Annotated lyrics website Rap Genius has been restored to its customary high ranking on Google's search engine, after a punishment for spammy marketing that saw it lose up to 80% of its daily traffic over Christmas.
The startup, backed by $16.8m of investment, built an audience of millions by crowdsourcing annotations for hip-hop tracks – not just publishing the lyrics, but also notes on their references and themes supplied by its community. It has also expanded into rock, poetry and news annotations.
Rap Genius was investigated by Google just before Christmas for its approach to search engine optimisation (SEO) after a blog post by entrepreneur John Marbach about an email he'd received from the company encouraging him to link to specific Justin Bieber lyrics on its site.
Such "growth hacking" was intended to boost Rap Genius' ranking in search results, but it's a tactic frowned upon by Google. The internet giant's response was speedy and severe, with Rap Genius demoted heavily in its search results, even for searches for its own name.
This graph from internet traffic-tracking service Quantcast shows the impact:
Quantcast's graph of Rap Genius' global traffic, including the recent drop. Quantcast's graph of Rap Genius' global traffic, including the recent drop.
In an open letter published in late December, Rap Genius' founders admitted they had "messed up" with their SEO strategy, although not without suggesting that rival lyrics websites were "almost definitely doing worse stuff".
A week on, and another blog post confirmed that the site's search ranking had been at least partially restored. "We owe a big thanks to Google for being fair and transparent and allowing us back onto their results pages. We overstepped, and we deserved to get smacked," wrote the founders, admitting that recent elements of their online promotion had been "more or less totally 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."
The blog post goes into depth about how Rap Genius clawed its way back into Google's good books, getting other websites to remove "unnatural" links to the site, before apologising again to Google and fans "for being such morons".
Are Rap Genius' problems over now that its search ranking has been restored? Probably not. Look at that Quantcast graph again, and it suggests that traffic was on a gentle downward incline before Google's action. Hardly the desired growth curve for a much talked-about startup.
Rap Genius is releasing an iOS app this week, which could boost usage and attract new fans for what remains a fascinating website.
However, the company also has a few copyright issues to contend with, based on its publication of such a deep database of song lyrics. In November 2013, it was sent a takedown notice by the US National Music Publishers' Association (NMPA) for its lack of licensing deals with the body's members, who hold the rights to the lyrics.
This was part of a wider crackdown, with 49 other popular lyrics sites also sent notices. In its announcement of the action, the NMPA claimed that every day Google sees more than 5m searches for lyrics – a statistic that shows why music publishers are targeting commercial sites without licences, but also why Google's punishment for Rap Genius' SEO strategy had such an impact.
Rap Genius quickly announced that it had already signed a licensing deal with one major music publisher, Sony/ATV Music, with more on the way. Its beef with Google may be over for now, but a battle with rightsholders may be a longer-term challenge for Rap Genius, as it has been for other music startups in the past.