A new way to think about SEO in the music industry

Music SEO

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear something about SEO optimization in the music industry? The chances are: nothing too positive. Through the past years, we’ve seen a string of “life-hacks” emerge around this music SEO space, most of them falling short of ethical music promotion. With stories like Sony Music releasing a compilation titled “Some Christmas Music” just to tap into the smart speaker traffic for queries like “Alexa, play some Christmas music”, all of us have to take music SEO with a grain of salt. 

However, the question still stands: is it possible for artists and music professionals to approach naming their songs and projects in a way that make them more visible on search across all the various social platforms and DSPs? Well, let’s try to figure it out. 

What is SEO — and how does it apply to the music industry?

Let’s start with the basics. SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, generally refers to the process of changing the contents and structure of a website to increase its visibility on platforms like Google or, ehm, Bing, I guess? Today, SEO is a key component of marketing strategies for thousands of start-ups and media publications. However, when it comes to music, SEO is still more of an afterthought than a proper strategic decision. 

(Google) SEO for Artists

To try and capitalize on organic traffic, a company would usually create separate website pages and optimize them for relevant keywords related to their business activity. However, that’s hardly a path that artists can take — I mean, even if you do create a page on your website targeting keywords like “best new music” to try and plug your music there, you’ll be competing with the likes of Pitchfork, NPR, and Metacritic. Simply put, you can find better things to spend your time and effort on. 

Yet, there’s one page on Google that every artist out there can (and should) own — the first page of results for the name of your project. That first page of Google becomes sort of a business card, featuring all of their social and streaming links as well as the latest press stories mentioning the artist. It is a very important touchpoint, a place where a potential fan might deepen his connection with the artist — so owning that first page is imperative for any artist out there.

The good thing is that getting there is quite easy, even for artists who are just starting out. Essentially, there’s just a single (but still very important) step you’ll need to take to own your brand traffic on Google — pick a unique name for your project. I can’t stress this enough. Sure, naming your band something like “Girls” can be a valid creative choice, but trust me, your life will be so much easier if you at least throw an adjective into the mix: 

First page of Google Search of the US rock band “Girls”
First page of Google Search of the US rock band “Girls” cluttered with off-brand content

The downside of your “first page of Google” business card is that you won’t have direct control over all of the contents of that page. While artists and their teams generally have editing access to things like their wiki pages and knowledge panels, high domain authority media publications mentioning your artist will also feature prominently on the first page of search results. This press coverage is obviously much harder to control — so it’s also a question of getting the press to tell the artist’s story the right way. However, let’s not get into the intricacies of music PR just yet — besides, Google is not the only place where audiences search for music. 

Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok — all of those platforms have their search engines, used by millions of music fans every single day to look for artists, playlists, and songs. But while all of those platforms are the most important spaces for music, it is also much, much harder to approach those spaces with the SEO perspective. 

On Google, you’re optimizing a rich text website page, full of metatags and titles, links and references to other pages. You have all sorts of tools at your disposal providing you insights on keyword traffic. You have other high-ranking content to draw inspiration from. When it comes to music SEO, the property you’re optimizing is a song (and sometimes a video or a playlist), and in the best-case scenario, you have just a few lines of text to work with.

But can these few lines still make a difference? Let’s try and figure it out. 

Song SEO: Can the name of the track make a difference? 

Before we get into it: naming in music is often more of an artistic decision than it is a business one. However, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to consider it from a purely marketing perspective.

The first step to any optimization is to pick out the relevant keywords you’d want to aim for. But how do you employ that approach in music, where there’s no way to tell how popular is a certain word or phrase in terms of search volumes? Millions of people are using the search bars on Spotify every single day — but there’s no platform in music that provides access to the data around that search volume. Well, if we can’t get the data at the source, we can look at some of the top-ranking content — or, if we put it in music industry terms, music charts. 

To try and figure out if this type of SEO mindset can be applied to the naming in the music industry, we’ve decided to take a look at two very distinct platforms for music. First is the celestial jukebox of Spotify, which can serve as a proxy for any major DSP in music. Second is the Instagram music feature, allowing some 1.15 bn users to tap into a vast library of licensed music to pick out soundtracks for their Stories posts. 

Of course, there’s a lot of independent factors influencing the popularity of a given song, but the reasoning goes that if we completely isolate all other factors and focus purely on the naming, it should give us a pretty good idea of what “keywords” are most common on platform-specific charts, and highlight how the difference between those platforms impacts the semantic composition of the charts.

Let’s start with Spotify. Observing keywords within the charts can give us an insight into some of the naming trends that marketers could leverage. To try and get an idea of what are the most used keywords in music, we’ve gathered the data on all tracks that ever made it onto Spotify daily charts, going back to 2014 — providing us with a sample of over 6,500 song titles to work with. Here’s what we found:

Most occurring keywords across Spotify Chats
Tag cloud of most occurring keywords across Spotify charts (2014-2021). Source: KWORB

Or, if we visualize the frequencies on the graph:

Most occurring keywords across Spotify Chats
Top 50 most occurring keywords on Spotify charts, by frequency (2014-2021). Source: KWORB

Love songs, huh? I mean it probably won’t come as news to you that there’s a lot of songs on the charts with the term “love” in their name. However, this dataset is still very important, as it allows us to establish a reference point. As we’ve mentioned before, Spotify can serve as a proxy for any major music DSP out there — and so the list you see above can be treated as a sample of the general song naming convention in the music industry. 

