Rap Genius had a shitty Christmas. This week Google decided they didn’t like how the well-funded lyrics startup was gaming their search algorithms. After some strong words by Google’s awesomely-named search spam czar Matt Cutts, the site is basically no longer showing up in searches. In a few short hours, Rap Genius went from the top result for basically any rap-related query to invisibility. For a site that relies on traffic to justify its value (after all, someone did pump $15 million into it) this is a disaster.
I don’t like Rap Genius, straight up. But, for better or for worse, Rap Genius’s Google dominance has made it a fixture in hip-hop and I’ll admit its outreach to the likes of Nas and Big KRIT has helped its credibility. A lot of people are probably confused about why it’s suddenly not showing up. So instead of dancing on Rap Genius’s grave, I’m going to do the positive thing and try to explain how they got kicked off Google in plain English.
These answers are adapted from a conversation with my friend Wright Williams of Spam Genius, who does this stuff (“Search Engine Optimization”) professionally.
Noisey: What do you have to do to piss off Google?
Wright Williams: You make yourself look more important than you actually are.
Google scores every site on the entire internet on how authentic and valuable it is. When you search for something, it shows you the sites with the highest scores first.
As people figure out how Google calculates their scores, they’ve also figured out how to game the system. Google, in turn, wants to keep providing the best search results. They employ a lot of people to keep track of how accurate their scores are and to punish anyone who has artificially juiced their site’s value.
Rap Genius was violating and got caught.
What was Rap Genius doing?
One of the factors Google uses to rank a page is how many outside links there are pointing to that page. It’s a decent way to measure how useful the world considers a certain page but it’s also an easy thing to fake.
This is why you see rando spam comments like “I made $7293 a week click here!” Nobody expects anybody to click that link when it shows up out of context under a Lil Reese video, but that link is engineered to look credible to Google.
Rap Genius was trying to use its influence to get credible links back to itself on outside sites.
How did they do that?
They put out a call for “RAP GENIUS BLOG AFFILIATES” on their Facebook page, promising to send traffic to posts “affiliates” in exchange for embedding some code in the post. The code was a tracklist for the new Bieber album with every song linked to its Rap Genius lyrics page.
Every link back to Rap Genius increases its value in the eyes of Google. And any traffic it directed back to its affiliate blogs would serve to make those links even more valuable.
In advertising jargon, this is called “passing ‘LinkJuice’ to manipulate page rank” and Google fucking hates it.
That’s all they did?
That’s it. If it seems like a really simple and obvious way to fool Google it’s because it is.
[Williams called it “goofy-dumb” and said it hasn’t been common since the late 90’s and early 00’s, adding that it “almost always results in your site getting found out.”]
How bad is this for Rap Genius?
Pretty bad. Not only did Rap Genius itself get de-ranked, every site caught with a shady-looking link back to Rap Genius apparently also took a hit. It’s hard to know how long Google will hold this against them.
When reached for an official statement on the debacle, a Rap Genius spokesperson offered, "By far our biggest SEO strategy is just to build a good website, and hope that people link us because they like it. Anything else is uncivilized. We appreciate Google providing information and tools that help us diagnose and fix the problems. We're working as hard as we can and expect to be back on Google soon."
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