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RapGenius: Not So Smart After All

The online start-up RapGenius, a site that allows users to submit their interpretations of song lyrics and other texts such as religious passages, poems and speeches, received a rather unwelcome present from Google on Christmas morning. The search giant had carried out a manual action, unceremoniously dropping the company down its rankings (even for its own brand term “RapGenius”, which sank from page 1 to the bottom of page 6). Not since the Interflora debacle of February 2013 has there been such a public dressing down of a brand by Google, with the RapGenius site losing up to 80% of its traffic following the penalty, as reported by The Guardian this week.

RG FoundersRapGenius’s SEO policy was almost as questionable as the founders’ sartorial choices

What had RapGenius done to deserve it?

In the week before Christmas, RapGenius posted on its Facebook page that it was searching for “blog affiliates”. One follower, John Marbach, the founder of Glider, responded to this call to arms to find out more. Marbach subsequently received an email from RapGenius co-founder, Mahbod Moghadam, outlining how the initiative works. However, rather than being some revolutionary new way of working with bloggers to raise the profile of RapGenius in the eyes of both the public and Google, the proposed scheme transpired to be little more than rather dated and spammy link building tactics.

Specifically, in amongst the “yos” and “waddups” of the email, Moghadam had sent Marbach a block of HTML code for him to include at the end of his next blog post, which Moghadam and/or RapGenius would then share via Twitter. The code was largely comprised of specific anchor text keywords, all of which linked to Justin Bieber lyrics hosted on RapGenius.com.

Mahbod email

Rather depressingly, Justin Bieber was the most searched for musician in 2013 and is likely to be up there in 2014 as well (despite him recently promising to do us all a favour and retire). Thus, by building the relevant backlinks, RapGenius was aiming to rank highly for high volume search terms based around the singer’s lyrics.

However, soliciting unnatural links such as these has long been against Google’s Terms of Service, with myriad online commenters quick to chime in that “2005 called, and it wants its SEO tactics back”, once details became public.

As one would expect, upon discovering RapGenius’s scheme, Google was swift to respond.

What happened next?

Marbach initially complied with Moghadam’s request, and subsequently blogged about RapGenius’s “growth hack” (hence how the above details became public). However, unluckily for RapGenius, Marbach’s post found its way to Matt Cutts, who personally acknowledged the infringement on Hacker News and whose webspam team at Google promptly swooped down and penalised the company by manually bumping it down in the rankings.

Interestingly though, two weeks after the initial fallout, Google has now reinstated RapGenius. On its own blog, RapGenius admitted that it had “effed up” and apologised to and thanked Google, though not before pointing the finger at the underhand SEO tactics of its competitors, claiming that worse is going on and imploring Google to “take a closer look at the whole lyrics search landscape”.

(As an aside, as someone who occasionally consults lyrics sites in order to decipher what black metal vocalists are actually saying, I concur with RapGenius in this instance. The UX of 99.9% of lyrics sites out there is pretty damn awful, largely due to the sheer volume of spam you’re bombarded with. Meanwhile, RapGenius, being privately funded, is mostly clutter-free).

RapGenius has stated that it had been working closely with Google to rectify the situation, suggesting a compromise was met, though little else has been mentioned as to how and why Google changed its mind. It is likely that the penalty was intended to simply serve as a warning to deter others from doing the same thing.

It is also highly possible that Google reinstated RapGenius to protect its own UX. The lesser of two evils for Google would have been to allow RapGenius to return with a slap on the wrist, rather than keep it down on page 6 and force those looking for the service to use Bing instead. To permanently penalise RapGenius, Google would be cutting off its nose to spite its face.

Key takeouts

RapGenius is by no means the first company to feel Google’s ire for manipulating its results and it most certainly won’t be the last, though this is definitely one of the more high profile cases of the last 12 months.

What is interesting and ironic about the RapGenius case though is that the company’s primary raison d’être is to curate rich, user-generated on-page content, something that Google is increasingly favouring in its search rankings. This means that, before dropping this clanger, the company was doing SEO totally the right way in Google’s eyes. Testament to this is that it was already ranking highly despite going up against infinitely spammier rival lyrics sites.

In the grand scheme of things, scrambling for unnatural links on the off chance that Google wouldn’t notice was wholly unnecessary, and only served to spoil the RapGenius team’s Christmas holidays. Considering how outspoken and media-hungry the founders of the company are though, I’m sure they’re lapping up the attention. After all, as the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Cynics (i.e. the Verve content team) might even suggest that they planned the whole thing.

However, regardless of whether it was a calculated risk or simple ignorance on the part of RapGenius, it does seem to suggest that if your brand is strong enough and if there is sufficient demand for your service, you may escape serious reprisal from Google, as it’s also in the search engine’s interest to include you in its results and keep you away from Bing et al. I definitely wouldn’t rely on this for your SEO strategy, though…

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