Last night, representatives from Genius spoke with the Wall Street Journal and accused Google of plagiarizing lyric transcriptions from its site. Each Genius transcription alternates between straight (') and curvy (’) apostrophes, which spells out "red handed" when translated into Morse code. With this specific watermark in mind, the site now claims that the search engine has been displaying the coded lyrics in the results page, harming their traffic. But the contentious relationship between Google and Genius dates back years prior to when the annotation site initially deployed the "red handed" watermark system.
Back when the site began in 2009 as Rap Genius, it needed to gain an audience. Part of the founders' strategy involved partnering with music blogs, who would link out to the site in exchange for being featured in annotations or social media posts. In an effort to boost SEO performance, the site began to ask "blog affiliates" to post clumps of related links (for example, links to each individual song on a Justin Bieber album). The intention behind this was to persuade Google's algorithm into placing Rap Genius higher on the search results.
John Marbach exposed Rap Genius's tactic in a December 2013 blog post, which caught the eye of Matt Cutts, who was, at the time, the head of the web spam team at Google. The search engine retaliated by essentially scrubbing the site from appearing in search results — even queries specifically asking for "Rap Genius" needed to dig six pages down to find the site. As TechCrunch reported, Rap Genius's traffic fell dramatically during this time, dropping by over a half-million daily unique visits.
"It sucks to be off Google, for us and for the thousands of our community members who have worked so hard to create what’s often the best search result," Rap Genius's founders wrote in a statement at the time. "We hope everyone who reads this will take a little time out from their Christmas and head to Rap Genius and sign up so you can contribute your knowledge on your favorite subjects."
Google eventually made amends with Rap Genius after the site made concrete steps toward resolving “a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links." The founders of the site went transparent with the dispute in an apologetic blog posted in early 2014. "To Google and our fans: we’re sorry for being such morons. We regret our foray into irrelevant unnatural linking," they wrote. "We overstepped, and we deserved to get smacked." A mere two weeks after they were booted, Rap Genius results were promptly restored back to their original placement.
Two years later, in 2016, the now-rebranded Genius was handed an exclusive: the lyrics to Desiigner's viral hit "Panda." A software engineer on Genius's team noticed that the "Panda" transcription that showed up on Google was identical to the one Desiigner provided to Genius: "[Google's] lyrics matched our lyrics down to the character,” chief strategist Ben Gross told WSJ. From that point on, the site established a watermark for its lyrics via apostrophe placement.
Since 2017, Genius alleges that they've repeatedly contacted Google alerting them that the engine's usage of their transcriptions is hurting traffic and violating antitrust regulations. Google has refuted the accusation, attributing its lyrics to a partnership with the Canadian company LyricFind.