The Audacity to Podcast

Kicked from Apple Podcasts? What Happens When You Keyword-Stuff Podcast Tags – TAP334

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The Audacity to Podcast

Daniel J. Lewis | D.Joseph Design

Cincinnati, OH

Description: Giving you the guts and teaching you the tools to podcast with passion, organization, and dialog (POD).

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Kicked from Apple Podcasts? What Happens When You Keyword-Stuff Podcast Tags – TAP334

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In the middle of 2018, Apple started cracking down on keyword-stuffing in podcast tags. My own show, The Audacity to Podcast, was even affected, and I've been tracking and testing other podcasts. Here's what I found!

TL;DR: Make the title tag the title, the author tag the author(s), and put descriptive text in descriptive fields. Don't try to game the system.

Background

First, I'll admit I knew I was crossing this new and not completely defined line for what was allowed in podcast tags. Although I never encouraged stuffing or spamming your RSS tags with keywords, I had been giving the advice to include some keywords in the form of a sentence-style tagline as this can help with podcast SEO.

But when some unethical podcasters learned how Apple Podcasts / iTunes search works, they would abuse these tools and spam their RSS tags with keywords, hoping to boost their podcasts' findability.

For the whole of this blog post, only my own podcasts and those acceptable examples will be real podcasts. Unacceptable examples will be fictionalized. (But do the spammers really need the protection?)

How much is “spamming”?

Because Apple Podcasts currently searches only the title and author tags (show-level and episode-level), some podcasts would fill those fields with extra keywords and descriptions. Here's a clear example of abuse (again, this is fictionalized but based on actual samples):

Title: My Awesome Podcast – Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Passive Income, Relationships, Bitcoin, Business, SEO, and Vanilla Cream Soda

Author: John Smith, expert entrepreneur who interviews and discusses marketing ideas from people like Pat Flynn, Seth Godin, Zig Ziglar and more. If Steve Jobs was still alive, he would be on this podcast

I'm going to assume you're among the intelligent and ethical podcasters and podcast-fans. So you can probably immediately recognize that this example is trying way too hard.

Without a doubt, if your podcast has a title or author tag that looks like the above, it will be rejected. This is happening immediately for new podcasts submitting through Podcasts Connect, and it's also happening to existing podcasts (read on for when that seems to happen).

The unacceptable gray area

Perhaps a podcaster is trying to be ethical but also trying to make their podcast findable for relevant search terms. Thus, they may be more conservative with their keyword usage, even in line with what I used to teach.

Here's what my own podcast was before Apple rejected it.

Title: The Audacity to Podcast – how to launch and improve your podcast

Author: Daniel J. Lewis, podcasting industry expert and how to podcast teacher

I left my podcast like this when Apple started tightening the standards and I knew my podcast had the potential to be removed. But as you can see, I wasn't stuffing my tags with a list of keywords; I was giving my podcast and myself what I consider to be “taglines” or “subtitles.”

In the process of discussing things with the Apple Podcasts support team, I learned that while my title contained extraneous information, it was especially the author tag that got my podcast kicked out of Apple Podcasts.

What is the acceptable limit?

If your own podcast has been rejected by Apple, you've probably seen this response verbatim from their support team.

Your show was rejected because the author field or title field contains extraneous information that should be included as part of its description (<description>, <itunes:subtitle>, or <itunes:summary>) tags.

While you might think this is a vague response from Apple, I think it's a clear enough definition of the limit. Not the “extraneous” part, but “information that should be included as part of its description.”

In my own podcast, “how to launch and improve your podcast” was not the title; it was a description. And “podcasting industry expert and how to podcast teacher” was not the creator of the podcast, it was a description of the creator.

Put in a profound way:

  • The title tag should be only the title.
  • The author tag should be only the author.
  • The descriptive tags should contain the descriptions.

“Duh,” right? I think Apple's standard does make total sense.

If you have multiple regular cohosts or there's a company or network behind the podcast, it would also be acceptable to include those names in the author tag. They are, after all, authors of the podcast! Thus, author tags like the following are acceptable:

  • Daniel J. Lewis | Noodle Mix Network
  • Mike Carruthers | Wondery
  • John Smith, Jane Doe, and Christian Wolff • ZZZ Accounting
  • Focus Features, Stitcher, Limina House & Jad Abumrad
  • Malcolm Gladwell / Panoply

In further correspondence with the Apple Podcasts support team, I learned there's a little more flexibility with the title, but not much. A quick look at the top 200 of all podcasts in Apple Podcasts gives several good examples of acceptable flexibility in titles.

