New Google Podcasts app: who needs data portability anyway?

Google introduced a new app for podcasts called Google Podcasts. Unlike most other podcast apps that are built on open standards; Google focuses on “content discovery” and curation, and a complete lack of interoperability and data portability.

You might not thing about podcasts in these terms, but the podcasting ecosystem is built on open web standards where any listener can subscribe to any podcast. Anyone can publish a podcast and there is a diverse ecosystem of tools for podcast publishing. This openness is parts of what makes podcasts so great and why there are so many different podcasts to choose from.

Google have decided to take their app in another direction. Before I get into that, I’d like to quickly talk about the “new app” itself.

The new “app”

First thing first: this isn’t a podcast app, it’s a shortcut to the podcasting section of the main Google Search app. The app is intended to highlight a distinct set of functions that are hidden in the main app by promoting it as a separate app.

Google Podcasts doesn’t request any system level permissions whatsoever. The app doesn’t need to ask for permission to use your location data, contacts, and other permissions as it has already got those permissions. Since you’re really using the main Google app, the podcast app has all the same permissions as the Google app. I’m not saying that the app uses these permissions but merely pointing out that it has them — and that few (if any?) other podcast apps request the same permissions.

The same goes for the app’s storage space usage report. The shortcut app is just 270 kB consisting mostly of icon files. The app’s caches, including downloaded episodes which can take up significant space, are reported under the main Google app.

The Podcasts app from Google can’t be configured to automatically download new podcast episodes. This functionality is found in just about any traditional podcasting app, but it’s nowhere to be found in Google Podcasts. Episodes only begin downloading (potentially over a costly mobile data connection) when you tap the Play button. Podcasts will, however, automatically delete downloaded episodes after a user-configured time interval.

The app isn’t optimized for people who wants to listen to a lot of podcasts. You can’t queue episodes or play all new episodes in one go. You have to start new episodes one at a time, which sounds like a small thing until you realize that many listens to podcast while they’re commuting and shouldn’t be distracted by having to manage podcast playback on their devices.

No data portability

Every podcast app of note supports importing and exporting subscription lists between different apps in a common structured format known as OPML. Google Podcasts doesn’t allow you to either import or export your subscriptions using OPML or even through Google Takeout.

In practical terms, this means that you’re locked in to Google Podcast to a greater extent than other podcast apps. The podcast ecosystem has benefited from people being able to take their subscriptions from one app to another and back again at their choosing. You can export your subscriptions in Pocket Casts and import them into iTunes, and export them from iTunes and import them into Overcast. It might take you a minute to work out how it’s done, but data portability is broadly supported in the podcast ecosystem.

There is no way from within the app find the original syndication feed address (colloquially known as “RSS”) of a podcast either, so you can’t manually copy over your subscriptions one by one into a different podcast app.

There are more people who don’t listen to podcasts than people who do. Google has already tied Google Podcasts directly into search results on Google on Android. When new audiences discover a podcast through Google Search and choose to subscribe to it in Google Podcasts, they’ll have a harder time moving their subscriptions to a competing app that may offer a better user experience than Google Podcasts. Frankly, just about any other podcast app provides a better user experience than what the Google Podcasts app currently offer.

Only last month, European Union citizens got a legal right to data portability under the General Data Protection Regulation’s (GDPR) 20th article aptly named Right to data portability. Article 20 specifically sets out that people must be able to export their data in a commonly used structured data format (like OPML). I’d hoped we’d see new apps and services launch with data portability out of the gate, but it doesn’t seem like Google got the memo on this one.

Spotify is the only other noteworthy podcast app that doesn’t support exporting and importing subscriptions.

Unlisted podcasts

Unlike most other podcast apps, you can’t subscribe to just any podcasts you want through Google Podcasts. You can’t search for or subscribe directly to a podcast’s syndication feed. Instead, Google will discover podcasts as it crawls and indexes the web, and add the podcasts it finds to it’s catalog. That is all well and good if all your podcasts have been discovered and indexed by Google already, and Google claims they’ve already added more than one million podcasts, but it’s of little comfort if your favorite shows aren’t available.

Google has made available a tool for podcast publishers that maps URLs to entries in Google Podcasts, but they’ve opted to not offer the same functionality to people using the Podcasts app or even in the Google Search app.

You can influence the selection in Google Podcasts if your favorite show isn’t listed. You can notify Google of a new podcast and hopefully they’ll include it:

  1. Find the podcast feed link and copy it
  2. Visit Google’s WebSub hub and submit the feed link
  3. Wait half an hour or more
  4. Visit Google’s Podcast Preview tool and submit the feed link in the direct link generator

If your show has been added, you’ll get a link to it that you can open on an Android device with the Google Podcasts app already installed. Or you may get an error message. Try waiting another hour or two and then repeat the process. (Or just use an more open podcast app that allows you to subscribe to whatever you want to subscribe to.)

I’ve used the above method to get two long-running but unlisted podcasts included in Google’s catalog, but there is no guarantee that it will work. A podcast may have been excluded for different reasons. The two links above also contains debugging tools for podcast publishers (and technically minded subscribers) to identify issues.

The only other podcast app I’ve found that doesn’t allow you to subscribe to a podcast by its syndication feed URL is Spotify. Spotify requires that podcasts are delivered through one of twelve approved podcast distribution partners.

Producing transcriptions and translations

Google’s blog post about the launch talks about the future of the app in grand terms. Specifically, Google suggested that they might add speech-to-text subtitles, as well as automatic translations of podcasts in foreign languages.

I’d personally really appreciate a searchable transcript for every podcast episode ever recorded but few shows produce them. Transcripts require hours of human labor and are expensive to create. Today, there is no way to find your way back to anything you remember hearing on a podcast two months ago other than to sit down and listen through the episode archives. Maybe you remember which show it was and roughly when, but you’re ultimately left with few tools other than your own ears and patience.

Episode transcriptions aren’t available at launch because the technology just isn’t good enough yet. Only last year, Six Colors tried transcribing their podcast with Google’s speech-to-text API and concluded that the accuracy just wasn’t good enough yet. As far as I can tell, this is the first time one of the major tech companies have talked about automated podcast transcriptions since the closure of Yahoo! Podcasts over a decade ago.

Neither programmatic ad insertions or ad blocking for podcasts are really a thing yet. High quality transcripts would greatly improve Google’s ability to match contextually relevant advertisements and automatically insert ads at opportune moments. Google already dominates the contextual advertising market on the web and video. Google Podcasts might just be their first baby steps onto the podcast advertising scene.