On Christmas, Google delivered a virtual lump of coal by hitting the site that lets users annotate lyrics and other primary sources with a dreaded “manual action.” This involved manipulating search results to suppress results from Rap Genius, thus putting the site’s content on the fifth or sixth page of relevant results, even those that mentioned “Rap Genius” by name. Instead, searchers were shown news results relevant to the debacle, or Rap Genius’ social media pages.
Now, Rap Genius’ trio of irreverent, outspoken, and foul-mouthed founders has issued a public mea culpa. In a statement on its official blog, Rap Genius offers a lengthy explanation of the SEO practices that led to their punishment by Google, while also thanking the search giant for letting them back in.
But the whole Rap Genius ordeal gives us some important lessons for our SEO practices. Most of the teachings to be gleaned from Rap Genius are of the “what not to do” variety, but there’s also a lesson on crisis management to be discerned from the debacle.
Let’s take a look at 5 things you can do to avoid being like Rap Genius in 2014.
1. Don’t try to game the system
The first, most obvious, takeaway from the Rap Genius, is don’t engage in trying to “game” your search engine rank position (SERP). With each successive update to its search algorithm, Google has made it clear that it’s on a mission to place value on “relevance” over any and all other considerations.
By now, we all know this. And Rap Genius certainly knew the rules before they launched their spammy “blog affiliate link” program. True to their irreverent form, Rap Genius simply chose to go ahead and try to scam as many links as possible like a bunch of second-rate snake oil salesmen.
2. Keep your (white) hat on…
Simply put, Rap Genius veered too far into the realm of “black hat” SEO. What would make a company with the millions in capital that Rap Genius has want to engage in scamming SERP through blog affiliate links when they could afford more open ways of building their SERP?
One can only wonder. With the kind of money Rap Genius has to throw around, they could surely have found a better way to build links, especially in light of the litany of global Internet marketing firms that would have taken on the task, ethically.
You can draw a deeper conclusion from that acknowledgement, too. Rap Genius’ entire business model hinges on riding high in the Google search results. As users search for lyrics to new albums, like the new Justin Bieber album for example, Rap Genius needs to be in the top results to be noticed. So the deeper lesson is:
If your business demands that its content ranks highly in search results, don’t scrimp on getting it there. Guerrilla tactics are fine for drumming up viral videos, but you can’t afford to hack, scam, game, or otherwise jive the search engines. Doing so might just cost your business the thing it needs most, under the watchful eyes of Google.
3. Be mindful of who might be watching
To make matters even worse for themselves, Rap Genius publicized their scamming in broad daylight, so to speak, where someone was sure to take notice.
Time and time again, history has shown us that it’s not always what you do, but what you say, and how you say it that gets you in trouble.
When Rap Genius decided to solicit links from any blogger who would give them the time of day, via publicly visible posts on Facebook, they engaged in black hat SEO; and they did it right in front of anyone and everyone who might be watching. John Marbach received the message and responded with interest. He received a reply from Rap Genius that exposed the nefarious nature of what they were up to with the blog affiliate link program.
Marbach exposed the scam on his blog on December 23. Sure enough, Google’s Matt Cutts took note, and stated on HackerNews that Google was investigating Rap Genius’ affiliate link practices. The next day, Google laid down the gauntlet on Rap Genius.
This exposes the fact that not only is Google fully aware of sites “gaming” link growth via out-of-context links on irrelevant blogs, but also reveals that they are poised to act punitively should they become aware of potential violations.
The best advice is not to try to scam the system; however, regardless of what SEO tactics you employ, you don’t have to advertise them. If you take a calculated risk (hopefully one that is smarter than the one Rap Genius took), don’t broadcast it to the whole world, don’t throw it out to just “any” blogger (who might just happen to be a major tech influencer that even Google is paying attention to), don’t work toward links buried in irrelevant content, and above all else, make sure it won’t put you on the “outs” with Google.
4. When in doubt, follow the rules
Rap Genius’ trouble started when it asked random bloggers to insert links to lyrics in posts. With a new Justin Bieber album scheduled to arrive this year, Rap Genius was hedging their bets that many music fans will be searching for the new Bieber song lyrics. In an effort to sweep up the incoming visitors from the top Google results, Rap Genius put out their offer.
For anyone who has worked in SEO for a while, that kind of link scheming is patently ridiculous. Google has been weeding out that sort of thing for more than a decade.
Want to know the rules? Google makes them readily available, right here.
5. Keep your ego in check
Let’s step outside our comfort zone and look at something entirely different, from an SEO standpoint. Let’s talk about company culture.
Anyone who has seen the clip of Rap Genius co-founders Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory at Disrupt NYC will know that they aren’t taking themselves too seriously. In their open apology, the founders say “We overstepped, and we deserved to get smacked” – an apology apparently in keeping with their rabble-rousing shtick that serves, in essence, as their company culture.
While having and maintaining an image is beneficial, especially in the niche in which Rap Genius operates, being generally debauched leads people to want to topple you. It’s just the nature of things.
With a history of on-the-record quotes like the barbs Moghadam lobbed at Mark Zuckerberg and The New York Times a while back, it’s as though Rap Genius has been asking for trouble. While their foul-mouthed diatribes have done little to win friends and influence people in tech circles, their little link growing scheme might end up being the smartest callous move they ever made. Somehow, you have to suspect that Rap Genius has come out of this episode stronger, in terms of peripheral awareness of the brand itself.
Just think of all the people who had never heard of Rap Genius before the Google Grinch came to see them on Christmas. If it’s flagrant PR hype that grows your business, you should stick to that. Perhaps that’s what Rap Genius should be more concerned with, rather than amateurish link building exercises. After all, the company’s founders seem to be pretty good at putting on outlandish shenanigans for the media.
How do you raise your search ranking?
For the rest of us whose businesses depend on turning up in the top search results, it’s much smarter to invest our energies in safe SEO practices, working to promote value-rich content through authoritative sources, building organic backlinks, and inspiring natural conversations around the Web. That’s how brands will be built for the broad swaths of us, going forward in 2014.
We know not to go where Rap Genius went. So how do you improve your search rankings? Are you doing anything that might get you a timeout in the sandbox?