If your podcast uses episode numbers, you have multiple options for how to display them. Here's some guidance to help you decide!
But I'll give this warning: it's, unfortunately, more complicated than it should be!
Do you even need episode numbers?
I originally intended this episode to be about whether you should even use episode numbers. But then I listened to “Are episode numbers REALLY necessary?” from May 2014, and I think I've already addressed that question in enough detail in that old but timeless episode. So go back to listen if you haven't already heard it or if it's been a while.
In short: does your audience need episode numbers? If not, then neither does your podcast. But if you answered yes, then here's the follow-up question: do they “need” episode numbers because you make your audience need them?
You also need to consider possible confusions, like “2. Ways to Skin a Cat,” which could easily be misunderstood as there being only two ways. Or consider the confusion of multiple numbers together, like “10. 9 Ways to Be Awesome”—is it 10 ways, or is it 9 ways?
Generally, I think most podcasts don't need episode numbers (especially if episode titles frequently already start with numbers), and would be better not to use them. The only kinds of podcasts I would say with confidence do need episode numbers are those that need to be consumed in a particular order. For example:
- A fiction podcast that only makes sense chronologically (this is a great use for the “serial” podcast type)
- A training series where each episode builds on the previous episode like lessons in a course
- Any show that discusses other chronological content, like fan podcasts about book series, movie sagas, serialized TV shows (as most are these days), and historical miniseries
If you use episode numbers to point your audience to a “/[number]” URL, then you can probably still do without episode numbers by switching to keyword-based URLs (I use Pretty Links Pro for this). I've done that with The Audacity to Podcast ever since that old episode about episode numbers. There are some exceptions to this, like a news podcast that covers so many stories that there's no one logical keyword, and a date-based URL would be too complicated.
So with the assumption that your show does need episode numbers, let's consider how to best display them with your episode titles.
Use the episode-number RSS tags
Before diving in, I should define that “namespaces” are the way to extend the features of an RSS feed. Both the Apple Podcasts RSS specs (called the “iTunes namespace”) and Podcasting 2.0's “podcast namespace” offer RSS tags for episode numbers. If you ever look at the raw code for your RSS feed, you can easily spot namespace-added tags by anything that has a colon. For example,
For Apple Podcasts, the episode-number tag is
<itunes:episode>; for Podcasting 2.0, the tag is
<podcast:episode>. But, of course, the Podcasting 2.0 episode tag offers more features. You can use decimals, like “20.5,” for partial or in-between episodes, but I don't actually recommend that kind of numbering. The 2.0 tag also lets you change the display text, such as “Chapter 6” or “Day 6” instead of “Episode 6.” Use both tags as well as you can until all apps upgrade to the modern Podcasting 2.0 standard.
When you use these episode-number tags, modern podcast apps can more intelligently display the episode number in more appropriate contexts, and even ensure proper chronological playback (when combined with the “serial” podcast type tag).
Apple started this episode-number tag with the release of iOS 11 back in 2017, and the Apple Podcasts app provides great examples of how the episode numbers might be displayed:
- In the list of episodes, the episode number might be added to the beginning of the episode title, like “5. Starting Your Website.” (Displaying like this requires using the
<itunes:title>tag, which I explain below.)
- When opening the episode, the episode number might be displayed above the title with other meta information. This might look like, “July 20 • Episode 5 • 47 minutes.”
- Sometimes, the episode number might not display at all until you open or play the episode; or it might even stop displaying when you open or play the episode. This depends on how you use other RSS tags.
Pocket Casts was another app quick to support Apple's new tags, so it displays the episode numbers similarly. And as Podcasting 2.0 apps are being developed, they're usually already including support for the
Use your webpage field, if available
You might have your podcast website from your podcast-hosting provider (like Captivate), on WordPress with a great podcast theme like SecondLine Themes, or with a third-party tool like Podpage or Podcastpage. (I will have a future episode about how to choose from these options.)
Each of these website-management methods might offer an episode-number field that, like the RSS tag, allows the website to display the episode number in better places and maybe use it for some additional features (like a special player or a badge).
On The Audacity to Podcast‘s website, I enter the episode number into a field that SecondLine Themes gives me. This displays the episode number along with post meta information, like date, category, length, and comments. But the episode number does not display inside the title.
I chose this way for my show because I do still populate the episode-number field, at least for now. But this is as prominent as my episode numbers get right now.
How episode numbers work with title tags
Depending on how you create your website and RSS feed, you could have up to 6 places to insert an episode title!
