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What Google’s helpful content update means for podcasters

Google is adding a new signal for ranking webpages against search terms. It’s called the “helpful content” update, and it rolls out from late August. It’s Google’s latest attempt to demote pages that are obviously gaming the system, producing robotic or repetitive content that looks good to robots, but doesn’t help humans.

Ever Googled the release date for the new season of your favourite TV show? If you have, you’ll know exactly what Google is clamping down on. Overly-long, repetitive, meandering posts, filled with ads, that ultimately don’t answer the question you wanted answered.

But how does this affect podcasters?

Content that answers a specific question will always perform well, because it echoes the way our brains work. I based my podcast What’s Your Problem? around that concept, not for SEO benefits, but because it serves my audience.

Let’s assume you have a website for your podcast, where each episode has its own webpage. (If you don’t, read this post about podcast websites.) Think about one of your latest episodes and consider the content on the episode’s webpage. Is it providing helpful answers to the questions it poses?

How to tell if you’re providing helpful content

Check your website’s visitor metrics. I use Plausible as it’s way easier to use than Google Analytics, and it doesn’t snoop on visitors. What it does track, which is important, is time spent on the website, or on an individual page.

Dig into your analytics to find the average time-on-page for one of your most popular episodes. In an ideal world, the visitor will read a bit about the episode from your show notes, be tempted to click Play, and listen to some of the episode. Then, after getting a sense of the content, they might follow the podcast in their app of choice. That’s the best-case scenario.

We used to think that Google wanted reams of text to understand the value of a webpage. But Google can tell how long you’ve spent on another site, and will use that data to infer how useful it is. If a listener has hit Play on your episode and given it a good listen, that time spent away from Google’s search results is a good signal – it shows they made the right choice in ranking the content.

Remember though, that Google’s helpful content update is a hedge against sites that keep the visitor longer than necessary. Recipe websites are adept at this, giving you the history of garlic in response to your query about spaghetti bolognese. So here are some tips to help you make sure your episode webpages are delivering value.

  • Embed your episode player and make it the star of the show. Your episode webpage should prominently display a player for the episode. It should be easy to find and access. Don’t get cute with fancy custom players – just use the one your media host gives you (unless it’s super ugly or hard to use). I love Transistor’s episode players.
  • Write show notes that make new listeners want to hit Play, and offer value to existing followers. Try this formula:
    • Short opening sentence that sets up tension or creates intrigue.
    • Explain in the next short sentence how the episode or guest resolves that tension.
    • In a new paragraph, give a bit of backstory to your guest, or the subject matter you’re talking about.
    • Write a list of key takeaways or things to consider.
    • Add a list of links to things you’ve discussed, in chronological order.
  • Try and make episode webpages useful even if people don’t click Play. Yes you want that download to count, but consider this. Google knows if they’ve answered a query. So if your content does that, even if the listener doesn’t hit Play, you’ll rise up the rankings. That means more people will find your content, increasing the likelihood that some will hit Play and you’ll see downloads go up.
  • Link to your guests’ websites and social media profiles. Google likes to see that you’re a good citizen of the web, so linking to relevant things helps the algorithm understand your content better.
  • Make sure Google knows the link between your podcast and website. Google transcribes and indexes podcast content. Make sure your website lists your podcast’s RSS feed in the manner Google wants.
  • Consider adding Schema.org markup. Schema.org is an attempt to make webpages more understandable by robots. It’s code that’s added to the HTML that makes up your webpages, and Google uses it to provide richer results for products, events, and so on. There is a spec for marking up podcast webpages. I haven’t seen any evidence that it influences Google’s algorithm yet, but it won’t hurt to add it. If you run on WordPress and you use a plugin like Yoast, look up how to add Schema.org markup to your webpages.
  • Don’t add transcripts to your pages merely for the SEO hit. That’s unlikely to work, as human speech is often meandering and repetitive, and it’s harder for speakers to distil their points than it is for writers. Remember, Google isn’t just interested in keywords anymore; it’s much smarter than that. If your transcript isn’t useful to a human, it’s unlikely to be valued highly by a robot. You should absolutely publish your episode transcripts, but not for SEO.

