Rap Genius, spam links, and the dangers of not giving a fuck
[Disclosure: Andreessen Horowitz is an investor in Rap Genius, and Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen, Jeff Jordan, and Chris Dixon are personal investors in Pando]
Two days ago, it was revealed that the rap lyrics annotation site Rap Genius has been participating in SEO tactics many consider to be shady in order to boost its Google search rankings. In an email, cofounder Mahbod Moghadam offered to tweet out a third party blog post (as part of its "Rap Genius Blog Affiliate" program) as long as the blogger embedded links to Rap Genius' Justin Bieber lyric pages. By proliferating more inbound links to those pages, Google search crawlers would rank that page higher in search results.
Don't take my word for it. In the email, Moghadam, with zero self-awareness, offers a defense of this brand of Internet skulduggery, which exploits both social and search:
Yooo waddup! Here is how it works: If you have a dope post that you would like us to tweet out - get you MASSIVE traffic - then put this html (below) at the bottom of the post and send me the URL along with the EXACT text you want tweeted. I will send that shit out and it will bloooowwwww up!This is an affront to the integrity of Google's search algorithm, made worse by Moghadam's flippant attitude. In response, Google has punished Rap Genius by obliterating its standing in search results. Google "Rap Genius" and the site doesn't show up on the first few pages. It's a harsh penalty.
Rap Genius says it's working with Google to get back in the search engine's good graces. The irony, however, is that Rap Genius says its so-called "Blog Affiliate" program is a small part of its SEO strategy, and I believe them. The real thing driving Rap Genius' Google juice is that, due to the site's annotation model, each line of each rap song has its own page. This not only maximizes the site's presence on search engines, it also increases the likelihood that if a person searches for an individual rap line, Rap Genius will be the top result.
Is this gaming the system? Not really. It's a natural result of the site's functionality so Google's never complained. But this time, it was a cofounder's cavalier willingness to exploit old school SEO tricks that got it in hot water.
It's a shame too because Rap Genius has a nice product. Unlike other lyric sites, Rap Genius doesn't shove pop-up ads in your face. In addition, without the barrage of advertisements, the site loads much more quickly than an average lyric site. The community element and the annotations, while sometimes problematic, add depth to what's usually a strictly utilitarian genre of Internet content. And now that lyric sites have come under fire for alleged copyright infringement, Rap Genius is one of the only sites that might be safe; their lyrics contain commentary and thus might be considered "fair use." Even if the "fair use" distinction doesn't hold up in court, Rap Genius has struck a licensing deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, and cofounder Tom Lehman says more deals could be on the way.
Great technology. Great business. Over $15 million in venture funding. Rap Genius has a lot going for it, but it keeps shooting itself in the foot with these needless PR nightmares. There was the infamous mouth-rape tweet. The time Moghadam told Warren Buffett to suck his dick. And a site that already gets criticism for being "white devil sophistry" isn't doing itself any favors when it casually appropriates hip hop vernacular in emails.
Simply put: Rap Genius needs to take a page from the cautionary tale of Andrew Mason and grow up. Its founders may entertain the press, but there's a lot more to building a lasting business.
Stars like Kanye West, whose product is largely his personality, can benefit from controversial press. But even though we live in a world where rock stars wants to be entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs want to be rock stars, Rap Genius is proof that as a startup it's better to keep your head down and focus on building a great business than court needless controversy.
Rap Genius doesn't need spammy inbound links any more than it needs its founders to spout boneheaded statements to the press.
As they continually refuse to learn this lesson the stakes are getting higher. It's not merely bad publicity this time. They've lost their greatest asset which they had mostly come by honestly: searchability.