"We effed up," lyrics annotation supersite Rap Genius admitted this week after its SEO cheating was revealed. They sure did. And there's good reason to believe this isn't just a gaffe for the cartoonish startup posse: a Google eff up could haunt them forever—but no one search should have all that power.
For as long as it's been a cultural blip, Rap Genius has owed most of its spotlight to almighty Google. Early this month, an overlooked article in Billboard stated, definitively: "How Rap Genius Won The SEO Game." Won. The game was over:
Search experts point to other things that Rap Genius appears to be doing well. "Google is always paying attention to 'perfect' when ranking results," says Ian Lurie, chief executive of Portent, an Internet marketing agency that specializes in content development. "Their site is very fast. It's very well-built. And it has very high-quality in-bound links, which means high-quality sites are linking to it. They've given it every advantage."
In addition, Rap Genius' community, with its verified artists acting as an anchor, serves to generate social media attention. "Google has refocused a lot of its ranking power to social media, especially Google+, and that's given Rap Genius a leg up on AZLyrics," says Nick Sayers, a spokesman for Moz, a provider of search analytics. "Google also loves brands, because users love brands, too. Look at AZ's branding versus Rap Genius'. AZ doesn't even feel like a real company or have any type of consistent logo."
Rap Genius designed itself to be eminently Google-able. The whole thing is a gaudy, whirring, hyperactive link-bazaar. Links to and from YouTube, links to images, articles, other Rap Genius pages—links upon links, links for the sake of links—a constant work in progress to make the entire internet one giant hyperlink to itself. For Google, this is web catnip, and it showed: a week ago, if you googled virtually any rap lyric or track name, Rap Genius would be the first result. Number one.
I doubt many people ever typed "r-a-p-g-e-n-i-u-s-.-c-o-m" into a browser and hit enter. But the number of people who wound up on Rap Genius by way of Google, just because they wanted to look up lyrics like millions of other music fans, is astronomical—and "winning" the search engine game was a self-perpetuating success. But it was contrived and ill-gotten: "If there is one thing Google hates, it is unnatural links," explains Nick Sayers, who works at Moz, a search analytics firm. "Really the only thing that can be said is they sure did mess up," and it shows as soon as you try to look up a song. Google won't let anyone "win," and really hates it if you gloat about victory over the giant.
So, the hot streak is over, snuffed out as artificially as it began. Take a look at the results for "i've got the rap patrol," as of today:
Don't bother looking for Rap Genius, because it's not here. It's been pushed back to the seventh page of Google's results. The middle of the seventh page, to be exact—a place no one ever even bothers looking. Even searching for a song title or lyric plus "rap genius" won't put the site on Google's top results—the entire operation has essentially been de-listed, deleted, and banished to the Phantom Zone. The seventh page of Google makes Path look like Snapchat, a no man's land between online landfills stuffed with digital Pogs.
For a company that's relied almost entirely on Google, to be shunned by Google is a death sentence. Traffic-tracking service Alexa says almost all Rap Genius traffic starts with a Google search. SimilarWeb puts the number at over 70 percent. What happens to a growing website that makes no money and trades only in zeitgeist when 70% of its audience is cut off? Nothing good.
John Marbach, who first broke the news of the Rap Genius search scam, put it plainly:
RG is highly reliant on Google for traffic. Lyrics are one of the highest search categories on the web, simply because people like music. Just like the most popular YouTube videos are songs.
Bing traffic isn't going to make it up. Marbuch notes that Rap Genius' exile should only be temporary, assuming good behavior and cooperation—a standard 30 to 60 day penalty. But if and when Google and RG come to an understanding, what's next for the text empire? It won't immediately be as prominent as it was before this scandal, because the way it "was before" is against the rules. If Rap Genius tries it again, they'll face an even longer penalty, or permanent de-listing. If they were only able to hit these heights by playing dirty, it's safe to assume they won't perform as well while staying clean. Anything but a monopoly is a step down. Maybe they'll be the top result for some lyrical searches, maybe they won't—there's a lot of established competition. All of this ignores the Rap Genius plan to be the top result for everything, from De La Soul to the Old Testament to the Pentagon Papers. Moz CEO Rand Fishkin predicts "they'll bounce back in the next few weeks or months, but not entirely." Suddenly, the company's bluster-brag that "in a year from now [we] will be the biggest site in the whole Internet" needs some rethinking.
Rap Genius will never be safe on the internet again, because as far as they're concerned, Google is the internet. The search engine functions like public infrastructure, a road that takes anyone who wants to look up lyrics to the internet lyrics store, but it thinks like any Walmart of Exxon. It has its own secret rules, its own private penalties, and its own willingness to harm any company that dares make it look stupid. The Rap Genius co-creators must have known what they were getting themselves into: an inordinately complex game of Mouse Trap with the devil that's finally snapped back. That's grand as long as Google is blasting you with traffic, but cross them, and they can flick a switch and blink you out of existence. As one Hacker News member notes, maybe this story isn't about "the correctness of Google's decision, but the fact that one search engine can make the entire difference between a company being successful and not." The entire existence of Rap Genius hinges upon Google, on how well they can bend the giant's rules without breaking them and suffering a face-smash.
So it's a bullet-train-collision of egos, here: on one side we have Rap Genius, willing to do business with a genie as long as it paid. On the other, this omnipotent Google, which makes up its own choreography, watches companies dutifully dance, but will flex and snarl to make you toe the line. Two entities who don't think they can be touched, and a very expensive game of chicken for Rap Genius, which uses this prideful gamesmanship in place of a marketing budget. What the fuck are they going to do, I'm sure someone there wondered, kick us off the internet? We're Rap Genius. I had dinner with Nas.
It is, I think, this kind of cavalier, Jay-Z poster on my wall, dad's Amex in my pocket thinking that fucked Rap Genius from the start, before they "effed up" by toying with Google. Let us never forget this is the product of three dudes who met at Yale, received the backing of some of the most powerful tech investors in history, and whose co-founder got away with telling Mark Zuckerberg to suck his dick, before blaming being a complete unhinged asshole on a brain tumor. The company's M.O. has been acting with impunity, all the time, and spinning the eye-rolls and douchebag-calls into more publicity. When SEO expert Tom Harari emailed Rap Genius co-founder Tom Lehman while working on this fantastic analysis of Google-gaming, this was his reply:
Our SEO game is tight.
It's all worked! The three Yalies are smart: they know how to play dirtier and dirtier, whether onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt or with their hands down Google's cargo shorts. If the Rap Genius corporate persona has been acting like stimulant-spiked 9th grade heroes in public, it's easy to see why getting busted for SEO cheating seemed laughable. Now they'll have to look over their shoulders, indefinitely.
Google won't laugh. Google is bigger than any startup—even one run by three Ivy Leaguers. Google is bigger than any investor. Google is bigger than rap. And when it drops the mic on your traffic, you see that you're a success only at Google's pleasure. The gatekeeper nerds in Mountain View aren't as easily distracted as the editors at Billboard, the audiences at conferences, or venture capitalists. Wear shuttershades indoors or whatever, fine—but trying to publicly give less of a fuck than Google will never work.