  • Gladiator: Aaron Hernandez and Football Inc.
  • Dark Topic: A True Crime Podcast
  • Snap Judgment Presents: Spooked
  • Steve McNair: Fall of a Titan
  • The Daily Show With Trevor Noah: Ears Edition
  • Oprah’s Master Class: The Podcast
  • Let's Not Meet: A True Horror Podcast
  • UnErased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America
  • Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories
  • The Church of What's Happening Now: With Joey Coco Diaz
  • Death by Misadventure: True Paranormal Mystery
  • Fantasy Footballers – Fantasy Football Podcast
  • Dan Carlin's Hardcore History: Addendum

Notice that, contrary to some of the legalistic fear and advice, these titles do contain separators, such as colons (:) and hyphens (-). Some of these titles are even unnecessarily redundant with the host's name in the title! (So, yes, there's still some room for improvement, but I recommend not including the host's name in the title.)

Also, notice that none of these titles contain a tagline in the title. The extra text is either part of the unique branding (such as Snap Judgment Presents: Spooked) or a generic title of the genre (such as “true crime podcast”).

This leads me to believe my biggest concern for findability—fan podcasts—will still be allowed to include the title of the fandom inside the title of their podcast. Thus, I think titles such as the following would be acceptable and serve the need for podcast SEO.

  • ONCE – Unofficial Once Upon a Time podcast
  • Welcome to Level Seven: Agents of SHIELD fan podcast
What about podcast SEO?

I was the first to thoroughly study, test, and create a complete course on SEO for Podcasters (major revisions planned for 2019!). And I know that the big reason podcasters want to get extra keywords in their tags is that this helps with search-engine optimization (SEO). As the thinking and my previous teaching went, the “My Awesome Podcast” show would be more findable for a topic like “marketing” if that keyword was in the title or author tags, since that's all that Apple Podcasts and iTunes currently search. (Most other podcast apps also search the show-level description tags.)

But in my example, “marketing” would be a description of the podcast, not a title. Thus, it shouldn't be in the title. So how else could the podcast be found for that and the other topics?

This is where other ethical podcast-SEO strategies need to take priority. Many of the top podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts/iTunes, include some information from individual episodes. Web searches especially prioritize the individual posts' information. Thus, if you want your podcast found for certain keywords that aren't part of your show-level title, I suggest making well-titled episodes about those topics. Using my fictionalized example, I could make episodes like the following.

  • Awesome Marketing Tips
  • Should You Invest in Bitcoin?
  • Why Vanilla Cream Soda Is the Best
  • Thinking of Becoming an Entrepreneur?
  • 10 Passive Income Strategies
  • How to Make Relationships Last

You can even apply this to fan podcasts.

  • Top 10 MacGyver Episodes
  • The Best LA Dodgers Games
  • Why Watch Once Upon a Time?
  • Most Popular iPhone Models

These episode titles contain those target keywords, so they contribute to the overall show's findability for those same keywords. But even more importantly, these titles make a better experience for the audience by clearly communicating the subjects of each episode. So when you practice better SEO techniques, you're actually serving your audience better!

And that leads to a question you may be wondering.

Why does Apple suddenly want to stop the keyword-stuffing?

I think Apple cares about cleaning up the podcasts in their catalog for one huge reason: the user experience. There seem to be three sides to this.

1. Cleaner listings

Scrolling through a chart of top podcasts or a subscription list is actually a much better experience when the titles are clean, clear, and concise. I noticed this when I was looking through my own podcast subscriptions. The shorter, non-truncated titles were easier to read, the screen was less cluttered, and the titles actually stood out more!

My subscriptions went from something like this:

  • The Audacity to Podcast – how to launch and improve…
  • Marketing Tips for Entrepreneurs: effective ways to…
  • Overcoming Fear: Everything you need to succeed in…
  • Everything about Everything: The podcast that covers…

To now something like this:

  • The Audacity to Podcast
  • Marketing Tips for Entrepreneurs
  • Overcoming Fear
  • Everything about Everything

The charts and feature lists in podcast apps are also a lot easier to read when titles and author tags are not truncated!

These cleaner listings really do make a better user experience!

2. Voice-based interactions

Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and more vocal interaction technologies are entering our world through smartphones, smartwatches, smart speakers, entertainment systems, apps, automobiles, and more. These interactions are supposed to feel natural and not robotic, and I think this is a big reason Apple wants to clean up their podcast catalog.

A couple months ago, if you said, “Hey, Siri, subscribe to The Audacity to Podcast,” should would have responded, “Just to confirm, do you want to subscribe to the podcast ‘The Audacity to Podcast, how to launch and improve your podcast,' by Daniel J. Lewis, podcasting industry expert and how to podcast teacher?” Imagine if my title or author tags were longer!

But when the title and author tags are cleaned up, Siri's response isn't so overwhelming: “Just to confirm, do you want to subscribe to the podcast “The Audacity to Podcast” by Daniel J. Lewis?” Isn't that nicer?

