Rap Genius got out of Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) jail this weekend. The lyrics-annotation start-up had ranked at the top of many lyrics searches before Google removed it on Christmas Day for spammy linking practices. Now it appears in Google search results again, and its co-founders have published a surprisingly smart mea culpa. Rap Genius is far from the only company that's been hit with a Google SEO penalty, and it's not the only company that's had to scramble to fix the problem. What makes the story stand out is the latest installment in Rap Genius' handling of their epic fail.
Rap Genius' first response, an open letter to Google last month, was an odd blend of contrition ("we effed up") and finger-pointing ("other lyrics sites are almost definitely doing worse stuff") that even included a chart outlining its accusations against competitors. It's kind of surprising then, that Rap Genius' latest statement on the fiasco is savvy and non-defensive. The public apology on the Rap Genius blog includes details of how its linking strategy went off the rails, an unqualified acceptance of responsibility, and an in-depth technical explanation of how they fixed the problem.
On their own, these things would make Rap Genius' apology worth studying. But Rap genius went a step further by sharing the code they built to scrape the troublesome links, for anyone else who finds themselves crosswise with Google. Businesses looking for a smart recovery template should study Rap Genius' moves here.
Five Steps to a Genius Business Apology
1. Rap Genius owned its mistakes
Unlike last fall, when co-founder Mahbod Moghadam partly blamed a brain tumor (since removed) for his profane on-the-record remarks toward Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and others, Rap Genius' latest apology included no finger pointing, no blame shifting, no excuses for bad decisions. Rap Genius admits that in recent months, "we did two things that were more or less totally debauched."
2. The co-founders explained exactly where they went wrong
There's no "mistakes were made" rear-covering here. The post details the exact actions that triggered the Google smackdown:
"On guest posts, we appended lists of song links (often tracklists of popular new albums) that were sometimes completely unrelated to the music that was the subject of the post.
We offered to promote any blog whose owner linked to an album on Rap Genius in any post regardless of its content."
Interestingly, it's Moghadam at the center of the storm again. His spammy email to blogger John Marbach was the catalyst for Google's investigation. The post describes Moghadam's failure to even ask what kind of blog Marbach owned before promising him "MASSIVE traffic" via Rap Genius' Twitter feed in exchange for posting unnatural links.
3. They put real effort into fixing the mistake
With a massive drop in daily traffic from Google search results (down from about 700,000 to 100,000), getting back on Google's good side was crucial. To do that, Rap Genius had to run a huge search-and-destroy mission on those unnatural links, using a combination of Google's webmaster tools and a link scraper the company built to collect, analyze, and rank 178,000 linking URLs. Their scraper did its job in 15 minutes. Subtext—Rap Genius may have made a dumb decision with its growth hacking, but its people are not dummies.
4. They shared their fix tool so anyone clean up their own links
An apology is nice, but an apology with a make-up gift is nice and smart. Webmasters who want to boost their standing with Google can download the Rap Genius trackback scraper. This move is generous, of course, but it's also a subtle way to remind people that Rap Genius isn't the only company who's had link issues with Google (J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP ) and Overstock.com (NASDAQ: OSTK ) faced Google scrutiny in 2011.)
5. They used the incident as a wake-up call for themselves
Heavy reliance on Google search traffic is risky, and before the Google penalty, some 60% of Rap Genius' traffic came from search results. So the post closed with a pitch for Rap Genius membership ("Rap Genius is more than a Google-access-only website") and announced the release of an iOS app in the coming week.
Right now, Rap Genius is privately funded by venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz. If the company seeks more VC funding or goes public, they'll need the trust of potential investors. As the company extends its other brands, like its Education Genius site marketed to schools, it needs a less controversial reputation.
With its latest apology and explanation, Rap Genius has taken the first step away from its image as an obnoxious rule breaker and toward a position as a more trustworthy, transparent, and responsible organization. Other companies looking to boost their trustworthiness, whether with Google, investors, or the public, should take notes.
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