What does Google think of your band name?

At what point does a band become famous enough that they begin to surpass the nouns they've co-opted? How does Google know you want Cake the band, not cake the dessert, if you only search for "cake" and no other words? Is there a band name that is un-Googleable? These are the questions that weighed heavily on our minds -- and, no, there wasn't much else going on. A few e-mails and a phone call to Google HQ later, we got some answers.

When you search for something on Google, the search engine analyzes more than 200 signals, including time of day, the terms you use, your location and numerous other bits of data to decide what you're trying to find. If you search for "cricket" in India, you might be shown scores from recent matches, whereas if you search that same term in the U.S., it might show an overview of rules for the game, or an insect.

Likewise, if you searched for "tsunami" in March 2011, you were likely to get recent news stories about the disaster in Japan. Time and location matter. If you have a band called Tsunami, and you released your album in March 2011, then you'd better hope fans modified their searches when they tried to find you; otherwise, you're out of luck.

The Google rep we spoke to compared the signals to dials on a machine: Each one influences results, and each one is constantly being tweaked by the Search Quality team. If they over-emphasize the local aspect of the search -- when you type "pizza" chances are you want to find a pizza place near you -- then when you type "Cake," you get a bakery rather than the band.

It's a strange and mysterious process that Google doesn't like to divulge too many specifics about, because then webmasters could game the system. If you think you can outsmart the search engine by typing "________ is the best band in Denver" a thousand times on your web page, you're wrong. That won't net you any better results in the search engine when someone searches for "best band in Denver," because it takes more than words to win the battle for page rank.

The search engine analyzes the content of sites -- looking at keywords and synonyms -- and checks other sites that reference yours (known as "backlinking"). If a lot of sites link to your site as an authority on punk rock in Denver, then when someone searches "Denver punk rock," the search engine will put your page near the top. If you're a hip-hop group that lists your influences, then the search engine likes to see some context, and you'll likely fare better than if your site just says "Denver Hip Hop." If you thought it was funny to list the genre of your doom-metal band as Christian comedy, that's not going to help potential fans find you when they search on general terms.

But what about our original query? At what point does a band's name overpower the noun it's chosen as its moniker? It can and does happen, but there is no definitive threshold for when the change takes place. A search for "Cake" now offers the band among the top results because people who are searching for dessert recipes generally search "cake recipes" rather than just the single word. The search engine learned that over time and has adapted.

Meanwhile, if you search "tennis" looking for the local indie rockers, you'll only find scores from recent matches and a general overview of the sport. You have to search "Tennis band" to get the desired results. (Don't give up hope, Tennis. Someday you can own that search term; just ask Low or Girls, who now both come up in top results.)

So if you're picking a band name right now and want to maximize your searchability, the best bet is to choose a creative name that isn't already something else. It's not always easy, though: "Haitian Devil Pact" would be an awesome metal band, but Pat Robertson already owns the search thanks to his insensitive comments about the disaster there a few years ago. "Panda Standard" might seem like a cute name for your indie band, but it's also the name of China's carbon reduction program.

Choose wisely.

The one rule to be sure to abide by is to use more than just quirky punctuation as a band name. For example, !!! is one of the only un-Google-able band names we could find: literally, zero results. But, of course, the good folks at Google are already working on how to figure that one out.

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Patrick Rodgers

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