1. Why does Google want to punish Rap Genius?
Because, even though bringing in people who search for lyrics on Google is a huge part of how Rap Genius makes money, they weren’t playing by Google’s rules. Google officially penalized the site for shady SEO tactics on Christmas, after finding out the site was asking third-party bloggers to embed links to Rap Genius pages for new Justin Bieber lyrics in their posts. Rap Genius did this to manipulate their ranking in the Google search results for Justin Bieber’s new album. (A page that has been linked back to a lot of times will show up higher in Google search results than one that hasn’t been linked to.) After getting caught by Google, Rap Genius’ search results plummeted—on December 25th, RapGenius.com was buried on page five of the Google Search results for “rap genius.”
2. How did Rap Genius get caught?
They were snitched on by John Marbach, a web entrepreneur who, like the Rap Genius founders, once attended Silicon Valley start-up incubator Y Combinator. Marbach responded to a Rap Genius Facebook post looking to recruit “affiliate” bloggers. Then, he posted the response email he got from Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam. In the email, Moghadam asks Marbach to paste links to Rap Genius pages at the bottom of a “dope post.” In return, he promised to tweet Marbach’s post from the Rap Genius account, ensuring it would “bloooowwwww up!”
After people started talking about Marbach’s discovery, the head of Google’s spam team said Google was “aware” of Rap Genius’ scheme and “looking into it.”
3. Why would Rap Genius use old-fashioned SEO spam tactics?
Rap Genius is already big, but they want to get bigger. Quickly.
They’ve become one of the most-visited lyrics sites ever by focusing on SEO. Their annotation format means they have a search-friendly standalone page for each line of a song. “Rap Genius is the only place that has relevant content linked to that specific line, so we often get the top results to those searches,” site co-founded Ilan Zechory told Billboard earlier this month. Last year, they started giving rappers “verified” accounts. With their big followings, those verified rappers get Rap Genius attention on social media, which Google prioritizes in its search rankings.
But music fans are fickle. They’ll search for lines from songs like JAY Z’s “Holy Grail” for awhile and then their interest will fade. Rap Genius was especially eager to game their way to the top of the search results for Justin Bieber’s new songs because he is one of the most consistently searched people on the internet. (See how much more he’s searched for than JAY Z is.)
It’s hard to know why Rap Genius would risk their standing with Google for quick hits. “Growth hacking”—the practice of expanding a company rapidly by gaming data—has worked for some companies, like Airbnb, and been disastrous for others, like Path.
4. Since being effectively removed from Google, how does Rap Genius feel?
Not too badly. They’ve apologized, saying they “messed up,” “do not want to break Google’s rules” and “will do whatever it takes” to learn how to comply with them better.
Even so, their traffic has taken a hard hit: as seen above, December 25th visits were down about 65% from the previous day’s. But they’re apparently in good spirits. “rap genius > twitter > facebook,” Rap Genius tweeted on Christmas.
Perhaps it’s easy to keep cool when you’re no stranger to controversy. Rap Genius’ three co-founders have become known for obnoxious behavior. In its short history, the site has been caught stealing lyrics archives and chatting about slavery. In November, the music industry tried to shut Rap Genius and other lyrics sites down for breaking copyright law.