A quick review of Yahoo! Podcasts…

10/10/2005

Double disclaimer time here – firstly I’m knackered and what follows is badly written and I will edit it later for clarity, punch and drama. The other thing is that – of course – the viewpoints represented here do not necessarily reflect those of my employers (the BBC) who may be much much more intelligent than I.

A few short months after iTunes installed a podcast directory and client comes Yahoo! podcasts, and frankly I think Yahoo are more on the money with this one. The current implementation is a bit clumsy, it’s true – there are loads of things wrong with it – but fundamentally they’ve got the idea that podcasts should be linkable, that social media navigation is fundamentally important and they’ve got that creating a platform for amateur creativity is going to be the thing that really demoncratises the medium and changes audio forever. In this – as in so many other things – they’ve taken a huge lesson from Odeo, which remains the best service on the net (and will blow people’s heads off when they launch their create tools please god sometime soon.

I wrote an enormous post about Odeo a while back, which I never published after a friend said it was ‘a little hyperbolic’. That post contained much of my thinking about the evolution of podcasting and why it was so important (and why Odeo had got it so right as far as it had got so far). I’ll dig that up later and try and get it up by the end of the day. But in the meantime, I thought I’d write a little bit about the design and implementation of podcasting on the Yahoo service (with occasional reference to some stuff that Odeo have done).

The big problem both services have is that they don’t own the audio clients that people will use to listen to (and probably download) podcasts. This unfortunately leaves iTunes with the most seamless (if truncated) experience. Odeo finds some ways around this. Yahoo! Podcasts doesn’t. The problem really is in the web interface elements. You want to be able to subscribe to a show with just one web-based click and have that be reflected with a download to your client-side audio player. Yahoo don’t even try to solve this problem, which brings us the first major problem with their product – the subscription process is a multi-stage horror of downloaded podcast files and double-clicking. It is, frankly, clumsy as all buggery. Odeo’s syncr app is a much more elegant solution – a small client through which you login to their site, and which then downloads your ‘queue’ of episodes. But Odeo’s app still has its problems – much of the great functionality of iTunes is concerned with deleting old episodes and with handling how many shows remain on your iPod. Odeo’s approach makes it harder to use that functionality.

What we really need, it seems to me, is some form of OPML-style file that a client can subscribe to that contains a collection of podcast feeds. The list of your subscriptions (in whatever appropriate format) could then be updated by web clients around the web and have that reflected in your podcast client next time it updated. I don’t know if anyone’s working on that kind of stuff. If you know anything, let me know…

So what else is going on with the Yahoo! podcasts service? Well can I just say to start off with how nice it is to see a Yahoo service that isn’t plain white! If this is a beginning of a trend for their more lifestyle / entertainment brands, then it’s something I’m in favour of. Obviously I’ve seen Yahoo Music before – but this seems to me to be a much more elegant solution – a simple top navigational structure that keeps the Yahoo brand but which could be colour-coded to represent different Yahoo products.

The rest of the page is a bit … busy … though. It’s the same problem I have with the Yahoo homepage actually – there’s just too much damn stuff on it. Or at least (in this case) there’s too lines and gaps and bits of black. It is – however – far from terrible and has take a lot of the lessons from Odeo’s implementation of subscribable programme blocks (complete with preview functionality). It’s just a bit inelegant, and doesn’t have the sheen of an iTunes or an Odeo. But generally, it’s far from sucky. Mostly well done!

One final thing I want to talk about is the implementation of tags. I think this is something that they’ve fouled up – although in this case slightly less than Odeo have. Both services allow users to add tags to describe shows, but neither builds in any impetus to do so other than pure, good-hearted altruism. The individual doesn’t bookmark or collect the shows in question, they just write stuff. There’s little or no (enlightened or otherwise) self-interest being met, and as a result I think it’ll probably fail.

The problem really comes in trying to derive value from the interactions of hundreds or thousands of people. The first rule is that the individual needs to see some value in what they’re doing (ideally personal value). It’s unclear what that value is in either Odeo or Yahoo’s implementation. But the second rule is that you should be able to aggregate individual interactions to create something bigger than the individual. Odeo gets this completely wrong – a show can be given a tag, but only one of any given tag. A bit of metadata that a thousand people think is useful is given the same conceptual weight as a bit of metadata that only one person thinks is useful. The end-result, an easily spammable system with no sense of weighting that could make searching or ranking results easier.

Yahoo tries to fix this by making it possible for a show to be tagged multiple times with the same term, but doesn’t give any clear explanation to people why they should tag a show with a word it has already been tagged by. And because there’s no obvious reason to retag something with a pre-existing word, and because there’s no value to the individual to undertake that tagging other than altruism, I can’t believe it’s going to be enormously successful.

What they need to do instead is think about a generic implementation of tagging (and a representative user interface widget) that a logged in Yahoo user can carry with them around all of their services, showing how an individual search result or review or news story or web page or podcast has been tagged by them personally (and making each tag a link off to browse their annotated collections of stuff), as well as showing the aggregate. That would make much more sense, and could be much more powerful.