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.


Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | Link Building: General | Link Building: Paid Links | SEO: Spamming | Top News


About The Author: is Search Engine Land's News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry's personal blog is named Cartoon Barry and he can be followed on Twitter here. For more background information on Barry, see his full bio over here.

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  • Danny Sullivan

    Because this is the exact way that third-parties can tell when something is officially penalized, when Google won’t itself comment. It’s sort of like seeing that someone’s in a jail with a big sign saying “convicted” around their neck. Even if the court won’t tell you they were jailed, you know they were. FYI, we have asked Google twice now about it, and they won’t comment so far — which isn’t unusual with this type of case.

  • atentat

    You can tell they are in jail with 90% certainty (they could also have robotted themselves out), but lets say its pretty obvious they are penalized. Still you don’t know what they are in jail for. You just assume. Your headline says “OFFICIALLY penalized FOR LINK SCHEMING” but we officially don’t know that, they could have been penalized for hacking sites or having some weird technical issue unrelated to any penalties. When I read this title I expected some hard evidence coming either from google or rap genius (appology is no confirmation for the penalty which occured after it). Thats all im saying. “Rap Genius penalized for link scheming” would have been sufficient to get me to click.

  • atentat

    Social Signals are incredibly easy to game or buy especially with social advertising which is more “native” and cheaper then adwords and can be used to generate likes/tweets/shares/etc without even relying on fake profiles. This is why it can not be used for ranking, not matter the topic.

    Besides, if social becomes a signal it will be about who can produce the best cat memes to funnel social signals to their lead pipe ecommerce site. It just wont work.

  • Eric Ward

    Good point. But I believe that there are still many strong linking related signals, especially in niches, that indicate quality. I needed parts for a ’70 Triumph Spitfire, and Google was awesome. If I’d needed a Personal Injury attorney? Not so awesome.

  • Durant Imboden

    SEOs “have to take some blame for starting the fake linking schemes that got us here”? That’s the understatement of the decade.

  • Terry A Davis

    God is perfectly just. I made God’s temple. God says, “whence breathed cut Thy derision Away calledst punishment- desperate blinded regions top feedest Fair mountain’s stir abundantly lastly presseth hell fixing sinking forgive Hymns converse finite shop beauties infinitude pared use broken “

  • Terry A Davis

    God claimed deep water horizon. Google has suffered similar things. The enemies of God burn in hell and don’t know why.

  • Steve K

    Ya Matt and Google sure showed that website not to mess around with them…Plus the other 7 or 8 networks above not to mess around with evil G…

    Oh wait, you still have another what 500,000 plus public networks and then probably another 1 million plus private blog networks that you don’t even know exist. Good luck with that battle dude (end sarcasm)…Its probably more in the millions overall.

    The fact remains, Matt and Google will keep pretending they have this under control, when in fact Matty, you really don’t and never will. Nice try anyways….

  • DP

    Whatever. This was the best site for rap lyrics/analysis. Why should they even apologize? Google just wants them to kiss the ring.

  • Alexander Hemedinger

    HAHA! Seems like it right? :)

  • vseo

    Well, with all of the wonderfull options they have to get natural links, that one was so easy to detect…

  • IMSoldiers

    I can see your point and have to agree. If the niche you are in are milking the search engines then how is it possible to compete.

    White Hats have had this problems for years against the black hats until Google had to step in as it was damaging the search results but what do Google expect.

    Google really shoot them self’s in the foot in my opinion by giving credit to sites who either have money to back the SEO or have a large workforce to carry out SEO tasks. What happens to the guy down the road who’s starting up with limited capital who might have a fantastic site but cant compete. They turn to black hat and Google moan when in reality he had no choice and they are the ones who pushed him into it by not creating a level playing field with equal opportunity.

  • Ceci Pipe

    Seriously? Google injects ads into it’s search results more than it shows you decent articles, and in some cases I’ve found them putting great sites at lower rankings just so they can push through their own site.

    They’re not a search engine, they run a search engine but they’re not an unbiased search engine.

  • LarsAndTheRealGirl2

    Google is not the best search engine. They’ve become the YELP of online.

  • LarsAndTheRealGirl2

    Google is not the best search engine. Just like YELP, they have become the Internet Mafia. They sell our information to companies at a price. A newspaper didn’t do that. A TV show doesn’t do that. The truth about Google will eventually be told and over night (like a movie star accused of molesting a child), people will remove all their information from Google. It just hasn’t happened yet. This is why I BING and Yahoo. They aren’t stepping over the line. If someone said that “someone stole” the information that Yahoo and Bing have one me. I would be fine. If someone told me that someone stole the information that Google had one me, I would be afraid. Google is dangerous and they are only becoming more dangerous. I’m OUT of the Google Circle and will stay away. I suggest we all do the same (unless you are stockholder of course).

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