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Rap Genius: Suicide by SEO

Yo dog! Rap Genius was founded by Yale graduates. It’s hard to get into Yale, got to be real smart, and then Yale makes you smarter. It’s also hard to score fifteen million dollars for your website. You need to appear to know what you’re doing.

So, these Yale and Stamford grads made something innovative enough to attract fifteen million dollars in venture capital, a large audience, and a very good foothold in Google search rankings, the kind from which you and your pals can use to make a cozy living. Recently they, or one of them acting alone, embarked on a “Rap Genius blog affiliate” program in which they offered bloggers tweets to Rap Genius’s 70K Twitter followers in exchange for the bloggers lacing their sites with a bunch of links to Justin Bieber pages on Rap Genius’s website in an attempt to trick Google into thinking that Rap Genius is a better destination than their competition for lyric-searchers given that all these sites are linking to them (to grab more traffic, a tactic that has grown less effective in the past few decades).

Google Search, on which Rap Genius depends, makes a strong effort with the brightest geniuses of their own to see through and deter these tricks so that when you google something you get back from Google links to sites with the content most relevant to your search query, not the sites that engaged in activities like link farming and what Rap Genius did. Google is very good at this, and they are not afraid to be harsh. Usually this is performed automatically with their ever-evolving secret algorithms that try to spot this activity, though because it is hard to distinguish people gaming the system from people who have popular websites that naturally attract external links, sometimes they react manually, and sometimes they take opportunities to make examples out of companies.

Such was the predictable case with Rap Genius which Google destroyed on search results, burying even searches for “rap genius” sixty spots back, making the majority of their traffic vanish, reminding both Rap Genius and the web at large to avoid flying close to the sun. Google has done this before, including to the likes of BMW and JCPenney. In the traffic game, of things you shouldn’t do if you want Google to treat you favorably, anyone with a website and/or common sense, or Yale graduates with fifteen million in venture capital funding for their tech company, with programmers and other smart people working for them, should know very well that the activity in the following screenshots is going to severely and undoubtedly hurt their business and reputation for a long time:

This has already been widely-reported, but I’m here to float the notion that this Mahbod Moghadam fellow, who is smarter than he acts, did this intentionally, that either consciously or subconsciously this was sabotage.

Maybe he didn’t like his partners, maybe he was growing tired of acting like a buffoon, maybe he didn’t like the limelight. No one’s sure why but Michelangelo destroyed many of his own paintings on which he worked quite hard to perfect, but it was a decision made in one state of mind or another, not a result of a failure to understand how fire works. Some people who stumble into success suddenly lose their mental footing or feel ashamed or guilty and self-destruct to alleviate those irrational feelings. Maybe he had delusions of invisibility and figured Google would tolerate this activity because his websites are just that good.

Those sorts of explanations may sound crazy, but to me, that he did this intentionally seems less crazy than, given his background, that he had no idea this would provoke Google, resulting in a tremendous backfire on him, his partners, the guy with the money and everyone else involved with the site. Just in time for Christmas. Maybe they hired an incompetent SEO company like JCPenney did, but that would have been equally as stupid.

I suppose it’s not impossible that he foresaw the attention this would draw and figured it could eventually pay off once Google turns the lights back on, which could take weeks or months (during which time their revenue, mood, reputation and general momentum will dissipate) — but I doubt it.

Doug Simmons