So what did they do wrong? and what affect did it have?
First the affect
According to Quantcast.com unique visitors to rapgenius.com plummeted from somewhere north of one million a day to about 200k. Quantcast is almost always the first of the audience measurement sites to show a change in traffic totals. Other sites like Alexa.com and Compete.com should start showing similar information in the next week or so.
It is a huge drop in traffic and it highlights what happen when you don’t abide by Google’s webmaster guidelines. What we are seeing here is a Google manual penalty. Although we don’t often here about them, they are not all that rare. Hundreds (rumour : possibly thousands) of sites get hit by a manual penalty every day.
This differs from Google’s standard algorithmic penalties in that a human being has had a look at the site and decided it needs to be slapped. Google is relying more and more on humans to help keep the garden patch clear of weeds. Only 5 years ago Google would have denied that humans had much involvement in penalizing sites. Google would prefer to automate everything but has been forced to realize that sometimes humans are still the best judges in certain cases.
So what was so abhorrent to Google about the way rapgenius.com operated?
Google wants to see a site grow “naturally”. By grow Google means they want to see it gather links in a natural manner. To add complexity to the situation, those links need to accrue a natural ratio of anchor text. So when Mahbod Moghadam asked for links with keyword rich anchor text he was subverting that natural growth. One thing that Google absolutely can’t stand is a site paying for a link. Whether that be with money or services, as is the case in this instance.
The sad thing about this is that rapgenius.com prior to the manual penalty was what people in the Search Engine Optimization industry would call a “brand” or “authority” site. Brand sites are typically treated differently in their respective niches. Often a brand sites internal power is enough to get a new page ranked high in Google. A great example would be Amazon.com. If Amazon wants to rank a new product all they typically need to do is set up a new page for the product and that page will hit page 1 at Google for the product name. There will be any number of sites out there that will have better information about the product but they don’t have the authority that Amazon has and typically rank below.
This move towards brands was first hinted at by Eric Schmidt with his famous cesspool comment. It boils down to an admission that links as a ranking strategy for Google’s algorithm is on it’s way out. Google is finding it hard to keep up with the spammers, link buyers and blackhat SEOs (Search Engine Optimizers) and needs a new method for ranking sites. Part of the new strategy is a reliance on brand sites, the other is Google+.
Yes Google+ was not just invented to annoy Youtube users. It factors heavily into Google’s future algorithm changes. Google is saying that social is not affecting the algorithm directly at the moment but with the world going social Google will have to eventually and they know it.
High profile sites have been targeted by Google before and usually recover pretty quickly. Google knows that these big sites need to show in Google’s results otherwise users start to lose faith in their abilities. A good example was when Interflora was hit by a penalty early in 2013, it recovered within 11 days. Even BMW Germany was hit with a penalty way back in 2006 and recovered within days. Will rapgenius.com recover as quickly? Probably but the next few weeks will be a telling time for the Rap “Geniuses”.