By now, you’ve probably heard about the SEO nightmare recently experienced by Rap Genius, a startup that annotates lyrics and is building a community around rap music. As the story goes, in the second half of December 2013, the Rap Genius site was deemed “spammy” by Google, penalized as a result, and their organic traffic was decimated in a matter of days.

While they’ve since recovered, there’s a valuable takeaway for marketers involved with SEO, or any marketers relying heavily on one or two channels of communication to reach a targeted audience. To learn from their mistakes, here’s the low-down on what happened and why, how Rap Genius recovered and how Darwinism in marketing should make you rethink your marketing mix.

Bad. Bad. S-E-O.

From an SEO analyst’s point of view, Rap Genius had a clear history of skirting the best-practices laid out by Google. Though not exactly black-hat SEO, their tactics revolved around short-term wins from within an isolated system. They were link-swapping, loading their content with unnecessary self-referencing links and scheming to earn coveted PageRank in their quest for growth. As a result, the organic traffic growth was impressive and consistent, as seen in the chart below. Not surprisingly, as time went on, Rap Genius continued using the same tactics that led to their success, even in the face of the rhetoric and warnings from Google regarding unnatural search engine optimization.

Rap Genuis Website Traffic.
Rap Genuis Website Traffic.

Rap Genius Website Traffic via Quantcas

Unfortunately for Rap Genius, SEO doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

As Google currently controls about 67% of the search market in the US, it’s safe to say that if you want to remain competitive, you have to play by their rules. Anyone that has been penalized algorithmically or manually, either knowingly or unknowingly stepped outside the boundaries of what’s acceptable for SEO and paid the price. While it’s difficult to know the risk beforehand, the threat of being penalized or deindexed is real and can cripple a business, as some found out with the recent Penguin and Panda updates. Even avid white-hat SEOers risk running into problems when being “too cute” with anchor texts and linking strategies, myself included. I’ve since learned that when it comes to SEO, sometimes, less is more.

Road to Recovery 

In the chart above, you’ll notice that Rap Genius has since regained a lot of traffic lost from the Google penalty. Did the VC’s behind Rap Genius pay-off the guys at Google to regain prominence or did they magically undo years of unscrupulous SEO tactics? Not quite, but they did finally start playing by the book, as laid out in their recent post, where they came clean and declared, “We overstepped, and we deserved to get smacked.”

Like an SEO hackathon, their marketing team went into a whirlwind trying to root out the worst offenses against Google in an effort to save their business. Though they weren’t in the position to remedy the issue of hosting copy-written lyrics on the site, they insisted the value from Rap Genius was actually in the community experience, and Google agreed, helping them to avoid inbound annihilation.

Ironically, as Rap Genius shared their SEO saga, the PR from their experience resulted in a flurry of earned inbound links and interest in the site. In this case, their luck was tremendous.

Survival of the Fittest

Rap Genius, like most companies, realized how dependent they are on Google for traffic, leads and revenue. When the pipeline was suddenly frozen, their behemoth of a platform was reduced by 75% overnight and they were left scrambling to get it going again. Had they not recovered Google’s good graces, their business – built on scalability and traffic – would likely have folded much faster than it appeared. Simply put, their reliance on search engines left them vulnerable.

So how could Rap Genius have better prepared for losing so much SEO traffic?

Aside from the obvious answer of following Google’s best practices, they should have hedged their bets by investing in a broader, more agile marketing mix. Enter adaptive marketing…

Adaptive Marketing

While it’s been thrown around a bit under multiple definitions, adaptive marketing to me means exploring vulnerabilities, innovations and opportunities in the current marketing mix and strategic scenario planning. Important questions to consider are:

  1. How would our marketing survive and thrive if any given channel of communication were completely shut down, be it email, search, social or PPC?
  2. What opportunities and platforms haven’t we explored to profitably increase our customer base?
  3. Do we offer the right experience to have customers return on their own and evangelize through word-of-mouth?

Had Rap Genius engaged in adaptive marketing, they would have been less focused on over-optimizing for Google, and more focused on optimizing for the customer experience. As song lyrics became the engine that drove people to the site, Rap Genius was overly-reliant on lyric-based searches for their top of the funnel marketing. Yet, as you could probably guess, the lyrics themselves are not a unique value of Rap Genius, and many of the lyrics are actually copy-written and hosted by Rap Genius in a legal grey-area.

So Where’s the True Value?

The true value for Rap Genius is actually in the community and conversations around music, not the lyrics. By making this critical distinction, it helps Rap Genius to focus on their value proposition and delivery, not just the means-to-the-ends of lyrics. As their adaptive marketing evolves around this concept, they will become stronger and develop a new formula for their marketing and customer experiences.

In their own words, “Though Google is an extremely important part of helping people discover and navigate Rap Genius, we hope that this ordeal will make fans see that Rap Genius is more than a Google-access-only website. The only way to fully appreciate and benefit from Rap Genius is to sign up for an account and use Rap Genius – not as a substitute for Wikipedia or lyrics sites, but as a social network where curious and intelligent people gather to socialize and engage in close reading of text.”

Perils of Failing to Adapt

As we’ve seen with Rap Genius, there’s a serious risk in relying on one channel of communication for growth and traffic. Though their specific tight-margined business model may not allow for more diversification, that’s likely not the case for any non-advertising-based business model. Depending on the specific sales margins, there are many avenues to explore profitable customer acquisition – from content marketing, SEO, email marketing, offline marketing, PPC and more!

Through trial and error, and honest investments, businesses can discover what new and tried-and-true channels work best for them.

By truly exploring new channels, investing in the unknown and using analytics, companies will have the opportunity to see the variations in customer acquisition costs by channel, ultimately forming a core foundation that hedges against a Rap Genius like catastrophe. As marketing technology continues to evolve, being overly vulnerable to disruption doesn’t have to be part of your marketing plan.

So starting today, how can you shake up your marketing mix, implement adaptive marketing and rise to the top of the food chain?

Share your ideas in the comments section below or on Twitter using the hashtag #adaptivemarketing.

Orginally posted at Verndale’s POV Blog.