“Is Google Evil?” Page ranking and SEO for songs.
First, some simplified background:
Anyone familiar with the history of Google Inc. has likely heard that one of Google’s founding principles was “Don’t Be Evil”. This mantra is generally thought to be in response to the heavy handed business practices Microsoft had been employing in the 90s. What I find interesting about this from a psychological perspective is watching a company wrestle with itself over what kinds of practices might be considered “evil”. So you have Google cooperating with the Chinese government for a time by censoring (or by simply excluding) search results for certain topics originating within China, and then later you have Google walking back on that practice, and refusing to cooperate. Personally, I find that kind of public “waffling” to be encouraging, because it seems to me the powers that be at Google Inc. are at least sometimes doubting themselves, and considering at least some of their decisions to be moral ones.
What I find interesting about Google’s mantra from a cultural perspective is how our assumptions about the way search engine technology works operate as a vague denial of Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” theory. What I mean here is that for Google to have search results, they first must have an algorithm. Our mistake lies in believing that algorithm to be “content neutral”. Google’s algorithm is to some degree shrouded in secrecy as much as the formula for Coca-Cola. But they have long given web designers guidelines to help ensure that those designers’ sites are being found and indexed by Google in the most efficient ways possible. Businesses have responded by trying to build sites that match Google’s criteria as closely as possible, in hopes of achieving a higher “page ranking” when a user searches for a given topic. This is known as “search engine optimization”, or SEO.
Stick with me. I promise this is going somewhere.
Basically, by attempting to contain as many SEO terms (or “buzzwords”, in the parlance of our times) as possible within an individual article, an author (or business, or newspaper, etc.) can get their site to appear higher up in the page rankings when a particular term is searched for using Google. Sometimes this “loophole” is used to humorous effect, as in the classic example of searching Google for the word “Santorum”, which for years resulted in the top listing of the site SpreadingSantorum.com.
But there are some real dangers with this system. I remember reading an article by Jack Shafer last year specifically dealing with how The Huffington Post uses SEO terms to achieve high page rankings with Google. Then I remembered a really excellent piece in The Guardian about Matt Kelly, the then-associate editor of the Daily Mirror. Go read the article from The Guardian now. Seriously, go read it, then come back here.
Now, if you actually take a look at the Daily Mirror, you’ll no doubt feel like you’re in a grocery store checkout line. Headlines for the paper are about everything from Hugh Grant being unable to find love to Simon Cowell’s move of getting more “high-profile” “stars” to come on his show to boost ratings. There’s also some actual real news in there, too, though. And I think there’s something to be said for what Mr. Kelly speaks about in his address above. He actually sort of takes the newspaper industry to task for chasing after the marketing hype that search engines have been shilling out for years now. Maybe instead of blaming Google, he more or less says, we should blame ourselves. Maybe, just maybe, the marketing guys with MBAs have proven to be wrong for the past ten years. Maybe, just maybe, the artists and writers have been right. OK, he doesn’t really say that last point. That’s just my editorializing.
This is not a diatribe against Google and The Huffington Post and how they have ruined the newspaper industry, because honestly I’m not sure they have. But what interests me here is how we casually deny that the very existence of a search algorithm inherently affects what kind of content is created by authors and journalists. There is a snowball effect because when authors see that the search term “Steve Jobs” is turning up a lot of hits, they have a built-in incentive to include the name “Steve Jobs” in the article somewhere, whether or not Steve’s name is particularly relevant to the point of the article. And the more often the name “Steve Jobs” is included in web articles, the more his name is indexed by Google’s algorithm.
Now, as a singer/songwriter/music producer, what really interests me most about all this is how it parallels what has happened in the music industry, except the music industry got there first. Is that tantalizing enough?
So to recap, we’re talking about how Google’s search algorithm privileges certain kinds of content over others. We’re also talking about how this behavior mirrors what has happened in the music industry over the last 20 years.
My overall observation is a common one: big industry goes after mass-market, one-size-fits-all approaches to content, not just to methods of selling that content. The content itself begins to congeal around a set of common formulas that are hoped to produce the greatest number of “hits”. It’s not enough that the marketing and presentation style for Ke$ha is virtually the same as it was for Pink a few years ago. It’s the content of songs by both women that is striking. In fact, listening to Top 40 radio these days (and yes, there are some people who do) it would be easy to conclude that the sole purpose in life–the main reason for existing–is to party in a club. All the joys and difficulties of the myriad relationships we have (spousal, parental, friend, sibling, co-worker, classmate) are glossed over in favor of singing about partying in a club. When Top 40 radio does talk about actual relationships, all too often it’s only about the sexual allure of the individual. Our lives are poorer for this.
