After more than 3 years, podcasts are back on Google's radar. So why did it launch with so much room for improvement?

Once upon a time Google had a little app for listening to podcasts. It was called Google Listen, and it lived alongside other podcast apps during a time of great peace and prosperity. But Google Listen died an untimely death, killed off in one of Google's infamous "Spring Cleanings" after months and months of neglect.

Podcasts, of course, survived the death of Google Listen. And a good many other podcast apps rose to power during that dark time. (In fact, we've got a handy list of the best podcast apps for Android.)

Today, podcasts are more popular than ever. Especially this one. There are others, too. But you definitely should subscribe to this one. And that link there goes to the listing for the Android Central Podcast in Google Play Music.

Yes, after more than 40 months away, Google is now back in the podcast business. And it's a good time to be back, riding on the backside of the wave that was Serial. Or on the continued success or This American Life or WTF with Marc Maron or The Nerdist or The Joe Rogan Experience. And, of course, the Android Central Podcast. There's something out there for everyone.

But are podcasts in Google Play Music any good? We can narrow down podcast app features to three categories of importance — discoverability, playback, and what's good for the podcasters themselves. So let's take a look at this second coming of podcasts for Google and see what the fuss is all about — or whether you're better off sticking with some other app.

Find your favorites, maybe

Discovering and subscribing

The most important part of any podcast app is making it easy to find a show in the first place, and then subscribing to a show and managing individual episodes. Google's the world leader in search, and it's been pulling in podcasts from participating artists for months.

And that's why it's ridiculous that podcasts in Google Play Music are as limited as they are. It appears that Google has done nothing to create a proper library and is only using what's been submitted. Fair enough, but that's an area where just about every other podcast app has a leg up with massive directories. There's a very real possibility that a basic search for a podcast in Google Play Music will not return what you're looking for. And even if it does find what you're looking for, results are still a mess.

Podcast discoveryWhy does This American Life return as an "artist," but Start Talk returns as a "podcast?" (And on another account, TAL doesn't show for me at all.) And if a search result is anything like a music result, the podcast listing gets pushed to the bottom. Music and podcasts are muddied here, at best, with all the search results returned together. And if there's a video podcast you love, you'll not find it here.

Google's podcast directory is broken down into 16 categories. Arts, business, comedy, education, games and hobbies, government and organizations, health, kids and families, news and politics, religion and spirituality, science and medicine, society and culture, sports and recreation, technology, and TV and film. And each category showcases 20 podcasts.

And ... that's it. Want to dive deeper into a given category? Go do it somewhere else. That's a huge disservice to listeners, and an even bigger disparity for all the shows that aren't featured. It's basically like Google only ever giving one page of search results, and damn the rest. (Oh, and one of the featured shows in the Technology category is Radio T — a Russian-language show. Great for them. Bad for those of us who don't speak Russian as well as we used to.)

Update: As of April 29 Google's begun featuring 50 podcasts per category — a marked improvement over the initial 20.

OK, so you can't find the show you want to listen to in Google's directory. No problem, you can always just add the feed manually and — wait a minute. Google has no mechanism for manually adding a podcast feed. Every other podcatcher in the history of podcasts has had this ability. This makes no sense. It's no surprise, then, that there's no OPML support — you can't import lists of show subscriptions, or export them from Google Play Music.

You can find any podcast you want in Google Play Music, so long as it's in Google Play Music. For everything else, you'll need another podcast app.

And all that's assuming you actually find your way into the podcast section of Google Play Music in the first place. It's buried behind the slide-out drawer. And while there's currently a big banner promoting podcasts at the top of the Google Play Store — on the web as well as in the Android app — it doesn't actually take you to the podcast section, just the front of Google Play Music.

It's almost as if Google really doesn't want you to find podcasts at all. At least not any more than it wants to put in front of you.

Key fixes: Use those fancy crawling search robots to build a proper directory. Separate podcast search results from music results.

Android Central Podcast on Google Play Music

Are you listening?

Podcast playback

Let's assume you've made it into the podcast section of Google Play Music, and you've got some podcasts all loaded up. (Even if you can't find your usual shows, we can think of at least one you can subscribe to, right?) Now it's time to get to listening.

The good news here is that things are in pretty good shape. Podcasts borrow heavily from the UI of Google Play Music. So controls are in their usual place. Same goes for the more ancillary stuff — show image and description, sharing and subscription buttons, that sort of thing.

Google Play podcast playback on the webEpisode names have to compete for screen real estate with their descriptions when you're listening in a browser. In the Android app, they're given preference, with episode descriptions hidden behind an "i" information button. On both platforms, episode descriptions are plain text only. That renders useless any description that uses links in show notes to point listeners elsewhere for more information, and that's a shame.

Playback controls are exactly as you'd expect, especially if you've ever used Google Play Music. Play/pause, forward and back one track, and the ability to rewind 10 seconds, or skip ahead 30 seconds. You scan scrub through most of an episode easily enough on Android. But scrubbing to the beginning or last few minutes of an episode is next to impossible. And your playback position does a decent job of syncing between devices.

If you're listening on an Android device, controls are all available on Android Wear.

