People are fascinated with lists. There are Top-10, Top-20, Top-40, Top-100 lists everywhere you look. How many people remember listening to Casey Kasem's American Top 40 show? (Answer: lots.) David Letterman has his Top-10 lists. There is the Top-25 Coaches poll for football, which of course causes controversy every year. Podcasting is no different. Many different podcast directories have some sort of "Top" list where they rank podcasts. In early 2006, the top five directories, as listed by Alexa Rankings, were as follows:
Alexa (www.alexa.com) ranks websites based on traffic to each site. The lower the number, the better the traffic. Yahoo! usually has a rank of 1, which means it is the most popular site on the Internet. A rank of 10,000 for a site means that 9,999 other sites have more traffic than that site. Alexa goes back to 1996 and is considered one of the best ranking systems for website traffic.
With Yahoo!, iTunes, and Odeo, listeners subscribe through those services to your podcast. Yahoo! and Odeo then rank podcasts by total number of current subscribers. iTunes' Top-100 lists are based on a secret formula that Apple has never publicly acknowledged. However, Apple did have an issue with the list back in July of 2005, where people could just keep hitting the Subscribe button and each click would be counted. Some bored podcasters and listeners did just that and pushed some of their favorite shows to the top. They also did experiments to see how long it took for shows to drop out of the Top-100 list. Based on those experiments, it appears to be a weighted average of new subscribers over the past 96 to 120 hours, with a higher weight toward those in the past 24 hours, or so the rumor goes.
With Podcast Pickle, listeners register on the site and then pick their favorite podcasts. The lists are wiped clean twice a year. Because you have to register, like with Odeo, the favorite votes are less susceptible to spamming. If someone stays in the number-one spot for 12 consecutive weeks, they are moved to the Podcast Pickle Hall of Fame and taken off the main list to give others a chance for popularity.
Podcast Alley listeners vote once a month for their favorite podcasts. In the podcasting world, this has given a new meaning to the phrase, "That time of the month," with podcasters at the beginning of each month pining for votes and complaining about having to do so or worse yet trying to justify having to do so.
Many other sites offer voting for podcasts, but the five listed here currently have the most influence on listeners and are the ones you are most likely to see small banners for on podcasters' websites.
Why Voting Sites Are Important
Early on in the life of podcasting (before the launch of iTunes), Podcast Alley was clearly the most important directory to be in and to be at the top of the voting list. Hordes of new potential listeners used the Top-10 and Top-50 lists to find new podcasts to which they wanted to subscribe. The mainstream news media frequently used the Top-10 list to find podcasters to interview for articles about podcasting. The press still looks at the top sites mentioned earlier to find podcasters to interview for articles on podcasting.
Times change, however. And by early 2006, iTunes and Yahoo! had more pull than Podcast Alley. Obviously, getting mentioned in any newspaper or online article about podcasting is great, but getting mentioned in a major print publication like Parade Magazine, Reader's Digest, or the Wall Street Journal can get your podcast far more attention than other forms of promotion.
Voting sites also help feed the ego. When you see your podcast moving up in the ranks, it makes you feel good about what you are doing. Conversely, if you spend a lot of time asking for votes and you see yourself falling down in the ranks, it really can be a huge blow to your psyche. For many podcasters, the only reward they have for doing their show is feedback from listeners. When a listener is willing to spend a few minutes to vote for your show, it means a lot.
In early 2006, iTunes was clearly the most important directory to be in. As an example of how important iTunes is for increasing subscriber numbers, in late January of 2006, Escape Pod was featured on the top of the front page of iTunes. In less than one week, Escape Pod's Feedburner subscriber numbers increased from 2,500 people to over 4,500 people.
Unfortunately, getting featured on the iTunes most popular list is not something you can influence, outside of producing a high-quality show. These spots are definitely not for sale, despite conspiracy theories to the contrary. As you can see from Figure 15.2, we do have first-hand knowledge on this.
Figure 15.2. The iTunes Podcast website features individual podcasts at the top of its page. It also lists its most popular podcasts along the right side of the page.
Although you cannot really influence getting featured, you can still get yourself into the top 25 of iTunes, and this also generates many additional new listeners. However, it is a little bit like the chicken and the egg scenario. Fortunately, the iTunes Top-100 list is about the number of new listeners and not total listener numbers. If you can make a splash by promoting your podcast in some other manner, that spurt of new listeners might move you into the top 25 of iTunes, and from there additional new listeners from iTunes can move you further up the rankings. This is what happened with Skepticality. They promoted hard in the skeptic forum boards, which then moved them into the top 25 in iTunes. From there the iTunes listeners moved them up into the number-one spot for a couple weeks. In September of 2005, Steve Jobs showed a list of the top-nine most-subscribed-to podcasts and Skepticality was on that list.
Finally, there is the respect of your peers. Getting into the top 10 of any of these lists lets other podcasters learn about you. From there, you have many new opportunities to cross-promote and further build your listener base. Granted, some may wonder how legitimate the numbers are if you come out of nowhere. When "Keith and the Girl" first burst on the scene in the Spring of 2005, many wondered if they were spamming the vote at Podcast Alley, but once people started listening to their show they realized they were the real deal. Their cast has been in the top 10 on Podcast Alley ever since.
Why Voting Sites Can Be Overrated
Two words: Joe Vitale. In January 2006, after just one episode, this show was number 1 on Podcast Alley. It vaulted its way into the number 1 spot by apparently spamming the vote using preexisting marketing email lists to solicit votes. This is not the first time he spammed like this; in April 2005 he did the same thing to get his book to be number 1 on Amazon. This is not the first marketing hype podcast to spam the vote, and it will not be the last. But each time this happens, it lessens the validity of the voting sites.
Some might ask, if the spamming strategy works, why not go for it? Well, as we detail in the next two sections, there are good reasons for that, too.
Negligible Bump in Listeners
Getting in to the top 50 at Podcast Alley just does not mean as much as it did in 2005. It does not take many votes to get there. During a typical month at Podcast Alley, a mere 120 votes is more than enough to ensure a Top-50 spot. Considering at least 2.5 million people are listening, this is a very small percentage of the listeners. The reality is, outside of making it into the top 25 on iTunes or the top 10 of the other four sites, you really are not going to see any noticeable increase in traffic to your podcast directly from these lists.
Plain and simple, people will continue to listen to your show because they like it. They are not going to continue listening because you were in the top 40 at Odeo, or top 10 at Podcast Pickle, or because you purchased a marketing list and spammed the vote.
There are Too Many Directories
Well over 100 different directories (www.podcast411/com/page2.html) have been created just for podcasts, and almost half of them have some sort of "voting" method to rank podcasts. With just the five we focused on earlier, that feels like too many. If you asked for listeners to subscribe and vote to just these five sites, here is basically what you would have to say on your podcast:
That takes about 45 seconds to read out loud, and that is just for five sites. Imagine what happens as others become popular or if you wanted to cover every site. You could spend 5 minutes begging for votes in each show you produce. At some point, you need to ask yourself, "Is this the best use of my listeners' time?"
Both of us stopped asking for votes on our shows in November 2005. Rob even put out a skit at the end of his show going over all the different sites and asking the audience, "Is that so much to ask of you?" It was all very tongue in cheek.
But while plugging voting sites in your podcast may be a waste of your listeners' time, it can't really hurt to have links to them from your podcast's home page. Rob, for example, still has links on his front page to iTunes, Odeo, and Yahoo!, as well as links in the show notes for Podcast Alley and Podcast Pickle.