I’m a radio host on the weekends, and one of the genres that fascinates me most is the rap coming out of the underground, social justice, and queer circles—people like Angel Haze, Le1f, and Blue Scholars. These artists use rap as the medium for some incredibly well-written messages. The best rap is filled with double entendres, setups and punchlines, and phrases with multiple meanings; Blue Scholars’ “North by Northwest,” for instance, features the lyric “It’s two types of crack, one legal, one felonious/
The lumpenprole push keys like Thelonious.” Lumpenprole is a term coined by Karl Marx to describe the lowest stratum of the proletariat—criminals, vagrants, and tramps. Pushing keys is a reference to jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, but also to the common slang term for ‘kilogram’ used by drug dealers.
How do I know all of this? Because I looked it up once on RapGenius.com, a lyric site which includes an innovative annotation system which allows artists and fans to analyze the content of rap lyrics to explain the references and reveal the deeper meaning behind the song. But if you search for ‘rap genius’ in Google, you won’t find it; the closest you’ll see, at the time of this writing, is their French site, rapgeniusfrance, buried on Page 5. On Christmas Day, Google hit Rap Genius with a massive penalty, after they were caught trying to recruit bloggers with spam SEO tactics; the company, which recently received a massive $15 million investment from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has effectively been wiped from the map.
Web entrepreneur John Marbach exposed Rap Genius’ growth hacking attempts shortly before Christmas. In a blog post, he details how he responded to a call for affiliate bloggers that went out on the Rap Genius Facebook fan page; when he sent an email to inquire about the opportunity, site cofounder Mahbod Moghadam responded with instructions that Marbach should include a set of HTML a href links on the bottom of one of his blog posts. The links were for each of the songs on Justin Bieber’s new album; Moghadam promised to tweet out any blog post which included the HTML, assuring massive traffic increases for both sites.
Anyone with even a slight idea of how SEO works (and how it shouldn’t) will shudder at the thought. Rap Genius was caught red-handed attempting to engineer a huge link scheme with tactics so old-school that they might as well come with corporal punishment and inkwells. After Google zapped them from the SERPs, Quantcast estimates show that Rap Genius’ traffic plunged by 60% the first day after the penalty, and another 52% the day after that. The fact that Rap Genius asked for anchor text links from a blogger is almost quaint, and everyone from Barry Schwartz to Eric Ward has weighed in on the site’s penalty and why things unraveled the way they did. Ward’s analysis was particularly poignant; he expresses sympathy for the site, which wanted what every site wants: more traffic based on links from high-ranked blogs. But, he says, the mistake wasn’t in trying to get bloggers to link to Rap Genius, but rather demanding anchor text from them rather than just letting the content creators create the links more naturally.
Rap Genius has been controversial before; its founders have been in the news for foul-mouthed and explicit behaviors, but the site was rising in the ranks for a long time. Recently they were featured in a New York Times article for their participation in a unique education program designed to teach science through hip-hop. For a while, it seemed like they were destined to reach the top quickly despite being a relatively young site; but the fact is, no one knows exactly what Google wants out of a site, and no one can game the system without risking penalty. While Rap Genius has confessed their mistake and promised to fix it, and the penalty may be fixed sometime down the road, this case is yet another clear reminder that quick schemes will land you in hot water more often than not.