Rap Genius SEO Redemption – The Blueprint II

Rap Genius is hurting. Tom Harari, Director of Strategy, explores how they fell so far and what he’d do to help them reclaim the throne.

I’ll Show You How To Do This, Son.

What a change a year makes. One year ago no one knew who Edward Snowden was. A year ago Hummingbird was just a bird. And a year ago I published my first post on the SEOmoz (Moz) Blog entitled How I Would Do SEO for Rap Genius.

At the time Rap Genius was getting press for the stunning $15 million funding they raised from Andreesen Horowitz. I’d heard of them through a friend and was getting more and more into reading lyrics of my favorite rap songs and their meanings which I’ll admit had often eluded me. Having a crowdsourced platform to annotate song lyrics was truly genius and the boys from Yale have seen much success in the growth of their site since.

Unfortunately, whether it be due to the very real growth pressures from their VC-backers, or a hubris from balling so hard for some time, Rap Genius has had a pretty rough Christmas when Google decided to lay a beating on their rankings after a concerned member of the internet community decided to blog about how he was approached by RG in a not-so-elaborate links for tweets scheme. The story ultimately reached the Hacker News community and Matt Cutts.

While many have been quick to jump in on either side of the debate, I think Danny Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief of Search Engine Land probably said it best:

Of course he was referring to the ever-changing rules of the game where you can never truly feel safe with any given tactic today, lest it be deemed an act of aggression against the search giant’s outdated beloved algorithm tomorrow.

Indeed many of us have have learned the hard way that paying for links is something that Big G’ takes very seriously and will not tolerate any deviance in that respect. According to Google’s evolutionary link schemes manual:

Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.

In Rap Genius’ case they offered fans and followers a chance to get some love on Twitter through a shout-out linking to that fan’s blog. Since Twitter links are nofollow anyway, those links are purely for the traffic spike that would come from getting Rap Genius to tweet your site.

How do you get that shout-out? Link to Rap Genius’ Justin Bieber lyrics page with exact-match anchor texts such as “Justin Bieber Heartbreaker Lyrics.” Oy.

Examining Google’s guidelines and reading between the lines, I would say that “exchanging goods or services for links” is a very vague line that can be interpreted many ways from literal to interpretive.

Still, I’m not entirely sure the WHAT was the issue, rather the HOW.

What RG did wasn’t technically wrong in my opinion, and yet it wasn’t very smart either.

For starters milking every fanboy that was willing to link to them in exchange for a tweet by slapping them with 5+ exact-match anchor text links, to just Justin Bieber songs no less, is a bit much.

Actually, it’s pretty greedy. It’s Chazzer, Frank.

And yet, the way the whole thing went down was a bit suspect. From a blog post that went big on Hacker News, to Matt Cutts’ ominous comment of death.

And then an apology before any action had been taken:

“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.”

Yeah, they took a closer look alright..

But you know what? Rap Genius isn’t special. They aren’t even the first to get publicly bitch-slapped by Google for naughty linking behavior. Nope, JCP came way before them. So did Overstock.com. And iAcquire was even out of the index for a brief period of time.

Jay Z said it best, you learn more in failure than you ever do in success. If you’ve never seen iAcquire’s 2012 recap video I highly suggest you take some time to watch it in its entirety to get a sense of how much work was put into reviving our brand after all seemed lost:

You really don’t know success until you’ve failed and you certainly don’t know SEO until you’ve burned a site to the ground. There, I said it.

So without further ado…

How I Would Do SEO for Rap Genius… Volume 2 – 2013 2014 Edition


Where Are We?

Link Penalty aside (I believe this is more of a saving-face for Google to publicly flex its muscles and show that even a company it invests in isn’t off-limits), what does RG need to do to make up ground between it and its competitors?

The lyrics space is obviously incredibly competitive with lots of shady actors. Rap Genius gets linked to all the time yet when we look at referring domains using Majestic SEO in comparison to their 2 biggest competitors we see what a landslide it is.

938 referring domains compared to 89,390? 101,834? Clearly the competitors benefit from being around since the dawn of the internet, yet I still am not sure who would naturally link to azlyrics.com – in other words it is clear that a large portion of their competitors backlink profiles are low quality.

