SEO | May 12, 2014
Falling Foul of Google: A Knuckle-rap For Rap Genius
We’re starting a series called ‘Falling Foul of Google’. In it, I’ll be investigating some of the more high-profile victims deemed to be flouting Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Chapter 1 sees us take a look at the outspoken lyrics website Rap Genius.
What is Rap Genius?
Rap Genius is a website that provides lyrics to thousands of songs. It allows users to annotate songs and provide their own personal interpretations.
What did Rap Genius do?
The website engaged in a ‘Rap Genius Blog Affiliate’ program whereby Rap Genius would tweet links to blogs in return for a number of links to Rap Genius pages.
Web developer John Marbach registered for the program and then posted this screenshot of an email he received in return:
It was clear that the lyrics website was exchanging social metrics in return for spammy links, to cash in on the inevitable deluge of searches after Justin Bieber released his new album.
How did Google react?
On Christmas Day 2013, Rap Genius received a lump of coal of its very own: hundreds of first-page search rankings lost, including for its own brand name. Its unique traffic nosedived from 1.2m on Christmas Eve to 234k on Boxing Day.
(Metrics courtesy of Quantcast)
What exactly did Rap Genius do wrong?
Google discriminates sites that it deems are manipulating search rankings using ‘unnatural’ links. Google’s Webmaster Guidelines state that unnatural links are:
links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page
Therefore, because Rap Genius effectively ‘parachuted’ links into blogs in return for shares on social media, Google decided that it had broken its guidelines.
What’s more, the notion of ‘swapping’ social media activity for links is a slightly swampy issue. Google doesn’t explicitly outlaw this practice in its guidelines, but the bolded section of its banned practices is certainly interesting:
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
Could ‘exchanging… services for links’ include swapping social recommendations (and thousands of visitors) for links from authoritative websites?
Was Rap Genius unfairly treated?
On a basic level, it seems the punishment seems correct. But it’s easy to feel a little sorry for Rap Genius.
SEO in the lyric industry is famously murky. In its open letter to Google after the site was punished, it listed its competitors and hinted at their underhand tactics.
Compared to many of its competitors, Rap Genius is a breath of fresh air. Ads are kept to a minimum and the user experience is paramount.
Why Rap Genius?
Many have also stated that Rap Genius wouldn’t have suffered such a debilitating punishment if it had been a quiet, unassuming brand. Appropriating hip hop vernacular and a loud, bratty attitude, its senior executives are well known for attracting publicity for their behaviour with foul-mouthed tweets and allegations of racist content.
What’s more, Rap Genius recently secured $15m of venture capital funding – some of which could have been sourced from Google itself. Failing to act could be a PR nightmare.
— Cygnus SEO (@CygnusSEO) December 24, 2013
Some have suggested that the opportunity for Google to knock a young, brash upstart (that didn’t use paid search advertising) off its perch slightly, while still appearing serious and impartial on guideline infringement, was too good to pass up.
A happy ending?
After working with Google to clean up its link profile, Rap Genius’ rankings and traffic started recovering.
Traffic may not be quite what it was, but in the long term both Google and Rap Genius have come out of the incident looking good.
Google got another high-profile PR story and emphasised the importance of a healthy link profile. Rap Genius, meanwhile, got the opportunity to clean up its act while generating substantial publicity and cast-iron links from the likes of the NYtimes, NBC and Techcrunch.
Make sure you’re not next
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