Head over to Google.com and try to search for Rap Genius. Instead of the search engine doing what you’d expect and delivering www.RapGenius.com as a high result, you get all kinds of articles about Rap Genius and even stuff like the Rap Genius Twitter page. In particular you’ll find a lot of articles about how Google has deliberately killed Rap Genius’ Google rank in retaliation for Rap Genius trying to game the system.
On the one hand, this seems admirable of Google. Any algorithm is going to be susceptible to gaming. So one of the best ways to discourage people from gaming the system is to deliberately avoid operating a purely rules based system. Google can, at its discretion, wreak furious vengeance on sites that have angered it. That means that even if you can game the system, you probably shouldn’t.
On the other hand, this is the kind of heavy-handed behavior that inspired the Google/Apple war games scenario we did here at Slate over the summer. Google isn’t just a lucrative company with some popular products. It’s a powerful company whose Web index and search algorithm are part of the critical infrastructure of 21st-century life. Antitrust law to an extent constrains Google from using its power over search to advance Google’s other business interests. But Google apparently feels comfortable zapping a company like Rap Genius. There’s a lot of wiggle room here. What if executives start pursuing personal vendettas via the search process? Back in the old days of the telephone book, I take it that Ma Bell wouldn’t have been allowed to just make some particular business “disappear” from the white and yellow pages.
Lastly this reminds me of the point I made before about Facebook’s central role in the growth of “viral” Web content. Having a lot of traffic is great. The more the better. But when a huge share of your traffic comes from one particular source, it’s really not your traffic. If it’s all search, then it’s Google’s traffic. If it’s all Facebook likes, then it’s Facebook’s traffic.