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Deeper Than Rap: Beyond Google’s Smackdown of Rap Genius

The distinguished gentlemen of Rap Genius

For spoiled modern tykes, Christmas-morning coal amounts to little more than an empty threat, but the naughty boys behind four-year-old hip-hop lyrics hub Rap Genius woke up this past Wednesday to something far more upsetting: a punitive move by Google that sent their site to the craggy bottom of paginated results listings on the only search engine that truly matters anymore.

Google discovered that the controversial, privately financed domain had engaged in a link-exchange scheme meant to artificially boost its rankings in searches related to the new Justin Bieber record. Google struck back by burying all pages on the Rap Genius domain, including its homepage, far deeper than any reasonable user would bother dredging. Try to Google the lyrics to Drake’s “Trophies” and you won’t come across an RG link until at least page five, which in today’s competitive online landscape might as well be page five thousand. Since then, the site’s daily traffic has sunk to levels not seen since the summer of 2012, according to Quantcast, a leader in online-audience measurement. In recent days, the site has garnered between 265,000 and 310,000 unique visitors per day, a pale comparison to the rest of December, during which it regularly topped 1.3 million.

This was no mere act of Google Grinchery. Rap Genius unquestionably violated the posted Webmaster Guidelines — specifically the section that discourages dubious link exchanges — and once caught, called out, and penalized, founders Tom Lehman, Mahbod Moghadam, and Ilan Zechory copped to it in fairly plain language via an open letter, particularly fitting given several other music websites’ recent appropriation of the format. “We effed up,” the trio admit right at the very top, “and we’ll stop.” (True to form, the letter was annotated and remains open to community annotation, leaving it prone to further discussion, as well as abuse.)

In a way, the Internet takes the closest thing it can to a vacation this time of year. Media sites in particular slow down their publishing or supplant the gaps with reposted “Best Of” content. Essentially, the understanding is that readership and the traffic it brings lessen as people return home for the holidays to visit their relatives en masse. Fewer writers and experts, then, would likely be reporting on the story to highlight its importance beyond online schadenfreude. Accordingly, Rap Genius would likely have seen a natural, explainable dip in their metrics anyway, albeit nothing this dramatic. Were Rap Genius beholden to advertising like the bulk of lyrics websites, Google’s power move might have had a deeper impact.

It’s important not to trivialize what happened here as some “smackdown” or to take a narrow view of the story, especially when many might analyze it further are otherwise occupied with not strangling their family members with leftover tinsel. Since garnering a $15-million investment from Silicon Valley venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz, a not insignificant amount of the media narrative surrounding Rap Genius has ranged from skepticism to full-on negativity, an image problem that its founders have fostered more often than not. From threatening to sexually assault a SPIN editor orally to posting absurd job listings on Craigslist and dressing outlandishly for interviews, the brain trust has not done itself any favors. In a sense, the bad behavior has become expected, tolerated, and in some circles accepted, particularly by the business press.

Clearly, someone believes in Rap Genius. The much-ballyhooed investment assuredly stems from more than investor Ben Horowitz’s expressed love of hip-hop, which he reinforces with selected rap lyrics atop each post on his blog and in his upcoming contribution to the Business Self-Help bookshelf, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Both he and partner Marc Andreessen maintain Rap Genius accounts, but rest assured they’re not wasting time annotating Soulja Boy lyrics. The duo evidently sees a profitable future in this self-described “knowledge project,” one far broader than any number of music genres. Yet as sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy have proven this year, new business models are emerging, and the benchmarks of success have changed with them. It is in Rap Genius’ best interest to be a defining part of the new normal rather than another faddish dot-com footnote. As Wikipedia and the explosion of “wikis” have revealed, annotating the web has immense value even if a viable, sustainable monetization model has yet to emerge, and Rap Genius (ahem, the Genius Media Group) certainly desires to play a vital role in developing that model.

You already can see this taking shape on the site. Those familiar with Rock Genius, at present a catch-all for both indie and pop, likely haven’t traversed Poetry Genius, which despite its narrow moniker intends to encompass all things literary, from Auden poems to the references behind Breaking Bad episode titles. Though ostensibly a zone for breaking news, News Genius has turned into a repository for declassified State Department memos and political stump-speech transcripts, as well as messages from CEOs to their shareholders. Sub-branches are in the works for a variety of disparate fields, from fashion and sports to law and science. All either currently operate as Rap Genius subdomains or intend to once active, a strategic choice to expand the prominence of the larger domain. There’s even an enterprise model planned, which if implemented could change the way companies internally share documents and information much like wikis already. In light of all this, earnest arguments about the site’s cultural appropriation of hip-hop seem almost quaint. The Genius Media Group aspires to be something much grander, which a ubiquitous, seemingly omnipresent tech and information giant like Google no doubt recognizes. After all, Amazon used to be a place that just sold books.

For now, however, lyrics still remain the key gateway and, accordingly, the well-funded Rap Genius responds to credible threats with agility and trademark swagger. Back in November, when the National Music Publishers Association sent takedown notices to some 50 lyrics websites, it took only a few days for Rap Genius to announce that it had secured a licensing agreement with industry heavyweight Sony/ATV Music Publishing, with more such deals on the way. In doing so, the company helped insulate itself against the sort of litigation bound to do more damage to the current advertising-led business of posting song lyrics online than any temporary Google punishment. It’s an audacious strategy, running afoul of the respective industries that Rap Genius straddles until the site is directly challenged. But their apparent willingness to promptly play ball once challenged suggests a shrewd pragmatism not expected from a bunch of hip-hop-loving millennials.

That wrong-headed underestimation of Rap Genius allows it a tremendous leeway. Those who read beyond the “tl;dr” note at the top of the aforementioned open letter — one notably devoid of words like “apologize” or “sorry” — know that the founders used the opportunity to put a number of competing lyrics sites on blast, courtesy an infographic grid with wizard hats and smirking question marks. The founders singled out seven other sites, recognizable to just about anyone who’s searched for lyrics online, alleging more egregious violations of the Webmaster Guidelines, from excessive link exchanges to outright paying for links.

If anything, the defensive non-apology served as a volley back at Google, a public notice that singling out Rap Genius can have consequences in both directions. If sites like AZLyrics, Metrolyrics, and Sing365 are actively engaging in gaming Google in illicit ways, surely the search giant has an obligation to police those sites as well. Failure to do so will give Rap Genius an upper hand at some stage, at least from a PR standpoint, should this search suppression go on for too long. At present, there’s no clearly defined end date to Google’s search-results embargo, and it’s not unreasonable for the two companies to be seen as likely competitors in the annotation realm at some point in the near future.

Link schemes aside, with its record of permissible and enviable growth hacking and SEO, Rap Genius can survive a setback like this in ways the lyrics site status quo might not. A leveling of the playing field might just bury the competition, or weaken it to the point where an industry-compliant site could claim even greater market share. Turning a lump of coal into a diamond? Now that’s gangsta.