The article that I want to talk about is Google Destroys Rap Genius’ Search Rankings as Punishment for SEO Spam, But Resolution in Progress which was posted on Christmas of 2013. I know that this is a pretty old article, but it is definitely still relevant. If you’ve never given much thought on how Google decides which sites are atop its search results, you’re not alone.
Before I delve into the article, I’d like to give some background on how the three major search engines, Google, Yahoo, and Bing, rank their search results. Each search engine has developed a unique algorithm for ranking websites. Search engines are answering machines. When people ask questions, the engine’s algorithm tries to determine the “relevance” and “importance” of each link on the internet compared to the search. Relevance is derived from hundreds of different factors. Importance is usually determined by popularity (most visited sites, pages or documents) and other similar factors. Search engines are constantly evolving their algorithms in an attempt to be the most accurate search engine around.
In June of 2014, Google Chrome “overtook Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as the most popular web browser in the U.S. for the first time, commanding 31.8 percent of the combined desktop and mobile internet market”(Christie, Daily Mail). I have been using Google Chrome since its beta release in December of 2009 and have not used any other browser since. Chrome automatically employs the Google search engine whenever a non-url address is typed into the address bar. This bypasses the need for Chrome users to go to Google.com in order to search. Search engines have a lot of control over displayed search results with their algorithms alone, but sometimes Google feels the need to further police traffic by changing their algorithm for specific sites. Rap genius was subject to the wrath of Google back in December of 2013.
Rap Genius, now known just as Genius, is a lyrics and text annotation site founded in 2009. “It lets users provide their own explanations for song lyrics, religious texts, legal documents, images, and more that other users see when they hover over snippets of text hosted on the site. The startup lept into the limelight when it received a massive $15 million investment led by Andreessen Horowitz in late 2012.” In December of 2013, Rap Genius was appearing at the top of most lyric search results performed by Google and a leader in the lyric site industry. After John Marbach, the founder of Glider, published Rap Genius’s attempted use of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics so Justin Bieber’s lyrics showed up higher on search results lists, Google decided to step in.
Google penalizes sites that use SEO tactics. In 2012, Google launched Google Penguin aimed at decreasing search engine rankings of sites using black-hat SEO tactics. After finding out about Rap Genius’ SEO scandal, Google promptly took action against the site. Rap Genius results weren’t appearing until the fifth page of search results. For a site the relies on people searching specific lines from songs, this is a kiss of death. Fortunately for Rap Genius, Google forgave them after they made reforms to their SEO techniques. However, it was an eye opening moment which revealed just how influential Google can be to a sites traffic. Rap Genius’s traffic went down 60% from 1,200,000 daily unique visits to 493,000.
Google feels like the dictator of the internet. They have shown their willingness to police web traffic and while in Rap Genius’ case it was for good reason, their policing could be used in other ways in the future. How often do they change their algorithm to lower the rankings of specific websites? If Google hadn’t “forgiven” Rap Genius they could have single handedly set back an organization by at least 60%. Let’s not forget that Rap Genius had 15-million dollars of support at their disposal and could not protect itself against the wrath of Google.
For now Google seems to be using its power to promote fairness and free speech.
Why do I feel so afraid of Google then?