If you're plugged into Android Auto in your vehicle, you get next to nothing. There's no podcast section. If you're currently listening to a podcast you'll be able to start it back up from your car, or maybe you'll find it in the "recent activity" section, but that's it. (And if you do manage to play a show in the car, the rewind and skip buttons are horribly hidden behind an overflow menu.) While Android Auto is still very much a niche product, it's also one that's been around for a year now, and it's very odd to have been so blatantly ignored here in one regard, and done poorly in another.

Update: On or around June 21, Google Play Music was updated to include a podcast section in Android Auto.

One nice feature, though, is the ability to send a podcast to Sonos through the app, just like you can music.

Key fixes: Allow HTML in show notes. Add proper support for Android Auto. Improve on the cramped queue listings in a browser.

Yes, we have a show

What show creators get

Have we mentioned we have a podcast? Because we totally do. And therefore we have a a few insights into the how these things work from a showrunner standpoint.

Adding a podcast is easy. You head to Google's Podcast Music Portal and read through and accept the terms of service. It's still your podcast (and Google says you need to make sure it actually is your podcast before distributing through its service), and you can pull it at any time. By the same token, Google isn't obligated to make your podcast available and can kill it need be. That's worst-case scenario, of course.

From there, you add a podcast feed, and Google uses all the existing metadata — standard stuff for podcasting. Easy enough.

Google Play Music Podcast Portal

Once your podcasts are approved they'll be listed in the dashboard. From there you can see the status of each show, read "details" (which is just the same plain-text show notes), and get basic analytics — the number of plays versus the number of downloads for each episode (and in aggregate), and you can see how many people are subscribed to each show

The big question as all this was ramping up had to do with advertising. Here's what's up:

Currently Google isn't advertising against your podcast. But it does reserve the right to — be it in audio, video or display advertising form. And podcasters are free to include advertising in their podcasts, just as we've been doing for years. And Google goes so far to say that it won't do its own pre-roll or mid-roll (as in at the start, or somewhere in the middle) advertisements, so it won't step on podcasts that have their own in-show adverts. (So long as those advertisements don't conflict with Google's own ad policies.) But Google also says that if and when it does its own advertising alongside podcasts, it won't be sharing any of that revenue with the "podcast creator."

The small print, if you wish:

  1. Google Advertising/No Revenue Share. For the avoidance of doubt, Google has the right to present audio, video and/or display advertisements in connection with Google's distribution of the Podcast Content on Google Play. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Google acknowledges and agrees that Google will not display any pre-roll or mid-roll advertisements in connection with the Podcast Content and will not sell or target advertisements directly against specific Podcast Content or any particular Podcast Creator. For the avoidance of doubt, Podcast Creator shall not be entitled to any royalties, revenue or any other any monetary compensation in connection with Google's distribution of the Podcast Content in accordance with these Podcast Terms, including, without limitation, any monies Google may receive (including, without limitation, advertising and subscription revenues) in connection with Google's display of advertising pursuant to these Podcast Terms.

  2. Podcast Creator-Sold Ads Requirements. Podcast Creator has the right to include Podcast Creator-Sold Ads in the Podcast Content subject to Podcast Creator's compliance with Google Ad Policies. Podcast Creator has the right to retain all monies and revenues associated with such Podcast Creator-Sold Ads. Google has the right to block any Podcast Content or advertisements that contain any Podcast Creator Advertisements and/or any other advertisements that do not comply with Google Ad Policies. In addition, Google may require Podcast Creator to remove any Podcast Creator-Sold Ads from playback or display that violates Google Ad Policies as determined by Google in its reasonable discretion.

The short version of all this? It's mostly set it and forget it. There's not a whole lot to do on the back-end here once your feed is set up.

Key fixes: More granular analytics would be nice. Where are folks listening? What are they using to listen? (And are these analytics more or less accurate than those from other sources?) Nothing's particularly broken here, though.

Google Play Music Podcasts

More to come

The bottom line (for now)

Look, we've got a lot of gripes about podcasts in Google Play Music so far. There's not really a compelling case for using it, unless you just refuse to shell out a few bucks for any of the much better podcast apps out there.

That doesn't mean podcasts on Google Play Music won't get better. We're pretty certain they will. We're only a week into things, after all. But it's also fair to ask how Google managed to re-launch podcasts after all this time without what we consider to be some pretty standard features at this point.

A few other head-shakers we've been shaking our heads at:

  • Podcasts are universal. But currently Google has only made them available in the U.S. and Canada. How the hell does that happen? (And, again, one of the top shows in Google's Technology category is in Russian.)
  • You can't rate or review a podcast in Google Play — that's a huge feature from iTunes that's missing here.
  • If you share a show on Google+ (remember that?) or on Facebook, the metadata is broken.
  • There's no variable speed playback — kids love them some Android Central Podcast at 2x speed.
  • No support yet for video podcasts.
  • And pick any other feature from your favorite podcatcher.

Google clearly still has some work to do. The question is how much work does it want to do. The first generation of Google's podcast endeavor flamed out. What's changed? And will Google be willing to infringe the developers who have made some rather impressive podcast apps on their own?

We'll update this piece periodically as Google updates its podcast service. As Ira Glass would say on This American Life .... Stay tuned.

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