And if RG is going to get dinged for requesting specific anchor text links from their fans in exchange for tweets, let’s try another route.

Free Weezy


With 529k Facebook fans and 135k Twitter followers, I say it’s time to pull a FREE RAPGENIUS campaign by getting people to post badges on their blogs linking back to RG in support of fans of a brand linking to that brand however they want to and of their own free will.

We keep forgetting one thing when scorching these guys – they have an actual brand that people love. Many have argued that Google’s search results are now less quality with no Rap Genius results ranking. People love Rap Genius.

Badges?! Isn’t that too risky? Not if you switch up the link destination and ALT attribute randomly using Javascript magic.

Actually it would be pretty easy to milk it for even more than just links.

Start a campaign to get a petition going and send out t-shirts with FREE RAPGENIUS to people who sign the petition. The continued press mentions and links would double down on the publicity this Google-slap has garnered thus far.

They Don’t Do It Like My Clique

This is one of the biggest treasure troves a lyrics site could ever hope to achieve. Screw crowdsourcing, this is ballersourcing as Mahbod likes to call it. Actual artists who go in to the site, create a profile, and annotate their own lyrics explaining the meanings. Sometimes they even create video explanations!

So why are these artists not being asked to link to Rap Genius? They have much higher Domain Authority websites than any weird link exchange site AZlyrics.com might be hooked up with.


Another way to get loads of relevant links is to just reach out to fashion, music, and art bloggers.

There are so many middle of the road bloggers, who can only dream of being like Vibe or TechCrunch. But they blog consistently, about music, have decent to high Domain Authority sites, and would be ecstatic to get in touch with Rap Genius and write up album reviews.

These can be easy to find with easy search operators like “justin bieber album review” and going to Page 6 of Google and beyond. All the middle of the road blogs live out there.

Way easier to get these links as opposed to pitching snobby journalists at Rolling Stone.

No need to offer anything in exchange either. Most of these sites would love to include a link to a lyrics page that has tons of annotations and explanations, rich content, and potentially explanations by the artist in question.

Forget being greedy, just get a link, partial-match whatever, and move on to the next one.

Picasso, Baby

The picture above is a sorry excuse for visualizing the difference between RG and their competitors as far as linking behaviors go? I think?

Weird 1999 Powerpoint Clip-Art aside, Rap Genius does have loads of data at its arsenal. And while it has done cool stuff like the rap map, it needs to do more stuff like that.

Truly awesome content is by far the most scalable way to get links.

The Magnificent Map of Rap Names got 364 links and over 2,100 FB shares/likes with about 120 tweets and +1s a piece. This could have easily been created by RG instead of Pop Chart Lab.

And that’s really the biggest point that Rap Genius seems to have learned from all of this (hopefully) – nothing beats focusing on creating an amazing product and remarkable experience. AZlyrics.com and Metrolyrics.com have been around forever and will not dominate forever. Google may even decide to enter the space and show lyrics themselves directly.

The only thing you can absolutely control is the experience users feel when they come to your site, and no one can take that away.

What do you say? Is all lost for Rap Genius? How would you attack their scenario if you were in their shoes?

responses to “Rap Genius SEO Redemption – The Blueprint II”

  1. Thanks so much Tom! As I said on Twitter, the fact that you wrote a “how I would…” for them over a year ago was so fascinating to me.

    One observation: I think your blueprint is fine the way it is, but why did you not include recovery efforts since that seems to be the most acute need at the present time?

    • tharari says:

      Thanks Patrick! I appreciate it the love as always. As for recovery efforts, like I said above “I believe this is more of a publicity stunt for Google to flex its muscles and show that even a company it invests in isn’t off-limits”.

      I don’t think they did anything horribly wrong that wouldn’t be easy to remove (just contact same folks who agreed to the tweet-for-links scheme). I also think it is going to be temporary regardless of any “recovery effort” because Google and VC-money.

      Lastly, there are so many Penguin & manual-action recovery posts out there that this would get pretty boring to write and read if I spelled it all out again. Better to focus on the positives of building something.

  2. Excellent work, Tom. You’re recommendations are excellent, however slightly out-ranked by your spot-on hip hop references. The point made about artists linking makes complete sense if the artists, or labels, or ANY hip hop site for that matter had an idea about SEO. Sure, “hip hop twitter” is talking about this because its relevant — but 90% of them don’t practice any SEO practices, yet white hat ones.

