SEO Tips from Contemporary Classical Composers

May 17th, 2012 by Search Influence Alumni

It’s not only the cyberflâneurs that are the sources of invention for internet marketers. Music composition’s relationship to internet marketing seems like it would be improbable at best. Our world is one of visitor data and consumer behavior, conversion optimization and backlink profiles; how can that compare to harmonic keys and pitch classes, orchestral balance and melodic diminution? Even more so, how could the abstract world of Crumb’s graphic scores, Cage’s triple-tacet-threat, and Stockhausen’s helicopters be at all relevant to anything but the most strained of SEO metaphors?

The most basic concepts in music, those of theory, melody, and harmony, are directly applicable to marketing simply by recontextualizing the subject matter. Theory, the arena of blogs and papers, is at the core of internet marketing: what ought to be an optimized page? Where do forms go on a page for optimal conversion rate? Where should backlinks be from? Theory is both proscriptive and descriptive, guiding our actions while we use it to describe where we break from convention. SEO “rules” are distilled from testing and tweaking, but are maxims that often fall flat when deeply or individually investigated.

Similarly, diminution and augmentation of melody can be seen in advertisement copy, where small changes build to a radically different resonance of message. The long tail can be seen as one moves from an unornamented ii-V-I progression to “Rhythm Changes” to “Giant Steps.” Orchestration is unadulterated multiple attribution, where a brand PPC campaign adds the mezzo-forte piccolo over the booming brass section of offline advertising. These are simple comparisons, easily made as the underlying concepts apply to most pseudoscientific arts. But it’s from these three composers, Crumb, Cage, and Stockhausen, already very much the old guard of the avant scene, that an internet marketer can glean some important lessons for their own craft.

Graphic Scores: Infographics for Music Nerds

George Crumb, one of the most famous postwar composers, was a master of what some classical fans deride as “noise.” Regardless of the actual music, which is as beautiful as it is haunting, one of Crumb’s hallmarks is in his scores, which are often far removed from the staid black dots on parallel staves that are the default of much Western notation. One of the more striking examples is here, from Black Angels
Infographics are one of the most common forms of viral marketing. They show complex, even opaque ideas in a way that truly makes it easier to understand. But it’s really about how “good” it looks. Is the infographic unique, showing the reader something that they wanted to know, and in a way that highlights the most important parts? Note how Crumb brings in and builds out the individual parts, gliding them together with elisions and separating them with breaks — this guides the music as well, giving shape to the overall end product while making a spectacle for the reader of the music and the musician.

But it’s not just Crumb’s design qualities that are meaningful to an SEO — this concept of highlighting through design should be at the core of any data presentation. At the start of every reporting cycle, businesses receive lists of data from their SEO. These reports should be focused on what information is most important: your return on investment. As we create these reports, it’s tempting to add graphs and other visual candy.

John Cage is a bit of a hot-button composer for many classical fans. Certainly, his work with Sun Ra is interesting, his Water Walk is a landmark piece of television, and his Sonatas for Prepared Piano are skilled miniatures. Regardless, he’ll forever be known for his 4’33” — a piece not quite that long that consists of complete silence.

Cage’s piece calls for “any instrument or group of instruments” to have a piece of three movements that each only includes the instructions “be quiet.” While one can view this piece, and others, as simple trolling or nose-thumbing, the piece explores the far limits of minimalism in music. Two lessons can be learned from this experiment: one of background noise and one of removal of the unnecessary.

Background noise is a key concept within SEO. It’s the long long tail, the organic traffic that even a totally un-optimized site with no backlinks will get. It’s also the fuzz in the data-driven world in which we work. How can you explain the value of someone who takes not only paid, organic, and direct channels, but converts on a seemingly random keyword? Multiple-attribution models try to clear the fog, but ultimately, you just have to bask in the glory of holistic website promotion and enjoy, much like the uncomfortable clearing of throats that are one of the focuses of 4’33”.

The other lesson, one of questioning what is necessary, is one of the hallmarks of projects like The Open Algorithm, an up-and-coming blog that tries to test the more well-established mantras of SEO. This willingness to strip away what is extraneous (in Cage’s world, even the music at the concert) in order to see what makes the experience meaningful creates a system that is simultaneously simple and focused. Try, as the Open Algorithm suggests, ranking without on-page factors or even links, the most basic SEO currency. Try removing even seemingly important items to get to the core of what you’re really doing.

Helicopter Quartet: Experimentation and Vision

Removing aspects to get to the pure core of your art is a great experiment; however, it’s not just the removal that helps. Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the most famous of the Darmstadt school of composition, is a Colossus of experimentation. His early use of electronics in pieces such as Song of the Children, his Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk of his Light cycle, and his fascination with the drones and pitter-patter of voices in Stimmung all show a desire to play with his craft.

One extreme example of this experimentation is his Helicopter Quartet, which combines spoken word, electric instruments, and the drone of helicopters to create his own vision of Vietnam. While the specifics don’t matter much, one can easily see that there is a spirit unlike the explicit minimalism of Cage which seeks something beyond the pale. It’s this experimentation that every SEO should revel in, expanding their skills beyond just 10 blue links and entering into rich snippets, post-Venice local SEO, or ranking via other methods like social marks. Beyond simple experimentation, the value of trying new things brings out a new vision of SEO, one not far from the “inbound marketing” of Moz and HubSpot — one of a holistic look at website promotion.

This new vision is the driving force behind all these composers. It was not hubris that led Ornette Coleman to call his first major album “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” It was the whole zeitgeist of the first wave of post-modernists. They were trying to blaze a new trail while remaining cognizant of their forebearers. Similarly, an SEO can take that attitude and apply it to their personal brand of marketing. Experimentation is the only way to best determine what can and can’t be successful, and even in this supposedly dark time of Pandas and Penguins all paths are open.

History: What Battles Have Already Been Fought?

All these composers are brilliant stars of a former era. New composers, like post-minimalist Nico Mulhy, Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, and band geek Eric Whitacre built upon Stockhausen, Cage, and Crumb. But even the revered composers knew what had come before. Stockhausen had the computer work of Millard Puckette, Cage had the ur-noisemaker Futurists, and Crumb had the Ars Nova style. SEOs have years of blog posts, books, and personal experiences to draw from, allowing them to worry more or less than the common din about a given industry development. SEO By The Sea, which hones in on the abstract world of search engine patents, understands this, citing 5- and 10-year-old patents that are the talk of the town today. Search Engine Land understands it too, drawing on almost two decades of experience working in the field to color his commentary less alarmist than others’.

Crumb again gives us a striking example upon which to expand — why reinvent what already has a long history? There’s usually little reason to backtrack when other have done existing research in the field. Academics know this, and spend much of their papers talking about already-extant data on their subjects. For SEOs, this means voracious reading, not only of superstars, but also of the little guys. It wasn’t a cursory look that showed Crumb this piece from the 1400s:

Compare this to his works above; it’s clear he’s simply following centuries-old footsteps to a totally different end point. Similarly, SEOs can walk the paths of links and social shares while still innovating.

Looking across disciplines can help give any marketer a little perspective and insight — what subjects have influenced your outlook?