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Rap Genius And The Problem With The Venture Capital Fueled Growth Hack

Dec 26 2013, 11:41am CST | by

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Rap Genius And The Problem With The Venture Capital Fueled Growth Hack
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Rap Genius And The Problem With The Venture Capital Fueled Growth Hack

Almost entirely missing from the discussion of title="rapgenius">RapGenius‘ punishment by Google for bone-headed SEO practices is the fact that RapGenius is not in fact a “lyrics site” like the ones it is competing for search rankings with, but a lyrics annotations site. The reason why Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen invested $15 million in the startup was because they were doing something unique. The SEO ploys that they have been engineering—with that money—show that they have lost their way.

The lyrics business on the web itself is a fragile thing. As my colleague Tim Worstall explains in his post this morning, “it’s terribly dangerous to base an entire business on someone else’s platform.” Google has been driving the traffic to the various pop music lyrics sites for years, but any day now it could choose to display the lyrics directly against search queries as it does now with all kinds of things from airline flights to currency conversions. Surely this kind of commodity business is not what the Yale-educated founders of RapGenius had in mind when they started out four years ago.

Venture capital and growth hacking go hand in hand. Once you have the money you also have the runway within which to spend it. This is where the hacking comes in. If you can’t deliver out-size growth commensurate with your VC valuation, more extreme measures are necessary. That RapGenius got nabbed by soliciting bloggers to place steroidal SEO links relating to the new Justin Bieber album add to the injury. Bieber does not exactly possess street cred in rap circles and meanwhile, yesterday, he announced his retirement in an obvious play for boosting his own visibility relative to his new (and ostensibly last) album. Double ouch!

I have been following RapGenius for the past few years and have admired the fact that they have used the structure of a lyrics site as an unprecedented armature for urban cultural data. Friends of mine, like Adisa Banjoko of the Hip Hop Chess Federation, swear by the site and many rappers have added their own annotations to lyrics. From the perspective of linguistic and natural language processing (NLP) analysis, RapGenius is a treasure trove of real-time information about everything from brand status to cultural attitudes to hashtag tracking.

And it’s a scalable model. This spring the company launched NewsGenius as a way of crowd-explicating breaking news stories. And its PoetryGenius site has a popular BibleGenius section. All of this I have found very promising, so the current debacle is a great disappointment—as it must be to Andreessen. What Google wants from RapGenius would be the creation of unique content around the new Justin Bieber songs, not just spammy links. And that is what RapGenius’ audience wants too.

The pursuit of growth for its own sake, and for the sake of the immediate satisfaction of investors, can be damaging. It takes ones eye off of the real challenge which is to make unique products that people want and love. That is where the value is, not in the chasing of generic traffic. The lyrics sites have survived because they got there first and have held on. One would hope that when that business goes away (at any moment that Google so chooses) RapGenius will still be around because it established itself as a source of quality content of a very particular sort.

Being delisted by Google has had a very immediate impact on RapGenius. As The Wire reports this morning, Quantcast data shows that its traffic has gone from 1.2 million daily uniques down to 493,000. This is a very clear illustration of how dependent RapGenius is on Google. The best thing to come out of this for RapGenius would be if they can find a growth formula within Google’s SEO rules. But, as Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan wrote yesterday, “2014 will see the rules about what’s a ‘natural’ or ‘safe’ link just get more and more complex.” However they do it, it is time for RapGenius to live up to its name.

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Source: Forbes


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