And although this is probably not required on any voice assistant, can you imagine having to say the entire title correctly in order to subscribe to the podcast?

“Alexa, subscribe to My Awesome Podcast.”

“I found 200 podcasts by that name. Which one do you want?”

“Alexa, subscribe to My Awesome Podcast – Entrepreneurship, Marketing, and Business.”

“I'm sorry, I can't find a podcast by that name.”

“Alexa, subscribe to My Awesome Podcast – Entrepreneurship, Marketing, SEO, and Bitcoin.”

“I'm sorry, I can't find a podcast by that name.”

“Alexa, subscribe to My Awesome Podcast – Business, Relationships, and something about soda.”

“I'm sorry, I can't find a podcast by that name.”

“Alexa, throw me out the podbay doors.”

Cleaner tags make a much better spoken user experience!

3. Cracking down on spammers and cheaters

At the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in 2018, James Boggs, a manager in the Apple Podcasts team, said:

We're continually refreshing and managing our directory, automatically retiring shows which become technically unavailable or those that run afoul of our directory content guidelines, such as those with spammy content or shows seeking to manipulate our top charts. Don't do that. Just please don't do that.

—James Boggs, WWDC 2018, session 501: “Introducing Podcast Analytics”

Content creators are already familiar search engines tweaking their algorithms to demote or blacklist sites using unethical tricks in attempts to cheat their way to the top of search results. I think James Boggs made it clear that Apple is seeking to do the same thing with Apple Podcasts, probably with the hopes to expose and reward those with high-quality content and a truly engaged audience the podcasts earned legitimately.

We can apply this to many other fields and quickly realize how annoying it is to be confronted by those who are trying way too hard to close the deal: used-car salespeople, politicians, and those overly zealous people at mall kiosks.

How is Apple finding podcasts to reject?

The first place Apple is looking is at newly submitted podcasts. For years, we've been familiar with rules for podcasts in Apple Podcasts, such as avoiding profanity in the text or cover art, a valid podcast RSS feed, and some more requirements and guidelines. If a podcast doesn't meet these standards, it gets rejected before even entering the Apple Podcasts catalog.

But, like my own show, many existing and even long-running podcasts are being rejected (unfortunately, it seems to be without notice, too). What I can tell for sure, based on data from tracking tools I've developed, is that Apple is keeping a close eye on the top 200 of all podcasts and probably featured sections (“New & Noteworthy,” “What's Hot,” and such). I've been tracking several podcasts I thought would likely get rejected, some of them, including my own, have been going for months or even years. But in most cases, the very day they made it into the top 200 of all podcasts, they got rejected. I've seen this happen as quickly as three hours after breaking into the top 200.

And you may think this means your podcast is “safe” from ranking in the top 200, but the top charts in Apple Podcasts are based on new subscriptions. And as testing and data consistently confirm, it really doesn't take a lot of new subscribers in a day to push a podcast into the top 200. My own The Audacity to Podcast was sitting below the top 200 for months and then it must have been featured or mentioned somewhere else because it jumped overnight into the top 200—and I didn't do a single thing! It's even on a hiatus (this important episode being the exception)!

For clarification, I'm not referring to the top 200 within any of the 67 genres or categories in Apple Podcasts. Instead, I'm referring to the top 200 of all podcasts in Apple Podcasts. While I've seen several podcasts get away with spammy tags in the top 200 of those other genres, I doubt it will be long before Apple expands their scope to police more areas.

It also seems Apple is auditing podcasts that change their show-level information, such as the title, author tag, description, or cover art.

Beyond that, there could be some other algorithms to help surface suspected podcasts, such as monitoring shows with heavy activity or recently published episodes.

And I think what catches Apple's attention might not be any kind of separator (like a colon, pipe, or dash), but the length of the title and author tags. That's not to say something long will get kicked, but something long might be more likely to catch Apple's attention, so simply omitting a separator is not adequate protection.

I've seen podcasts kicked that were abusing only one tag, but not both.

What happens if your podcast is rejected?

Maybe you didn't fix your podcast in time, or you want to know what the risk is. Here's what I've observed.

New podcasts: fix and resubmit

If you are submitting a new podcast to Apple through Podcasts Connect and it gets rejected, the best thing to do is clean up your tags, get a new feed URL (even if by simply changing one character or using a service like Podcast Mirror), and then submit that new feed URL.

Because this has the possibility of requiring you to change your feed URL, I recommend submitting to Apple before submitting anywhere else. That way, you'll know you have an acceptable feed and won't have to mess with maintaining multiple URLs or switching other destinations.

Apple may notify you of the rejection, or you may have to log in to Podcasts Connect to check on the status of your submission in order to know that your podcast was rejected.