Google still doesn’t get podcasts

Despite having a good stab at it a couple of years ago, Google hasn’t really got its head around podcasting. That relationship I mentioned between websites and RSS feeds is really flakey, and Google will often decide to pick a different feed to represent a podcast than the one the creator chose. ¯*(ツ)*/¯

If you’re in the EU you’ll no doubt notice that most podcasts aren’t playable because of a longstanding bug around age verification. So while that makes the Google Podcasts app as irrelevant as Google Play Music, we can still help Google to help us.

Remember that podcast websites are just blogs with MP3s attached. That means all the same SEO rules apply:

  • LinkTrees are not websites. If you want a simple page that lists all the ways to subscribe to your podcast, make one in your website’s CMS. If you’re using a built-in website from your media host, see if they provide one that uses your domain name.
  • And speaking of domain names, make sure your podcast website has one. A domain name is something you pay for, that often ends in “.com” or “.org”. If you’re using something like mypodcast.captivate.fm or anchor.fm/mypodcast, those aren’t domain names. Buy a custom domain name if you haven’t got one already (they’re not expensive), and link your website to it. If your media host doesn’t let you do this and you don’t have a website, move media hosts.
  • Most people use their mobile phones to search. Make sure your website is clean, uncluttered, and easy-to-read on a small device.
  • Check your load time. Visitors will bounce if a webpage takes longer than a couple of seconds to load. It sounds crazy but it’s true. If you can get your website to load to a point where it’s usable (even if fonts take a little longer to load) in under a second, you’re on the right track. Remember, Google knows how fast your site is, and will rank you accordingly.
  • Make sure your web address starts with “https://”, not “http://”. HTTPS sites are more secure, and Google likes that.
  • Give your reader something to do once they’ve read your show notes. That could mean following the podcast in their favourite payer, or subscribing to your newsletter. Give the visitor valuable stuff to keep them – not trap them – on your site.
  • Ask someone you don’t live with to search for relevant keywords, to see where you come up. Google probably knows you visit. your website a lot, so it’ll bias results in your favour to make you happy. Even in Incognito or Private Browsing mode, your IP address is visible to Google, so someone who lives with you might get a similar result. Ask a friend to search for a phrase you want to rank for, to se where your episode appears.

Links are everything

Google initially understood the value of webpages based on who linked to them. That’s still important, as is the concept of the canonical link.

Your content will be found in lots of places. Podcast directories like Apple Podcasts, Listen Notes, and Player FM can eclipse your own website because more people link to those websites, so Google assumes they’re more authoritative.

Take control of your website and make sure that everything links back to you. Here are some things to consider:

  • When sharing links to your podcast, always share links from your own website. Don’t share individual links to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc.
  • When guesting on podcasts, ask people to link to your podcast website.
  • Use canonical links. Posting to multiple places is good, but if Google can’t tell where the original piece came from, it’ll pick the most well-known source and assume everything else is a copy. If you cross-post to Medium, you can tell Medium that the canonical source (the “real version”) of the content is the one found on your website.
  • If you have a separate website from your media host, tell your media host where your episode webpage is. Look for a text box like “Episode webpage” or “Permalink”. If you’ve created a separate page on your website, copy that address and paste it into the relevant field in your media host. This sends a big signal to Google and to podcast apps, that the home on the web for each episode is your website, not your media host’s.

How has advice changed in the wake of the helpful content update?

If you’re already writing and creating content for humans, it hasn’t changed at all… that’s the point. Google’s new update exists to demote content that’s trying to game the system.

But given that Google still doesn’t fully understand podcasts, it’s important to double down on best practices so the algorithm understands what you’re trying to say, and how it adds value to visitors.

Want some help getting your podcast website in order?

Before becoming a full-time podcaster, I held Technical Directorship positions at companies that put the listener and visitor experience first. To book a podcast website audit with me, get in touch.

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