I covered the Rap Genius website briefly in my 13 amazing interweb things post from a few months ago, in which I highlighted its hip-hop lyric cruncher. This however is just a small corner of its now slightly less burgeoning empire.

The site itself publishes lyrics to rap songs, and using crowd-sourced annotations, adds notes that expand on references within the lyrics themselves. Great for those of us who don’t know the meaning of such terms as ‘whip’, ‘trill’ or ‘what’s crackin?’*

How did Rap Genius break Google’s rules?

Growth hacking. 

In a contrite blog post on Rap Genius’s own site, the engineering team goes into great detail how they manipulated the system and quickly drew the attention of Google through some fairly debauched (their own word) SEO malpractice.

  • Rap Genius appended lists of popular song links to guest blogs that were unrelated to the content of the post.
  • It offered to promote any blog who linked to Rap Genius in any post, regardless of the relevancy of content.

John Marbach received just such a proposal on 22 December 2013, which he describes on his own blog in great detail, but for your consideration I’ll post the contents of the email that drew Google’s attention, as sent by Mahbod Moghadam of Rap Genius.

Using the potentially huge amounts of search traffic generated by the new Justin Bieber album, Rap Genius were hoping to direct searchers towards its own site. What business Rap Genius has in publishing Justin Bieber lyrics anyway should be discussed elsewhere, but by building these powerful hyperlinks across multiple sites and blogs, this would artificially raise Rap Genius up through the rankings.

You can possibly sympathise with Rap Genius’s desperation when you uncover the fact that 80% of its traffic comes from only 20% of its lyrics.

As Marbach agrees, the fast pace of the music industry dictates that 2013’s most popular drivers like Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ will certainly fade in popularity in 2014, if they haven’t already. However the above email shows a blatant and shameless manipulation of the system.

The fallout

Google caught on, fast, and on Christmas morning gave Rap Genius a severe penalty the like of which only the very worst children on the naughty list receive. A 10 day Google ban. “Take away my PSP, take away my new BMX, anything, but please, please don’t take me off of Google!” I’d imagine Rap Genius was pleading, while on its knees, to the Ghost of Christmas Search Listings.

Even using the search term ‘rap genius’, the website didn’t appear in the Google SERPs until page six.

Everything seems to be back to normal now. Rap Genius has worked hard to remove all of its unnatural links from around the internet, using Google’s own four-step approach:

  1. Download a list of links to your site from Webmaster Tools.
  2. Check this list for any links that violate our guidelines on linking.
  3. For any links that violate our guidelines, contact the webmaster of that site and ask that they either remove the links or prevent them from passing PageRank, such as by adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute.
  4. Use the Disavow links tool in Webmaster Tools to disavow any links you were unable to get removed.

As of today (7 January 2014) this is how Rap Genius appears on Google using certain popular search terms:

‘Jay Z lyrics’

Rap Genius appears as the sixth result, if counting news items.

‘Get Lucky lyrics’

Rap Genius is the fourth result.

‘Ice Cube Today Was a Good Day lyrics’

Rap Genius is the third result. So really this whole mess didn’t take too long to correct itself. Perhaps it’s down to the speed of Google’s web crawlers, or perhaps Google did its own manual fix.

I understand that Rap Genius’s 10 day ban was nothing more than a ‘slap on the wrists’, and obviously the attention it has drawn to the site will probably end up driving far more traffic to the site in 2014 then any amount of organic search listings or unnatural link-building ever would. 

However I feel it’s important to highlight this as an example of how we should all avoid artificial link-building and how quickly Google deals with such transgressions.

*’car’, ‘a portmanteau of true and real’ and ‘hello how do you do?’