen to half an episode, close the app, and come back and listen again later. That counts as 2 plays. Did you listen to part of the episode, go check another episode, and come back to the original episode? That also counts as 2 plays on the original episode. Let’s say that you’ve got an hour long episode that had 10 listeners. They all start playing it, close the app and check a web site mentioned in the episode, then come back and finish the episode. That would be counted as 20 listens…but because of Google Play Music fudging with your numbers, it might be reported as 11 (one above the correct number) or as 29 (nearly 3 times the correct number).
If you’re a podcaster, should you publish your podcast in Google Play Music? Yes. You want your show anywhere that people are looking for shows. However, be prepared for an absolutely terrible and frustrating experience.
If you’re a podcast listener, should you listen to your podcasts in Google Play Music? No! While Google has added podcast support to their Google Play Music app on Android, it has yet to appear in iOS. If you’re an iOS user, it’s not even an option. If you’re using it on Android, you’ll miss episodes when Google Play Music randomly can’t process the audio or processes it incorrectly and truncates the episode. Then you’ll have to wait for the podcaster to contact Google to fix it. You’re much better off subscribing with other podcast apps that have better features and also support video podcasts.
UPDATE: Google killed Google Play Podcasts in 2020. Good riddance!