Google Has Officially Penalized Rap Genius For Link Schemes

rapgenius-logoGoogle has penalized Rap Genius for link schemes this morning. If you go to Google and search for [rap genius], will not be found on the first page. Instead you will find links to their Twitter account, Facebook page, Wikipedia profile and stories like this about them being penalized by Google. But you won’t find on the first page.

Here is a picture:


As we covered the other day, Rap Genius was using link schemes to manipulate Google’s rankings. It was brought to Google’s attention, where the head of search spam, Matt Cutts, said we’re aware and looking into it.

Now it appears that the “affiliate” program, which was a link scheme, got them in trouble.

The founders of Rap Genius did apologize, saying:

We effed up, other lyrics sites are almost definitely doing worse stuff, and we’ll stop. 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.

Then they went on to defend themselves and point at how competitors are doing similar things.

Here are some stories of Google going after manipulative link schemes:

Postscript From Danny Sullivan: After Christmas, I’ll likely revisit this story with a broader take. But for now, some key issues from my perspective.

First, over the past year or so, I’ve talked with two reporters about Rap Genius, who were working on stories that touched on how apparently, the company or its investors suggest it was having great success with SEO, that it somehow knew what Google really wanted to ensure it got top rankings.

One of these was with the New York Times, last year. I was never quoted in that story; the Google aspect never came up in the final article. I mention it because in both cases, I told the reporters that I found it laughable that Rap Genius had any special ability to do well in Google.

Indeed, both times, it was pretty easy to demonstrate that for many lyric-related searches, they didn’t rank highly at all. One chief reason was that they really didn’t seem to have that many lyrics, probably from having started with a focus on rap, only one music genre.

Another was that they were relatively young, and despite the idea they had a great “community” or whatever else was supposedly helping them with Google, as I heard second-hand, Google continued to adore basic sites that just gave you the lyrics, despite how crappy they looked, the pop-up ads they often gave you or the lack of some community aspect. The reason was, to me, that they’d been around far a long time and so picked up many links as well as other signals that have helped Google identify them as authority sites worth rewarding in this way.

For more on all these signals and how things rank in Google, by the way, see our Periodic Table Of SEO Success Factors.

Second, the attempt by Rap Genius to gain links to rank better was fairly dumb on many aspects, if particular in a post-Penguin world where savvy SEOs understand that getting the exact same type of links in a sudden burst is probably going to cause you problems with Google.

Still, when this all blew up on Christmas Eve, even I was scratching my head to figure out if this was actually a Google violation or not. Rap Genius’s apology post had the company deciding itself that maybe it violated guidelines that links should be “editorially placed.”

Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know exactly why Rap Genius is in trouble because Google won’t say (yes, we asked, and we got a no comment on the matter for now). We know it’s in trouble because it’s no longer ranking, but ironically, this might be because since Rap Genius has declared itself in violation of Google’s guidelines, Google acted to penalize it based on that, even if Rap Genius might have been fine.

The point is — understanding what’s a good link with Google is incredibly hard these days. Google tells you links are important to rank; Google also tells you an increasing number of rules about which links “count” or how links might hurt you or even how you may need to “disavow” links.

Links: The Broken “Ballot Box” Used By Google & Bing is a key article from me last year talking about this. If anything, the situation has only gotten worse since then. While there are insane things people do to quickly build crummy links rapidly that should be discouraged, it’s also become much harder for people to understand what type of linking activity might get them into trouble or not.

Case in point. We did an infographic about the use of nofollow, a means of blocking links from passing credit, if you fear that credit will get you in trouble with Google. You’ll find it here:

You’ll also see in that infographic that the editors of this site, which specializes in coverage of Google best practices in terms of SEO, had to debate whether Google would consider us to be somehow in violation of its guidelines by putting out an infographic about nofollow without using nofollow in links back to it.

We struggle with it. Google itself has penalized various Google departments over the years over link violations. While Rap Genius acted in a fairly stupid, dumb manner, that doesn’t take away from the bigger issue that this stuff just gets harder and harder. And it’s not “SEO” stuff. As sites do things like native advertising, or more social promotions, they might find themselves stumbling into some Google violation they never imagined would be an issue.

Finally, it’s probably an incredibly dumb business model to be doing a lyrics site that hopes for Google traffic in a time when Google, like Bing, is moving toward providing direct answers. Lyrics, to my understanding, often have to be licensed. That makes them a candidate for Google to license directly and provide as direct answers.

And, in fact, that’s what Google was supposed to be going. Back in 2009, Google Music had a relaunch, and the ability to find songs based on lyrics was a big part, as Google was licensing the right to search against those:

It seemed like a natural for Google to start showing lyrics themselves off of this. After all, Yahoo was doing that in 2007. Of course, that was Yahoo’s second attempt at doing lyric search, and one that died quietly off. And Google Music itself died a quiet death in 2011.

In that absence, the lyrics sites I generally find to be a crappy experience (I search for lyrics often) continue to rank well at Google, even if they might not even have licenses to list those lyrics. I still think eventually, Google will just provide lyrics directly. I also think that 2014 will see the rules about what’s a “natural” or “safe” link just get more and more complex.

Finally, apologies for any typos I might not have caught in this postscript. It’s Christmas, so I wanted to dash out a few thoughts as this story has unexpectedly blown up, and now I’m going back to celebrating the day.