What We Can Learn From Google’s Tanking (And Un-Tanking) of RapGenius.com

As anyone who has run afoul of Google in the past will tell you, it is no picnic. When SEO agency iAcquire was accused of buying links for client Dun & Bradstreet, Google de-indexed the site altogether. During the Panda and Penguin algorithm updates, small business owners and SEO professionals reported traffic drops of 40 to 90 percent.

This Christmas, lyrics site RapGenius.com, got placed on Google’s Naughty List and their lump of coal included a targeted rank penalty, putting the site on the 5th or 6th page for their own name!

RapGenius.com reportedly violated Google’s terms of use by creating an uncomplicated tweets-for-links scheme that involved trading promotional tweets for anchor text links from blogs and other content creators.

One blogger, John Marbach, responded via email to a Rap Genius Facebook post.

The reply: RapGenius asked him to post links to Justin Bieber song lyrics at the bottom of his blog in exchange for promotional tweets. Marbach famously outed RapGenius in a blog post on December 23rd.

News of the post reached Google’s head of Web Spam, Matt Cutts, and after a brief investigation, Rap Genius was heavily penalized. See their web traffic below:


What exactly, did RG do wrong? 

In the world of search engines, links are like votes. Google uses links to determine how many reputable sites are voting for your domain. Attempts to game the system are rampant, and Google is aggressively trying to end them by any means necessary.

Rap Genius founders have since released a blog post saying “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.” RG didn’t stop there. According to the Washington Post, the company crawled 178,000 pages that link to RapGenius.com in a hunt for spammy practices.

As many bloggers have suggested, Google can’t catch all the violators, so they often make an example of high-profile sites with a loud, but non-permanent, slap on the wrist. As journalist Ian Lurie points out, Rap Genius’ competition is cheating all over the place.

So, what can business owners and marketing executives learn from this? A lesson in link building strategies. 

Here are our 5 favorite white-hat link-building strategies:

  1. Case Studies: While you can’t just link up all the sites in your own business network and expect to rank better, you can build case studies showing your success with a certain product or service. If you sell widgets and you write a case study about a successful widget sales strategy, Widgets.com is sure to link back to it. Send them a note and ask for their vote.
  2. Conduct a Free Webinar: People love experts sharing secrets. Find your topic and host a webinar or instructional video of you talking about it and ask your attendees to share it.
  3. Harness the Power of your Vendor Network: Do you have vendors that you buy from or TV stations you advertise on? See if they have a vendor directory or, better yet, ask them if they will take press releases or other company announcements. 
  4. Ask For Reviews: By providing incentives to your customers to give you reviews on Google Plus, Yelp or elsewhere, you create quality link signals that Google uses as ranking factors. Better yet, send out announcements of new products or services to blogs and industry publications. Provide access and help them write a positive story on you.
  5. Search for Brand Mentions: Did you have a successful product launch 2 years ago that got you a lot of press? Or maybe you did some quality link building and then transitioned to a new domain name. Whatever the reason, your brand mentions and links may be outdated. Monitor your mentions and follow up with content producers to see if they can update these links for you. You can also try social listening to see if any big websites or bloggers mention you on social media.

Here are a few schemes Google is on the lookout for:

  1. Link Exchanges: As an SEO manager at a big agency or a small business owner, it may seem like a good idea to link all your sites together, passing link juice back and forth. But this leaves a very noticeable pattern that Google can detect and often penalizes for.
  2. Microsite Creation: Before Google started cracking down on link schemes, it was a popular practice for companies to create thousands of microsites, all back-linking to the main site, using exact-match domains to drive relevant backlinks. This has been famously discovered as spam and will get you caught every time.
  3. Paid Advertising Links: Feel free to buy ads and promotional links on any site you want. But if those links are not labeled as sponsored links and are passing page rank (ie not using a “nofollow” attribute), they are in violation of Google’s terms. Instead of having these ad links placed yourself, it is safer to use a service of some kind.
  4. Excessive Linking: If you add 500 links in a month, you may show up on Google’s radar. One high-quality link can have more impact than 50-100 low-quality links.
  5. Blog Networks and Link Networks: Google’s latest hunt is for blog networks and link networks selling and trading links for SEO purposes. Back in September, Google took down Ghost Rank 2.0 for brazenly advertising all the ways it filters and prevents its networks from being detected. AngloRank is the latest victim. In December, Matt Cutts tweeted:

AngloRank has since been penalized. REMEMBER: Google is a private company offering a service that it owns and controls. If it thinks that a link or blog network is not in the best interest of its users, it is not above rankings to prove a point.

This is what got Rap Genius in trouble. There is some room for creativity when it comes to acquiring links. But if the practice is impacting the user experience of your site content and you are brazenly promoting schemes that violate their terms, you may find yourself suffering a similar fate.

Want more SEO do’s and don’ts? Download this free eBook to learn the common SEO tactics to may be costing you traffic and leads, as well as actionable strategies to improve your current SEO campaigns.

All the best,

John Steele

John Steele is an Inbound Marketing Consultant at Stream Companies, a Philadelphia area advertising agency.