- The RSS feed item's future
<podcast:title>tag from the Podcasting 2.0 namespace (when this tag is finalized), which is the title Podcasting 2.0 apps will use
- The RSS feed item's
<itunes:title>tag from the “iTunes” namespace, which is the title Apple Podcasts and a few other apps will use first
- The RSS feed item's
<title>tag, which is the fallback if #1 and #2 are missing or unsupported
- The webpage's HTML metadata titles for social networks, which show in embedded previews when the post is shared on some social networks
- The webpage's HTML
<title>tag, which shows in the tab bar, bookmarks, search-engine previews, and is the default message text for social-sharing
- The post title/heading (usually in an
<h1>HTML tag), which shows prominently on the webpage
You might have noticed that this is also the general order of priority and fallback. Or put another way, all publishing systems let you enter the post title, and then likely carry that over into the HTML title and the RSS item's title. But some systems give you full control to write each title separately. And episode numbers provide a good reason to leverage that extra control!
First, let's crush a myth that came from a misunderstanding. This is, unfortunately, a little complicated, which is probably why it was so easily misunderstood.
Apple will not kick out your podcast if you have episode numbers in your normal episode titles. But if you use Apple's
<itunes:title> tag, it must contain only the title—no episode numbers, season numbers, or your podcast name. If you violate this rule and put episode numbers in Apple's
<itunes:title> tag, that could lead to a suspension. But to say it again, you won't get in trouble for episode numbers in the normal
And the complexity continues!
If you use the
<itunes:episode> tag (for the episode number) but don't use
<itunes:title>, then this episode number will probably display only when opening the episode or maybe playing the episode (depending on some other factors). I made a few episodes of The Audacity to Podcast like this to demonstrate it.
In these example episodes, I put the episode numbers in only the
<itunes:episode> tags for each episode and I did not use the
<itunes:title> tag. I also did not put episode numbers in the normal RSS
<title> tag. So in this case, Apple Podcasts displays the episode number when opening the episode view, but not in the episode player or list of episodes.
But if you appropriately use both the
<itunes:title> tags on an “episodic” podcast type (which is the default and what most podcasts are), then Apple Podcasts shows the episode numbers in the title within the episode list, as I show in three more examples from The Audacity to Podcast:
Even when using both tags are used properly, the episode number will not display in the episode player for “episodic” podcast types (the default show type). But if your podcast type is “serial,” then the episode number will display in both the minimized and full-screen players in Apple Podcasts, and even differently in episode lists. I randomly found a “serial” type podcast to illustrate this:
In Apple Podcasts and other apps that use the
<podcast:title> tag, that title text will be used instead of the normal
<title> tag. And if you don't use those specialized tags, then whatever text you put in the normal
<title> tag will display in all podcast apps. The only exception I've seen to this is for Overcast and maybe a couple of other apps that remove verbatim repetitions from the start of your titles. For example, Emily Prokop's old—but still great—podcast, The Story Behind, used to title all episodes similarly: “The Story Behind [Thing],” resulting in Overcast's displaying only the “[Thing]” part. But Emily has since removed “The Story Behind” from her episode titles, even though this was a case where it actually made sense to repeat the show title.
And as these screenshots show, how you use other tags also affects how your episode numbers display in Apple Podcasts and some other apps.
I think this is good. It means you actually have more control over how your episode information displays. And the whole reason Apple did this is to improve the experience for your current and potential audiences.
Put episode numbers in normal titles as fallbacks (yes, this is acceptable)
All that complicated mess of different titles and ways of displaying episode numbers can be overwhelming, but remember this: it's still entirely acceptable to put episode numbers in your normal
<title> tag! I still suggest also using the
<itunes:title> tags if you want to leverage the smarter display features in Apple Podcasts and similar apps.
<title> tag is the fallback and what most apps still use. So if you need to show episode numbers in every podcast app, put the episode number in this normal title.
This might seem redundant—because it is! But the redundancy is necessary to fully leverage all the features in all the apps and provide the proper fallbacks when features aren't supported.
Put episode numbers in post titles for website visitors
Depending on whether your website smartly uses episode numbers, you might want to put episode numbers in your post titles as well so they display when browsing your site or opening episode webpages.
As I shared above, episode numbers aren't important for The Audacity to Podcast, so I don't put them in titles, only in the meta information fields.
If, however, the episode numbers are important for the enjoyment of your show, then include the numbers in your post titles so they display prominently on your site.
Do not include episode numbers in the HTML
<title> or social shares
Outside your context—that is, your website or a podcast player with your show—episode numbers in the titles probably won't matter at all, even if they matter to the audience of your show.
Think about how your episodes display in website search results or when shared on social networks. In these external contexts, the episode numbers are far less relevant and can probably be omitted from the titles.
