This week lyric and annotation website Rap Genius learned a tech lesson the hard way: don’t mess with Google’s analytics, or you’ll be doomed to the back pages of search results.
After finding that Rap Genius was manipulating search engine optimization through third-party bloggers, Google essentially removed the lyric websites’ domain name from the first few pages of search results. As of Friday afternoon, a Google search for “Rap Genius” doesn’t direct a searcher to the actual Rap Genius domain name until halfway down the fifth page of search results.
Why did Google wield its traffic-squashing power against a website that offers analysis (both real and comical) of rap lyrics? Because it was using a tactic called “growth hacking.”
Some young websites try to gain more viewers by piggybacking on the traffic of other websites through linking and social media, called growth hacking. However, there are terms of service on most search-oriented sites that prevent websites from blatantly spamming their way to the top of search results. Google’s terms of service says “creating links that weren't editorially placed or vouched for by the site's owner on a page ... can be considered a violation of our guidelines."
This is where Rap Genius went wrong. On Monday, a blogger named John Marbach saw a Facebook post from Rap Genius advertising a way for bloggers to get kickback traffic from their website. The deal? Post Justin Bieber lyric links to a blog post (whether or not it had anything to do with Justin Bieber), send the blog post to Rap Genius, and the site would tweet the link to its thousands of Twitter followers, at which time the post would “bloooowwwww up!” predicted a Rap Genius representative in an email to Mr. Marbach.
A big piece of Google’s algorithm, in terms of where a site ranks on search results, is the number of pages that link back to that site. With a new Justin Bieber album set to drop in 2014, Rap Genius may have been preemptively hoping to drive their Bieber lyric results to the top of Google’s search engine, through making small deals with bloggers like Marbach to link back to its websites and therefore drive up search results.
On Monday, Marbach wrote a blog post about the exchange that got picked up by HackerNews, where Google’s head of Webspam, Matt Cutts, discovered Rap Genius’s scheme, according to ABC News. That’s when Google struck.
The site's unique visitors dropped from 1,376,535 on Monday to 493,420 on Wednesday, according to Business Insider.
Rap Genius has since come out with an apology to Google, and says it is working with the site to change its traffic methods.
But they claim they are not the only ones at fault in the lyrics-SEO game.
“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,” said Rap Genius in a prepared statement.