Until a few days ago, searching for many pop songs on Google usually brought you to the same page: Rap Genius. The site is dedicated to providing lyrics for a library of tunes, plus user-generated annotations for those lyrics. So if you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of a Justin Bieber song, look no further than Rap Genius.
But Rap Genius recently made news for a different reason. The site was handed a manual penalty by Google for manipulating search results. The penalty was a harsh one, knocking Rap Genius off the first page of results not only for the popular lyrics it once dominated, but even for its own branded search.
That means that a search for “rap genius” (which should provide the site’s home page within the first result or two) doesn’t cough up a link to rapgenius.com until page five. This kind of penalty can be very damaging for sites that rely on navigational searches (i.e. users searching for “espn” so they can visit espn.com).
What Rap Genius Did Wrong
The reason Google saw fit to punish the site is that Rap Genius’s shady “black hat” SEO tactics were exposed. A blogger posted about the site’s tactics here, but the jist is that Rap Genius’s founder essentially asked him add links to Justin Bieber songs into any blog post – not necessarily one related to the pop star. For example, imagine if at the end of the post, the following text appeared, with links to the lyrics for these songs.
The Beatles – Penny Lane
The Beatles – Dear Prudence
The Beatles – I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Pretty weird, right? Well, that’s what Rap Genius asked its “affiliate blogger” to insert into his post, in exchange for Rap Genius tweeting out a link that would get him “MASSIVE traffic.” As Rap Genius Founder Mahbod Moghadam pointed out, “it will bloooowwwww up!” Well, something certainly blew up.
Is it Black-Hat SEO?
This technique is actually pretty old-school SEO, and there’s some debate as to whether it technically violates Google’s guidelines. After all, the links would be placed voluntarily by the authors of the blog posts. This was not comment spam or spun content.
The worst you could say about the Rap Genius scheme is that it was spammy. And Google’s traditional method of dealing with spammy (but not regulation-violating) links is to design algorithms that make such content less valuable. After all, Google’s job is to incentivize relevant links and dis-incentivize irrelevant ones. This reduces spam naturally.
In this case, it seems that Rap Genius was probably a victim of its own popularity. After the news of its scheme broke, demigod Matt Cutts warned of an impending thunderbolt via Twitter. Smaller sites would probably be able to fly under the radar with such a technique, but the larger point is that Google doesn’t like this kind of link scheme.
What You Can Learn
In a post-Penguin world, techniques like this will become gradually less useful. Obviously Google still has a ways to go, seeing as it had to manually penalize Rap Genius rather than let the algorithm do its work. But the message is the same either way: creating spammy backlinks might help in the short-term, but in the long run, you’re going nowhere but down.
It can be a difficult line to walk, but when establishing good back links through an affiliate program, the best standard to apply is probably the one advanced by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.” You know spammy content when you see it—so don’t produce it.
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