By grounding the analysis with that initial dataset, we can then cross-reference it with more platform-specific Instagram Stories charts — to try and build a list of keywords that are popular on Instagram, but NOT on Spotify. That should give us a good idea of whether or not there are Instagram-specific search patterns that can be leveraged to get more exposure for music, and, ultimately, build a list of keywords that will (on average) increase the song’s visibility on the platform.

Instagram Stories Music

As you probably know, Instagram introduced their music sticker feature back in 2018, allowing users in selected markets to add soundtracks to their stories. With Instagram’s general status as one of the most important social platforms for music, Instagram stories are a massive opportunity for artists. Besides, a song featured in a story post is going to reach not just that person, but all of their active followers — which means that a song that performs well on Instagram Stories is likely to reach a massive audience, and have a good chance to spillover onto streaming platforms.

To establish a list of most frequently used words on Instagram stories, we’ve accessed data on the most-used songs on Instagram in March 2021 (across English-speaking markets), amounting to over 1000 unique song titles.

Top 25 words by marginal frequency on Instagram charts vs. Spotify charts
Top 25 words by marginal frequency on Instagram charts vs. Spotify charts. Source: Soundcharts, KWORB

Right away, we can detect at least three distinct groups of keywords that are more common on Instagram Stories charts vs Spotify charts:

  1. Nature & Weather, characterized by keywords like “sunshine”, “ocean”, “island”, and “summer”
  2. Life Occurrences, characterized by keywords like “birthday”, “work”, “ride” and “party”
  3. General Positive Terms, characterized by keywords like “good”, “happy”, “pretty”, “beautiful”, “lovely”, etc.

So, what does it tell us about how people engage with Instagram’s search engine, as well as the search intent behind their queries? First and foremost we have to keep the use case in mind. 

In a way, any Instagram story overlaid with music can be viewed as a micro-sync deal. The purpose of music is not to stand on its own, but to complement and elevate the underlying visual content. In other words, when people search for music to add to their story, they are looking for a soundtrack for their life — or, rather, a soundtrack for the part of their lives they share on Instagram.

So, if we follow this logic, we can map some of the keyword topics we’ve established to a specific type of content popular on Instagram stories: 

  1. People sharing shots of nature: sunsets, sunny weather, seascapes, etc (Nature & Weather)
  2. People sharing their life events and routines: gatherings, parties, road trips, working environments, etc. (Life Occurrences)

And then, of course, you’d rarely want to share a video of a mediocre sunset. Instead, you’d want to share a sunset that’s “lovely” or “beautiful” — which can help explain the clear dominance of such positive keywords on Instagram Stories charts. 

Another important thing to mention is that while our dataset for Spotify included all songs that made it onto charts in the span of the last 7 years, our Instagram charts data covers only March of 2021 — and so particular keywords we’ve found are likely influenced by the early-spring season we’re in right now. However, the same underlying themes of Nature will probably be present in the fall or winter — yet the particular keywords like “sunshine” might be substituted for something along the lines of “leaves” or “snow”. Regardless of the exact keywords, the topics identified are likely to feature prominently on Instagram Stories — and so including related keywords into your songs’ titles will likely increase their visibility on the platform. 

One thing I have to admit is that this article is just scratching the surface of the music SEO. The same research logic can be applied to different platforms, from TikTok to Twitch Soundtracks and beyond — and since today we focused solely on music charts, so far we’ve only explored the tip of the music industry iceberg. 

Yet, there’s one thing we can say for sure. While there’s no one-size-fits-all advice we can provide, the fact is that song naming can be approached with the SEO mindset — and I’m not talking about releasing a song titled “Among Us” (or whatever the next biggest video game on the internet is going to be) to try and piggyback off the search interest for that brand. Instead, song SEO can be adopted in a meaningful, non-intrusive way, and integrated with the overall artist strategy to make sure that the song has the best chances of occupying its destined space on the market.

With the introduction of features like Spotify lyrics search, artists and their teams can afford to put less emphasis on things like showcasing the most memorable line in the song’s title, and engage with new strategies and tactics when it comes to naming. Sometimes, it might be a question of switching an adjective in the song’s name to increase the chances of such search-mediated, organic discovery — but one thing you have to remember is that the music industry is a multi-faceted environment made up of dozens of different platforms. Each of those platforms offers a unique consumption context, and unique search patterns to go along with it. Instead of spreading yourself thin and trying to be everywhere at once, a wiser strategy might be to single out a specific space to make sure that the song really shines once it gets there. 

So, here’s a set of questions you should ask yourself if you want to try and optimize the song title for search:

  1. What is your target platform?
  1. What is going to make up the social zeitgeist when the song comes out?
  1. How will that social context affect the search intent on your target platform?
  1. How will people express their search intent in keywords?
  1. How can those keywords be seamlessly integrated into the song’s title?

Written by Dmitry Pastukhov for Music Tomorrow