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Google vs Rap Genius (Spoiler Alert: Google Wins)

You don’t have to search very hard to find a website with all of the lyrics to your favorite songs. Whether it’s a current song from a well-known artist like One Republic or a song from an old garage band that you came across back in the 1970s, there’s a good chance that lyrics are available online. However, the highly competitive nature of the “song lyrics” niche led to a heated battle between the world’s most widely used search engine and a popular lyrics website called Rap Genius.

A Little Bit About Rap Genius…

Founded in 2009 by Yale University students Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory, RapGenius.com is a website that publishes song lyrics, poetry, documents and other text-based content (although their focus is on song lyrics). What makes the site stand out from other fly-by-night lyrics websites is the fact that the users can chime in to provide their personal interpretation of song lyrics.

Ever wonder what a particular song means? Unless you want to stalk the artist’s home in Beverley Hills, California, your best option is to check out opinions from other fans on a site like Rap Genius. If other users agree with a submitted interpretation, they can vote it up, which is an indicator that it’s probably accurate.

How The Battle Between Google and Rap Genius Started

Over the years, Rap Genius continued to grow and expand, as more and more people began using their site to find song lyrics interpretations. Google’s algorithm noticed all of these “signals” and gave Rap Genius top rankings for a variety of both short-tail and long-term keywords. The website’s founders continued to push the envelope by contributing content to high-traffic sites like Huffington Post, The Atlantic and Esquire.

But it wasn’t the guest blog posts that placed Rap Genius in hot water with Google; it was their decision to invite bloggers to join their “affiliate program” via email. More specifically, it was a single email sent to John Marbach, founder of Glider, which drew the attention of Google.

As noted in the screenshot below, the so-called “affiliate program” is actually a scheme to produce backlinks. Rap Genius requested Marbach publish a post containing over a dozen links to Justin Beiber lyrics in exchange for a tweet.

Screenshot of the email sent by Rap Genius.

Screenshot of the email sent by Rap Genius.

Rather than publishing a post filled with backlinks to Rap Genius’ Justin Beiber lyrics, however, Marbach revealed the backlink scheme on his blog. It wasn’t just the “normal” crowd who took notice of the backlink scheme, as Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, also noticed.

Rap Genius Gets Hit With a Manual Google Penalty

It didn’t take long for Rap Genius’ link-building efforts to backfire. On December 23rd, 2013, Cutts said the Webspam team was currently investigating the situation. On Christmas morning, the site was knocked back into the Google abyss for all of its target keywords. Even searching for the site’s brand name “Rap Genius” would require digging through 5 pages before you found it.

In wake of the manual action taken against Rap Genius, the site’s founders issued the following response:

It sucks to be off Google for us and for the thousands of our community members who have worked so hard to create what’s often the best search result.

We hope everyone who reads this will take a little time out from their Christmas and head to Rap Genius and sign up so you can contribute your knowledge on your favorite subjects – becoming a member of our community makes the site way more fun. Merry Christmas.

The Road To Recovery

In an effort to regain their rankings in Google, Rap Genius began an intense road to recovery which involved manually emailing and requesting webmasters to remove their links, using the disavow tool, and nofollowing links. It didn’t happen overnight, but Rap Genius eventually regained its rankings and now sits comfortably for most song lyrics-related keywords

You can read more about the case of Google vs Rap Genius, and their road to recovery, in an essay-long blog post made by the site’s founders. “To Google and our fans: we’re sorry for being such morons. “We regret our foray into irrelevant unnatural linking. We’re focused on building the best site in the world for understanding lyrics, poetry, and prose and watching it naturally rise to the top of the search results,” said Rap Genius’ founders.

Don’t Try To Game The System

I guess the main point you should take away after reading this is to play by Google’s rules. Trying to manipulate your backlinks or social signals to achieve a higher ranking will only slow you down in the long run. If your goal is to create a reputable, trustworthy website that receives search engine traffic, don’t try to take shortcuts through spam or other manipulative behavior.