Existing podcasts: fix and contact Apple

If your show was already in the Apple Podcasts catalog and it got rejected, make the changes in your podcast feed and then contact Apple through Podcasts Connect. Ensure your changes are visible in your feed and tell Apple that you already corrected the issue. Then ask for your podcast to be reinstated with its ratings, rankings, and reviews intact.

The more information you can provide Apple, and the less back-and-forth you initiate, the quicker you can get your podcast restored.

I haven't heard from any podcasters who were notified by Apple that their podcasts were kicked out. You could check for yourself on a regular basis if you're walking that ethical line, or you'll soon be able to use a special tool I'm creating to be notified if there's a problem. Or, simply don't do bad things and then you probably won't have to worry about it!

Will the rejection affect existing subscribers?

This was a big concern of mine and I shared a bunch of in-depth details inside Podcasters' Society. But I'm pleased and relieved to confirm that no, your existing subscribers will not be affected.

This is thanks to the decentralized nature of podcasting. With only a few exceptions (Spotify, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, and maybe some others), podcast apps will subscribe people directly to a podcast's RSS feed. This is even the case with Apple Podcasts.

I did have a concern over how Apple Podcasts behaves with their mirror URLs (such as https://pcr.apple.com/id[ID_NUMBER]), but through testing, I've confirmed that even if the mirror URL is broken (as happens when Apple removes a podcast from their catalog), your subscribers are still connected directly to your RSS feed.

Thus, even if your podcast is removed from Apple Podcasts (or other podcast apps, with only those few exceptions), your subscribers can continue to access your RSS feed and download your new and past episodes.

There is a warning with this. If you submitted the mirror URL Apple gave you (https://pcr.apple.com/id[ID_NUMBER]) to any other apps or directories, a rejection from Apple will disconnect you from your audience. But this is only if you submitted that mirror URL to other places or linked to it, which I and other podcasting experts have advised against and I doubt many (if any) podcasters have done anyway. We also urge you to subscribe to your own podcast(s) in Apple Podcasts or iTunes and in your preferred podcast app if you use something other than Apple's apps. This will not only confirm for you that your podcast is still available to subscribers, but it also lets you see that your latest episode downloads even when it's not yet visible in Apple's catalog.

Your podcast in other apps

There are many other popular podcast apps (such as Overcast) using the iTunes Search API. This allows those other apps to not have to maintain their own podcast catalog with creator submissions, but to instead search the most popular catalog to which most podcasters have already submitted their shows.

When your podcast is rejected from Apple Podcasts, it also gets removed from the iTunes Search API. This makes your podcast not findable in those other apps, and thus makes it much harder for people to subscribe to your podcast in those same apps. (Any good podcast app will still allow manual subscriptions by pasting a podcast RSS feed URL, but that's a cumbersome process.)

Like Apple Podcasts and iTunes, no longer being findable affects potential new subscribers but not your current audience.

What you need to do NOW

Yes, I think you should make some changes immediately.

1. Don't wait

Please don't wait for Apple's “ban-hammer” to come down on your podcast! You may think your podcast is safe because it's never “at risk” for being a top-200 podcast. You may think it's safe because you removed separator characters from the <title> or <itunes:author> tags. But it really could be any moment that your podcast catches Apple's auditing attention and gets kicked out of Apple Podcasts and iTunes.

2. Clean up your show title

Make your podcast title tag contain only the title. If you host a fan podcast, go ahead and include one title of the object of your fandom, but still keep it as clean as possible. For example, don't make it something like, “ONCE – Unofficial Once Upon a Time fan podcast with theories, reviews, interviews, and your feedback,” make it simple, “ONCE – Unofficial Once Upon a Time podcast.”

3. Clean up your author tag

Who creates, owns, and hosts your podcast? That's what should be in the author tag. There should be only names in there: no titles, no taglines, no keywords. It's okay to have multiple names of regular cohosts, but don't include the names of guests, mentors, or inspirations.

4. Improve your episode titles

Like show-level titles, your episode titles need to be clean and not stuffed with keywords. But episode titles are easier to work with because they can be far more specific and descriptive than a show title can be.

So please don't title your episodes with only bland numbers or dates. Be descriptive and compelling, especially for topics people might be searching for.

And don't try to stuff your episode titles, either! Remove extraneous text that belongs in other places, like the show-level title or repetitive (and thus probably useless) text.

5. Make episodes to cover your keywords

Lastly, if you don't already have episodes about those topics you wanted to stuff in your other podcast tags, start making those episodes now! Like my previous tip, ensure these titles are clear, concise, and compelling.

Following these best practices will help ensure podcast apps don't kick out your show. And these principles help you build a stronger brand, and help make a better experience for your audience!

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