Over Christmas, Google penalized lyrics-annotation start-up Rap Genius after the site was found to be engaging in forbidden search-engine optimization practices. (Basically, Rap Genius was offering to drive traffic to sites that linked to them, regardless of whether the links were relevant.) Rap Genius pages, which had consistently appeared at the top of a search for most rap or pop songs, were pushed way back in Google’s results. (Even searches that included the term “Rap Genius” were hard to find.) But on Saturday morning, Rap Genius’s founders Tom Lehman, Mahbod Moghadam, and Ilan Zechory wrote a blog post announcing that they are now allowed to return to more desirable Google territory. In addition to explaining what happened, they apologized for their indiscretions.
According to the founders, their strategy started innocently, with “organic” links to and from sites with “content and tone aligned well with Rap Genius.” More recently, however, things started getting “debauched”:
The dubious-sounding “Rap Genius blog affiliate program”, the self-parodic used car salesman tone of the email to John, the lack of any discretion in the targeting of a partner – this all looked really bad. And it was really bad: a lazy and likely ineffective “strategy”, so over-the-top in its obviousness that it was practically begging for a response from Google.
That is followed by a long, detailed technical explanation of how Rap Genius resolved the issue by identifying and eliminating the many offending links. “We’re sorry for being such morons,” they wrote. “We regret our foray into irrelevant unnatural linking. We’re focused on building the best site in the world for understanding lyrics, poetry, and prose and watching it naturally rise to the top of the search results.” (Rap Genius lyrics were already back on Google’s front pages by Saturday afternoon.)
The post concludes by alluding to something that observers such as Gawker’s Sam Biddle and Slate’s Matthew Yglesias have pointed out: “Though Google is an extremely important part of helping people discover and navigate Rap Genius, we hope that this ordeal will make fans see that Rap Genius is more than a Google-access-only website.” Rap Genius’s behavior was sketchy, and Google was right to enforce its rules against it — but the reminder that Google has the ability to hide a popular site from top search results will be the real takeaway from this episode.