BBC Denies Google Assistant and Search Access to Podcast Content
Podnews is reporting that BBC has started “blocking all access to its podcasts on Google search, Google Assistant, and Google Podcasts. No new podcasts have appeared within Google Podcasts since March 19th, and many podcasts have already been removed altogether from the service.” The change appears to be linked to BBC’s recent move to reserve certain content for use in its BBC Sounds app which is available only in the U.K. Podnews posted in its Twitter account an official response from BBC on the matter.
— Podnews podcasting news (@Podnews) March 23, 2019
Shifting Content Consumption to an App
James Cridland, the Podnews editor, found that BBC was excluding its podcast data from showing up in text-based and Google Assistant searches by modifying the robots.txt file that is included in the code of most websites to offer web crawlers instructions about how to interpret the data on the page. In this case, it instructs Googlebot, the search crawling service name, to disallow indexing of the content. Cridland rightly points out that Google could still index the data and make it available but honors the requests from website publishers. He also directly suggests that the move is likely driven by BBC’s interest in driving users to its own BBC Sounds app as opposed to third-party podcast aggregators like Google. An FAQ on the BBC site seems to support Cridland’s contention.
The Trend Toward Content Control and Fragmentation
It is no doubt a coincidence that the rise of a new content walled garden by the BBC surfaces on the same day Apple is expected to announce its own content walled garden. However, it is in line with recent trends. Content producers and walled garden subscription aggregators are rallying against the free and ad-supported content models that dominated broadcast media for nearly a century and first decades of the web.
The online world has recently delivered several subscription success stories such as Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Apple Music. There are thousands of other media properties also attempting to reassert control over content, the user experience, and importantly, the user data. In the U.S., CBS can be found ad-supported on cable and over-the-air transmission, while also in a paid subscription app that only provides content from the network. Other broadcasters have similar models. You may be able to access content multiple ways, but increasingly the content producers are steering their audience to owned channels and away from aggregators like Google.
This is not to say BBC is putting up a paywall. That would be inconsistent with the organization’s current charter. However, it is consistent with the trend toward fragmentation and away from aggregation where practical. There are a few successful aggregators listed above and there is also YouTube which has shown how the free-to-users ad-supported model can work. However, the trend is now toward content fragmentation.
Voice Assistants Could Facilitate Content Walled Gardens
General purpose consumer voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant will actually facilitate this shift because there are few of them, they are not based on open standards like the web, they have de facto walled gardens of content already, and each is looking for differentiation. If Siri can autoplay BBC podcasts but Google Assistant cannot, you could imagine that becoming an incentive for U.K. users to adopt the Apple ecosystem. This access could even be non-exclusive and simply carry a licensing fee and other terms.
You should expect to see more content battles and spillover into the voice assistant world over the next two years. Voice assistants want to be your most convenient navigation for all content sources. They will resist allowing content to elude access by their users. However, they will maintain their own walls and only selectively create doors to other gardens.