These three paragraphs from Matt Kelly are just too pertinent to not quote in their entirety here, so check this out:
Of course, as we’re all aware now, it was too easy. In our great frantic headlong rush to accumulate users at any cost, many of us were all too quick to sacrifice anything that stood in the way of search engine optimisation.
We followed the brochure word for word, and we employed the same merry-go-round of SEO consultants to help us build sites that would ping to the top of search engines for a world hungry for our content.
If little things like character, brand…the ingrained values that made the print product a success, got in the way, well … the ends justified the means. Content wasn’t king. Traffic was. Whoever, from wherever, reading whatever. It didn’t matter as long as the audience grew.
This is what artists have been arguing over for a long time now. Over the past 20 years or so we’ve seen polarization on this, with Nike using “Revolution” by the Beatles (an unforgivable sin) and “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve (IMO, one of the greatest pop songs of the last 20 years) on one hand, and by some artists on the other hand who refuse to allow their music to be used in commercials of any kind. Here’s looking at you, Sigur Ros. (It’s also notable that due to the draconian nature of big-label recording contracts, many artists don’t retain enough of their publishing rights to refuse commercial use even if they want to.)
As a music producer, I have found over the years that one of the most ridiculous and fruitless discussions on a project is debating whether or not a certain song “will sell”. Invariably this involves listening to a band fight over references to common high selling artists of the day, song structures, guitar tones, and music video concepts, with no regard for the myriad publicists, managers, booking agents, stylists, in-store appearances, and underhanded back room dealings that go into making a “hit song”. Therefore, my advice to artists and bands I work with is always to try and tell their own story, and not to worry too much about sales. When artists concentrate on trying to create what they think “the market” wants, the outcome is so often simply crappy art.
And the market is far too fickle to predict exactly what buzzwords strung together in what order will produce a certifiable “hit”. How many times have we seen this played out: an artist has a huge record that gets airplay across the board in different genres, gets placements on television, etc., but then styles change, tastes change, and the next record is a commercial flop. It’s not that the next album is necessarily of poorer quality, it’s just that the public has moved on to a new flavor. As artists, we must recognize that the market is erratic, and that it often bestows attention on a person at a particular cultural moment, and that moment is rarely repeatable. As long as the market is the focus, we all lose.
In addition to my work as a music producer, I’m headed back to grad school this Fall for a degree in Social Work, and much of the impetus for me is working with struggling artists who have been beat up pretty badly by a market system that devalues their art in favor of cheap solutions, formulaic electronic beats, and a very limited range of allowable topics about which to write. I’m concerned for the mental and emotional health of artists, because it can be very destructive when one’s work is regarded as “useless” by a fickle mob. And I’m concerned for our cultural dialogue when we regard clubbing as the quintessential topic of worth for creating music around.
Ironically, as I was writing this article, I got an email in my Inbox from a music licensing company. I get these all the time. This company sends out regular emails saying things like, “Hey, we’re looking for ‘Adult Alternative Album’ songs by female artists in the vein of Fiona Apple or Alanis Morissette to be placed in a major network TV show about a teenager growing up with divorced parents and a collie dog launching this Fall! Get your submissions in by 11:59pm PDT on June 23 to be considered!” The crazy one I got when writing this article yesterday was looking for a “Mid-Tempo Christian Folk” song. How do you set out to write that kind of song? It certainly doesn’t require that the songwriter be a Christian him/herself. This is the very height of buzzword-thinking. It is SEO for songs. Just like web authors throwing in “Steve Jobs” in hopes of attracting search engine indexing, a song like that has a certain “Jesus quotient”. How many times must that song say “Jesus”, or “lamb”, or “holy”, or “light” or “tears”, or “praise” to move up the ‘page ranking’? See why algorithms matter?
Mark Williams is an award-winning Singer/Songwriter, Music Producer, and Audio Engineer. He has produced over 70 projects for a wide variety of artists, and toured extensively throughout the United States. He has taught songwriting in Arizona, harvested corn in Indiana, performed at Disney World, spearfished in Pago Pago, and was once chased by a dog. In addition to his creative endeavors, he is pursuing a degree in clinical social work at UNC-Chapel Hill, as he maintains that 40% of being a music producer is being a counselor, anyway. Mark and his wife Katrina have recently moved back to Durham, NC after living in the Samoan Islands for awhile.