Rap Genius SEO Penalty

What did The Google say to the RapGenius?

Rap Genius Penalty

The Background:

On December 23rd, John Marbach published a blog post titled “RapGenius Growth Hack Exposed.”  In the post, John talks about seeing a call from the rapgenius.com facebook page to become a “blog affiliate,”

which further inquiry is  revealed to be a (kind of, according to Google) spammy, search result manipulating tactic.

To sum it up neatly: RapGenius would tweet out a link to a blog post you wanted them to promote, as long as you included some links, with specific anchor text, at the bottom of your post.

Here’s a screenshot of the email they sent people who expressed interest:

Seo Penalty

Justin Bieber ruins another life…

(source – John Marbach)

Essentially, RapGenius was attempting to manipulate Google search results, which, as can be found in their Webmaster Guidelines under link schemes, is prohibited:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

Usually websites are a little more subtle when they try to increase their rank in the SERPs, but the guys behind rapgenius.com are not known for their subtle behavior.

Penalizing A Site

When a Hacker News post about the RapGenius “growth hack” got a response from head of Google webspam, Matt “No Mercy” Cutts, the company issued a very thin apology/justification/clarification of their actions:

We effed up, other lyrics sites are almost definitely doing worse stuff, and we’ll stop. We’d love for Google to take a closer look at the whole lyrics search landscape and see whether it can make changes that would improve lyric search results.

gtfoGoogle pressed the “GTFO” button and completely wiped them from the first five pages of the search results for their brand search term (google “rapgenius.com” and find it nowhere on the first page).  Where you used to be able to find a rapgenius.com page for some random “<artist – song title> lyrics,” RapGenius does not show at all.

When a search for your(very well established) brand does not show up until 5 or 6 pages in, you know you’ve been hit with a penalty.

Recovering from a manual penalty like this isn’t impossible.  Here is a post documenting what was involved in the recovery of a site that had some toxic backlinks pointed at it.

SERoundtable did an interview with SEOers on how long a site with a manual penalty takes to  recover.  Here are their results:

from seroundtable.com

The rapgenius.com situation is different, in that they didn’t get a penalty for building toxic backlinks to their site (which is a common reason for sites being penalized by the Google Penguin algorithm update).

Today, the RapGenius founders released a statement to TechCrunch saying, in part:

We are working with Google right now to resolve this. They’ve been really great, helping us identify changes we need to make, even on Christmas. We’re working on it as fast as we can, and expect to be back on Google very soon.

RapGenius Takes A Traffic Hit.

According to quantcast, RapGenius usually pulls in about 1.2 million visitors a day.  A day after their penalty, they are getting about 400,000 visitors, down 60%

Traffic Losssource: quantcast

Thoughts on the RapGenius Penalty

1.) If you’re going to do some Grey Hat SEO, take a little care to be discreet.

Perhaps the founders of RapGenius saw nothing wrong with what they were doing, or maybe they made a bad decision.  Perhaps it was a calculated (but destructive) move to get some media attention (though surely they are not *that* crazy).

2.) Don’t expect to be able to “work with Google to resolve” your SEO problems.  

I’m not sure what kind of “in,” if any, RapGenius has at Google, or if someone at Google believes in their mission to “annotate the world,” but it’s highly unusual to get the opportunity to work directly with Google to fix a manual penalty.  As linked to above, it requires a lot of documentation, hard work, and luck to get Google to remove a penalty.  Being a large, visible brand will work in their favor as they attempt to make-up for their SEO no-no.

3.) Their visibility (as a large brand) may have also worked against them

RapGenius did the SEO equivalent of robbing and house and then posting the video on Facebook for the cops to find.  Like a high profile suspect, Google, as the judge, may have acted harshly to make an example out of them.  Imagine the kind of webspam that might have sprung up if the SEO community noticed RapGenius getting away with this blatant manipulation penalty-free.  By “making an example of them,” and slapping them with a mega penalty (though, the site is still indexed in Google, which would be an even worse penalty), Google is bringing awareness to the consequences of going against their webmaster guidelines.

4.) There’s no such thing as bad publicity (but losing 60% of your traffic sucks)

RapGenius has been getting a lot of attention yesterday and today, after news of the Google penalty broke.  And in those stories, though not everyone is a fan of the vulgar (and oblivious to SEO, apparently) founders of RapGenius, people have lots of nice things to say about the site itself.  It has a thriving community, and most of the site’s content is created and published by fans (as well as the individual artists themselves), and the site’s mission to “annotate the world” is an interesting one (for which they received a 15 million dollar investment from Andreessen Horowitz recently).

Confused fans called out from twitter when they couldn’t find RapGenius on the first page of Google, like they usually did.

They are directing confused/angry fans to sign up at their site.  This is a good move, as with users/subscribers the google rank matters much less.  It’s a better long term strategy, in any case.

5.)  Google has all the power.  

As commenters were pointing out on a different Hacker News Thread, Google has the power to censor messages and manipulate information.  It’s almost too much power for one single organization to have.  With RapGenius, the site is legitimately a helpful site providing a valuable service (at it’s most basic level, it is providing explanations of popular culture art).  By smacking RapGenius to page 5, Google has made their search results less effective, and thousands of searchers are unhappy with this move.

It must be a delicate position trying to enforce quality guidelines while maintaining good search results.  Perhaps this is why Google is working with RapGenius?

The Future For RapGenius

Here’s my prediction:

This will be a temporary penalty.  RapGenius will be very sorry for what they did, and will work to clean up their act (or at the very least, exercise the ability to be discreet in their linkbuilding).  The penalty will be lifted in a week or a month, and RapGenius will be back at the top of the SERPs, as well as having gotten a ton of press from the whole incident.

I think RapGenius will come out of this on top, with more exposure, more users, and more loved by their fans.

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