For example, make your tweet or search results say “Starting Your Website” as the title instead of “5. Starting Your Website.”
To accomplish this, your website content-management system (CMS) needs to let you edit the HTML
<title> tag separately from the post title. To do this on WordPress, you need an SEO plugin, like Yoast SEO or All in One SEO, which will add the additional field to overwrite the HTML
<title>. Otherwise, WordPress will simply use your post title in the HTML
It's also this HTML
<title> tag that will populate social-sharing, by default: both the text of the share (like a tweet) and how the post might be embedded like a card.
But other tools can let you modify these, too, at least to some extent!
On WordPress, I like Social Warfare to add social-sharing buttons to my posts. This also lets me customize the text of these buttons to Tweet and or share to Pinterest. And it sets the hidden metadata used for the embeds. Yoast SEO and All in One SEO can also set that hidden metadata.
The tags look like this:
<meta property="og:title" content="" />for Facebook
<meta name="twitter:title" content="" />for Twitter
Because these are generally seen outside your context, they should probably not include episode numbers.
How to write the episode numbers
There are countless conventions for how you actually write the episode numbers in your titles.
According to my tests, it seems every app that smartly reads an episode-number field and shows that with the title will put the number in the front, followed by a period and a space. For example, “5. Starting Your Website.”
I've previously taught some alternative ways of writing episode numbers, primarily under the general suggestion to avoid front-loaded patterns. That's any kind of pattern—verbatim or in format—that repeats across multiple episodes. For example, show notes that always start with, “In this episode, we talk about ….”
Front-loaded patterns are generally bad, and I think the tiny space an episode number uses is the one possible exception.
So if episode numbers are necessary for your audience, then do put the episode number first. But the only way I recommend writing that is in the smallest way possible: episode number, period, space, and then the episode title, like “5. Starting Your Website.”
Don't use a pound sign (“#”) or the word “Episode.” Things like these will only waste space and distract. Just consider how much wider and more pixels it takes for a pound sign versus a period!
If the episode numbers are not necessary for your audience, then move the episode number to the end of the title, or remove it altogether. If it's at the end of the title, then you could write something longer, like “episode 5” or use more special characters. You might also want to consider this expanded writing style for your website where it might not be obvious that it's a podcast episode or it's surrounded by non-podcast posts. But I'm referring to this for only places outside podcast apps.
On a website context where you have a lot more content than podcast episodes, you might even want to write “podcast episode #5” on the end of the title. But this can start looking messy, too. Since you usually have more options on a website, I would more highly recommend making a “Podcast Episodes” list or page for your episodes instead of mixing them in a list of non-podcast content. Also consider other aspects of your website context to determine how to best write the episode number in your title, if at all. For example, if your episode posts are always displayed with episode players or a particular background color, even in search results.
I no longer recommend the show abbreviation format like I used to do: ” – TAP359.” In fact, I'll be having these removed from all past episodes. A potentially good reason to do this is when a podcast network offers an RSS feed of all podcasts in the network, and it's necessary to see which episodes are to which show. But I now also doubt it's even necessary or beneficial to create such an all-inclusive feed anyway.
I also recommend that you not include any zeros before your episode number. Just write “5” instead of “005.” You might do this differently for season-and-episode indicators, but I'll discuss that more in a separate episode.
If the episode numbers are already built into your sequential-style titles, like “Chapter 5: …” or “Day 6: …,” then you might not need to write or display the additional episode numbers at all.
Are episode numbers worth it?
As you can recognize, properly including episode numbers can be complicated with several technical options and multiple contexts to consider.
You need to decide whether it's even worth it.
You could take the “lazy” approach and put the numbers in your regular titles and let them display everywhere. But that could negatively affect the experience in countless places. Even though that's the way podcasts have done it since the beginning, we have more and better options now that make the audience experience better.
So maybe none of this is worth the hassle at all, and you could podcast completely without episode numbers. I stopped even mentioning episode numbers with The Audacity to Podcast, now referencing episode webpages only by a keyword URL instead of a number URL. And absolutely no one has complained and it has made my processes easier!
Currently, the only place you'll see my essentially meaningless episode numbers (except for some of my tests) is in the file name, ID3 metadata, and on the webpage's meta information. But I don't speak these episode numbers to you. This gives me the freedom to reorder episodes however I want. That freedom is especially handy if I've already recorded episodes I want to reorder before I publish them!
What should you do?
There are many factors, and I hate that some of these can be confusing and inconsistent! But no matter the processes (which will improve), it's ultimately your decision to do what's best for your podcast and your audience.
And the priority there should what's best for your audience.
Please comment on this episode if you have additional thoughts or follow-up questions!
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