If you've ever searched for song lyrics online, you have probably noticed a wide range of sites offering lyrics, along with associated ads for ring tones and downloads. In such a competitive web space, lyric sites do whatever they can to gain an edge in the search rankings.
Unfortunately for startup Rap Genius, all it took was someone noticing one of their Facebook posts soliciting links for promotional tweets and writing a blog post about their bad link building decisions. The result: Google penalized Rap Genius for unnatural linking on Christmas.
A couple days before Christmas, Rap Genius decided to post on their Facebook page about a promotion for becoming a "Rap Genius blog affiliate". So John Marbach, a blog owner and a Rap Genius fan decided to email them to find out more about their affiliate program.
The response Marbach received back was an invitation to include an extremely spammy looking list of Justin Bieber links, and in exchange Rap Genius would send out a promotional tweet to all the followers. The Bieber links coincided with the launch of his new album, which Rap Genius knew would result in fans starts searching for the lyrics of the songs on the album.
Marbach's blog post was then posted to Hacker News where it caught the attention of none other than Matt Cutts from Google's web spam team. Within a day, Rap Genius had been penalized and was no longer ranking for the many lyrics they previously rank for, nor did they even rank for their Rap Genius brand name.
Rap Genius became aware of the issue, and suggested they were working directly with Google to resolve the issue, something that most companies don't have the luxury of doing:
We are working with Google right now to resolve this. They've been really great, helping us identify changes we need to make, even on Christmas. We're working on it as fast as we can, and expect to be back on Google very soon.
It is also worth noting that Rap Genius, while they were cleaning up their act, were clearly trying to throw their competitors under the bus by claiming those lyrics sites do far shadier SEO than they do, it is just that Rap Genius was unlucky enough to be caught.
So while Rap Genius was exposed and forced to clean up their act in order to get back in Google index, their next priority seemed to focus on whatever they could do to ensure they could get their competitors scrutinized and penalized for practicing black hat SEO, now that Rap Genius was going "clean."
They wrote a blog post update on the Google penalty situation, in an "Open Letter to Google about Rap Genius SEO" detailing where they went wrong, but also why Google should give their competitors the boot.
tl;dr: 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.
Obviously, this won't sit well with their competitors, and it doesn't sit well with many SEO professionals who live by a "don't report spam" motto when it comes to competitors playing dirty. And in their apology post, they also linked to six of their competitor's backlink profiles (AZLyrics.com, Metrolyrics.com, Lyricsfreak.com, Lyricsmode.com, Lyrics007.com, Songlyrics.com) to try and out those competitors to Google in hopes that they would get penalized.
Once Google allowed Rap Genius back in the index after they'd cleaned up their bad backlink profile, Rap Genius detailed exactly how they did it, which largely involved them nuking their poor quality backlinks. They utilized both the disavow tool as well as emailing webmasters for link removals.
Rap Genius definitely took a significant hit in traffic during the time they were penalized, dropping from 700,000 uniques per day to only 100,000, according to Quantcast.
Despite returning to Google's index, there still seems to be a significant loss in overall traffic, showing they definitely aren't back up to their pre-Google penalty traffic levels. Before being penalized, Rap Genius was doing about 800,000 views per day, during their penalty they dropped to around 100,000, while now they are only back up to slightly over 400,000.
It's possible that there is still some sort of penalty that is affecting Rap Genius, since their traffic has only been restored to half of what it was previously to their bad backlink penalty. Or perhaps Rap Genius simply has less visibility in the search results for certain song lyric queries they ranked highly for before getting burned by their poor SEO decisions.
As for the list of competitors Rap Genius was trying to get penalized, none of them have seen a drop in traffic since Rap Genius received their penalty, according to Quantcast data.
In the end, Rap Genius only lost their Google rankings for slightly over a week, something that is definitely on the extremely short side of penalty lengths for invalid backlink warnings, so it would appear that they were getting special help from Google to resolve the issues. TechCrunch suggested it was likely due to the fact that rap genius is funded by Andreessen Horowitz, a high-profile venture capitalist firm in Silicon Valley.
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