Correcting Episode Tracking for Mobile and Other Devices

A while back, one of the SignalLeaf users notified me of a problem with their episode download stats. In a podcast that has near 50 episodes with around 1,200 listens per episode on average, one of the episodes spiked up to more than 22,000 listens… at least, the episode report said it did. That didn’t seem right to the podcaster, and certainly didn’t seem right to me. And it turns out it wasn’t right… at least, it wasn’t the expected results even if it was technically correct.

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It got worse, though. More podcasters reported similar problems, over time. I thought the first big report was strange, but it was getting to be a real problem now. So I dug in to see what was going on and analyized the traffic reports. I wanted to see if there was a pattern to the extraneous tracking downloads. Were they just duplicates? Were they DDoS attacks? or ???

Legit But Incorrect

It turns out the entries were all legitimate. There was no bot-net trying to take down my server. These were not duplicate entries. What they were, though, was a mistake based on not understanding how mobile devices download episodes.

The code I have in place to track downloads makes a new entry for every single request that comes in for an episode. This is pretty straight-forward and has worked well for a while now. When a download happens (whether its through iTunes, a direct download of the file, or however it happens), an entry is made in the episode tracking. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was the way mobile devices make multiple requests for a single file.

HTTP Byte Range Requests

Most browsers and desktop podcast apps like iTunes make a single request for an episode file when they need it. They reach out to the podcast media host (SignalLeaf in this case) and ask the host for the file. They download it and life goes on.

Mobile devices, however, don’t always have a stable network on which to run. They need to account for downloads starting and stopping and networks shutting off and coming back on. To do this, mobile devices use an HTTP Byte Range Request to request only a small amount of information at a time – something that will be easy to download on an unreliable network. The device then records the last request made so that it can continue where it left off. Continuing the download happens almost right away in most cases, but sometimes happens much much later if the device lost it’s network connection.

This is significant because a request for a podcast that is 50 megs will generate hundreds or thousands of requests to download that one file. And SignalLeaf was recording each request as a new download. In the worst case that I have recorded, there were more than 63,000 requests to download a single file! The device in question spent nearly 11 hours making a request per second for a tiny amount of information in each request. This is a ridiculously large number of requests over a ridiculously large period of time, but it’s what the device was doing.

Imaging having a podcast that gets a few hundred downloads per episode, and suddenly having 63,000 for one episode! That wouldn’t make sense to you or me. Instead, you would expect that one device to have 1 entry in the episode download report. This is what I would expect, too.

Correcting The Problem, Moving Forward

Having dug in to this, I found it’s easy to correct the problem now that I know what it is. So from here on forward, SignalLeaf will only make an entry in the episode downloads once per however many requests are made from a device. No matter how many requests are made for the file, over how long of a period of time, the byte range marker in the HTTP request tells me that this is a continuation of a previous download and I don’t need to continue tracking it.

What This Means For You, Podcaster

From here on out, your download stats for episodes will be more accurate and less bloated by mobile devices that are downloading episodes. You may see a reduction in the average downloads per episodes because of this. This is to be expected since I am now more accurately tracking the downloads.

Previous episode tracking information is still showing all of the false-positive entries at the moment. I have not yet worked out a simple way to correct this for all episodes, but I have corrected a number of bad entries for the most egregiously large tracking problems.

I’ll continue to monitor the situation, of course, and will make sure that the podcast and episode reports for listens and downloads are as accurate as possible.