After discovering that RapGenius.com, a lyric website, had been using illegitimate SEO tactics to increase their ranking and traffic to the website Google seized the opportunity to turn a shady website into a warning for the internet as a whole. The story began with an invitation from Rap Genius to bloggers asking them to join a new program titled “Rap Genius Blog Affiliate”. This program promised links to blogs via the Rap Genius twitter account in exchange for those blogs including a set of links back to Rap Genius. This would, in theory, increase the traffic to blogs that were tweeted by the company and would increase the ranking of Rap Genius among web searches. Somewhat hilariously, Rap Genius requested that bloggers post specific links to pages related to Justin Bieber and his upcoming album in a way that would optimize their visibility as Justin Bieber fans worldwide searched for his lyrics. This program was made public by a blogger who was turned off by Rap Genius’s shady practices in a public post that quickly gained traction among the internet community. Google responded within twenty-four hours by dramatically downgrading the rank Rap Genius among searches Rap Genius relied on for virtually all it’s revenue. Imbedded below is a graph that shows the traffic to RapGenius.com before, during and after Google altered it’s position among search results.
Rap Genius, which previously appeared near the top of many internet searches for popular song lyrics was removed from Google searches virtually overnight which was, ironically, Christmas of 2013. In fact, the site did not even appear when searching for the terms “Rap Genius” until the sixth page. In an age where the average attention span is shorter than a video on Vine (7 seconds for the unfamiliar), internet users rarely continue past the first page of a Google search which I imagine is especially likely when searching for something as generic as lyrics to a song. Without incoming clicks from Google search, the web traffic and associated revenue would be nonexistent and Rap Genius as a business would surely cease to exist. Rap Genius remained exiled from the top of Google search results for 10 days before the search engine loosened it’s grip and allowed the lyric site to reclaim it’s position.
In the end, this scenario has absolutely nothing to do with the Rap Genius as a website or their attempts to exploit Google’s search algorithms because engine optimization is hardly a new practice. On the surface, Google’s actions appear as an effort to maintain the integrity and validity of their search results but I believe their true motivation might be less clear. Rap Genius singled out and punished in a way that was very harsh and very public as an effort by Google to alert and draw attention to the reality of their increasing control over information and it’s visibility to the internet as a whole. Google has an unbelievable ability to promote or restrict an average person’s access to information and the effect cannot be underestimated. They will likely continue to dominate the web search industry in the future but as the company expands their reach (i.e. Android OS, autonomous vehicles, Nest smart thermometer) their relative power will continue to grow exponentially. I’m not a Google hater in any way, I actually respect the company and their innovations that will continue have a profound effect on human existence. When I search Google for lyrics to that Justin Bieber song I heard on the radio the top results should not be assigned to companies like Rap Genius, that improve their ranking illegitimately but I think the way Google used their power so quickly and mercilessly implies that they are ready, willing and able to do it again in the future.