    I’m sure this won’t wake up the labels (of any genre) to the importance of SEO for their sites, but atleast it gets some discussion going.

    • tharari says:

      Thanks Evan! I agree they aren’t easy to deal with but you get the process started by talking to right channels, like the artists’ publicists who probably have a say in the website of the artist.

  3. Jake says:

    Best feedback on RGgate so far, thank you!

  4. […] make my point you only have to read the post on iAcquire with regards to how they would solve the RapGenius problem (once they have recovered of […]

  5. Ankur Sethi says:

    “No need to offer anything in exchange either. Most of these sites would love to include a link to a lyrics page that has tons of annotations and explanations, rich content, and potentially explanations by the artist in question.”

    Bloggers would do this out of the goodness of their heart? I am not convinced.

    • tharari says:

      Thanks for your comment – it’s actually a lot easier than you think when you’re representing a known brand.

  6. […] Rap Genius SEO Redemption – The Blueprint II […]

  7. Kane Jamison says:

    “Not if you switch up the link destination and ALT attribute randomly using Javascript magic.”

    Good rundown overall, but if I had just been hit with a very public manual penalty, I wouldn’t touch a widget campaign with dynamic ALT text and URL destination. I think “Free Rap Genius” badges with multiple URL destinations and any ALT text other than “Rap Genius” or “Free Rap Genius” would probably look pretty manipulative. I like the badge route, but I’d play it safe and stick with branded anchor text to the homepage or to a /free-rap-genius/ page.

    • tharari says:

      Kane thank you for bringing this up because I think it’s an important distinction I should have made in the post (and I’ve gotten some flack for it). The point was not to trick anyone but rather avoid another scenario where links are built to 1 destination with 1 anchor. And, YES, absolutely it should be branded anchors and should reflect the #freerapgenius campaign. There’s nothing about the JS code that dynamically changes anything on the linker’s site, rather it just gives potential linkers a different code each time they want to grab an embed code as a way to protect RG. I should have been clearer that my intention was not to suggest it as a way to build Keyword-rich anchors to lyrics pages but rather to continue to build links to the site to help overall DA grow while they remain out of the index. Thanks for addressing it here!

      • Kane Jamison says:

        Hey Tom, that’s fair, I didn’t think you were suggesting anything with exact/partial match anchors.

        What I really meant to hit on with my comment is that I believe that 1 destination URL with 1 alt or anchor is better (as long as the alt/anchor is branded). Dynamically swapping URLs or anchors within embed codes seems more manipulative to me than simply picking one thing, so it’s not protecting them IMO.

        2-3 years ago I would have been all for it, but post-Penguin I think it looks too much like controlling anchor text. The easy counterpoint to my opinion, of course, is that no matter what alt/anchor is specified you’re still specifying anchor text.

        When the topic is a branded term, such as “Rap Genius” or “#freerapgenius”, I have no problem building tons of links with identical anchor text to the same page. I think the Penguin portion of the algo can discern the difference between Owned/Branded/Proprietary keywords and non-branded commercial keywords in a number of ways, and they would have had to build that safeguard into any portion of the algo that penalizes based upon lots of identical anchors to the same URL.

        Anyways, most of the above is my opinion and not necessarily fact, so it’s definitely up for debate. With such a high profile case, however, I think 1 URL/1 anchor is the less risky approach.

  8. […] by the search engine giant Google. In case you haven’t, consider finding out more either on iAcquire, Hackers News or Reddit. It is the hot topic of the week so there will be plenty of information and […]

  9. Spook SEO says:

    Tom , it is such a great way of writing the in-depth about the case study of the Rap Genius . I have seen too many posts on this one at the time of last Charismas they were hit by a Google update and they recover it very quickly and very rapidly but this post is really describing the whole scenario of what happen and how it happens is a such great piece of writing and I really love to read this post.

  10. Spook SEO says:

    Tom Harari that was the worst time for the rap genius but the way they respond was really awesome and that was a good case study how you can overcome the things became worse. I really appreciate their work after that penalty and they came back with a very quick and effective way.