Black Hat SEO: The Rap Genius Case

James Rehwald
, Marketing Director

Rap Genius Black Hat SEO

Ever Google search the lyrics to a song?  Maybe you’ve done it a lot.  I know I have.

After a while, you’ll notice the same popular websites:,,, and countless others.

Effective “white hat” SEO (search engine optimization) and domain maturity have helped these sites hold onto the first page of Google’s SERP (search engine results page) for popular song lyrics search queries up until today.

If you listen to hip-hop especially, you’ve probably seen (now near the top of the search results—pretty much always.

It’s usually the #1 result.


What Went Wrong?

Founded in 2009, Rap Genius grew to be a great source for annotating and learning the meaning of hip-hop, pop, R&B, and other popular music lyrics.  Website members could add in annotations to phrases/words of lyrics that other users could then hover over, displaying a pop-up with an (usually) insightful lyrical analysis.  The song artists themselves can even annotate their own lyrics.

It’s a pretty neat site for anyone who cares about music lyrics.  Check out the Madvillian song below:

Black Hat SEO, MF DOOM Genius

Rap Genius gained a foothold in the song-lyrics website sector of the internet after some time but got serious attention after Andreessen Horowitz’s $15 million investment in 2012.

Everything was going great for—it was the leading lyrical website platform with increasing unique user traffic, a growing member base, and revenue-producing PPC ads.

They were on top.

That all changed in late 2013 when their black hat SEO tricks were revealed to the public by which Google soon after took notice and announced they were investigating the issue.

Rap Genius in response, posted an open letter which detailed how they felt they were conducting white hat SEO techniques and pointed to the other lyrical website competitors as needing to be investigated as well, implying their alleged use of black hat SEO.

This “apology” did not appear to do any good for the website, as they were penalized by Google.  Badly.  I mean, really badly.

Not only did they get bumped down from the #1 result on the first page to the fifth page for popular “[song name] lyrics” search queries, but they also ranked on the sixth page for a search query on their own brand name, “Rap Genius.”

Ouch.  Harsh much, Google?

Maybe not.

old Rap Genius logo, Black Hat SEO


So Which Black Hat SEO Tactics Did They Use?

If you don’t know what black hat SEO and white hat SEO mean, here’s a simple explanation:

- White hat SEO tactics are allowed and encouraged by Google.
- Black hat SEO tactics are frowned upon by Google and can cause your website's search rank to be penalized.

Rap Genius made the shady mistake of asking big bloggers to paste in backlinks to’s new pages analyzing lyrics to Justin Bieber’s then-newest album.  Many would consider this manipulative black hat SEO tactic as link scheming.

They did this by first announcing via Facebook that users who run blogs should email them to become a “Rap Genius Blog Affiliate.”

Black Hat SEO Rap Genius Facebook post

Heavy-traffic bloggers who emailed Rap Genius received an email response with explicit instructions asking them to paste in some HTML code into the bottom of their blog post.  This HTML code used hyperlink anchor texts of Justin Bieber’s new song titles, which all redirected to RapGenius’s webpages.  In exchange, Rap Genius would Tweet out their blog posts to its large online following, giving the bloggers more views.

Backlinks for Tweets.

What was the intended purpose for Rap Genius?

The purpose was that Google’s search algorithm would recognize the several links to’s webpages, indicating that the website must be a valuable place for Justin Bieber fans to learn/understand his lyrics.

With the heavy search traffic coming from Bieber’s newly released songs, backed with copious backlinks from various big bloggers, RapGenius would benefit from a Google search rank boost.

See full-sized image of email here.

link scheme, Black Hat SEO, Rap Genius email

It fooled the Google algorithm into thinking that large amounts of users were genuinely interested in RapGenius.

This was a black hat SEO big no-no, and once Google found out, it put its foot down.

RapGenius was penalized heavily but sooner than later, the New York-based company led by the three founders Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory, started to work things out with Google Inc.

What seemed to be the doomful ending, became just a warning.

Google put RapGenius back at the top of the search results, just over a week later.  Seems that Google had a heart after all.  Google saw the value RapGenius brings to music fans and lyric examiners alike.

While smaller websites that aren’t as under the radar might get away with some black hat SEO tactics, it is best not to practice them…ever.  Besides, we live in a post-Penguin world where receiving several backlinks from unrelated websites is an indicator of spam, rather than authenticity.

The case of serves as an example.


Need a website that practices good, clean, effective white hat SEO tactics?  We’ve been doing this for years.  Contact us today to see how we can help your website.


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