Don’t Trust iTunes Lists

I saw this article about podcasting affecting the business models of public radio. It’s an interesting read, but I want to focus on one paragraph:

Talk about pent-up demand. According to Maria Thomas, vice president and general manager of NPR Online, it took only six days after launch for NPR’s “Story of the Day” podcast to reach the coveted No. 1 spot on iTunes for most downloaded podcast. On Nov. 21, NPR’s podcasts held down 11 spots on the iTunes Top 100, more than any other media outlet.

People always assume that’s what the top of the iTunes list means – “most downloaded shows.” That’s a sensible thing to believe, because that’s how any rational person would set up that system. In fact, unless I missed it we don’t actually know what that list means. At least in the recent past, it was “the number of times the subscribe button has been hit for this podcast in the recent past”, a vastly different metric. As much as I use and like (most) Apple products, they are a completely opaque company. For all any of us knows, they changed how those lists are generated yesterday and will again tomorrow.

This is just another longer way of saying that those top N lists mean nothing, and the ones from the iTunes Music Store mean even less than that. Don’t over interpret data when you don’t know what it actually is.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father. Member of the Podcast Hall of Fame class of 2022.

One thought on “Don’t Trust iTunes Lists”

  1. I have always assumed that it was the top downloaded podcasts though itunes / iTMS of recent times.

    which means that as soon as a popular show posts a new episode it rockets to the top of the listings as it’s automatically downloaded though itunes to all the subscribers, and registers itself as a popular download.

    So in that case it is popularity based, but only on all subscriptions, not just new ones, and of course there’s no indicator if people are actually listening to these podcasts.

    That’s the way I see it anyway!.

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