Rap Genius Launches App That Could Wean It Off Google’s Teat

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Rap Genius is back in Google’s good graces after a slap on the wrist for SEO spam, but search traffic could become less important to the annotations site as today it launches its first mobile app. “Genius” for iPhone lets you browse explanations of songs, poetry, news, and historical documents, and can automatically bring up the meanings of songs playing from your Apple Music app.

“Thousands of years from now, the mobile app is how people will remember Rap Genius”, co-founder Tom Lehman tells me in Rap Genius’ typically boisterous tone. After all, the startup considers itself the “Internet Talmud”, and never shies from controversy as you can see in this freewheeling interview I did with its founders at TechCrunch Disrupt New York.

Lehman views the app’s debut as the “second launch” of the company, which has raised $16.8 million to host user-generated explanations for any kind of text, not just rap. Over half of Rap Genius’ traffic was already coming from mobile web visitors. Now those people can taste the sweet fruits of a native mobile experience that ties directly into their iPhone’s music player.

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From the Genius home page you can check out top annotations for rap, rock, poetry, and news, or search by author, title, or text snippet.

Thanks to a Shazam-style audio recognition feature powered by Gracenote, Genius can listen through your phone’s microphone, identify a song, and pull up its annotated lyrics. So if you’re in the club and hear “I bet that AK-47 keep you ordained”, you can hold your phone up, Genius will ID the song, and you can see that’s Lil Wayne on his song “I Am Not A Human Being” saying his assault rifle will make you “holy” by filling you with bullet holes.

photo (1)Genius also lets you browse your Apple Music app’s library and simultaneously play a song and read its annotation. Sadly there’s no integration with Spotify or other on-demand streaming apps, but song pages include a YouTube link and SoundCloud embed to let you listen to songs you don’t own.

While v1 of the app is about letting you read explanations, v2 will be about helping you add them. Rap Genius plans to include a feature that lets verified musicians and authors record video annotations of them explaining their work. Eventually it plans to release an Android app once it’s nailed the iPhone experience.

The app couldn’t come soon enough for Rap Genius, as the company is still recovering from being penalized by Google for using shady SEO tricks to bump its site to the top of lyrics search results. In many cases, Google banished Rap Genius from it top spots to deep on the sixth page of results, leading to an instant 85% traffic drop.

Lucky for Rap Genius, it has influential investors like Andreessen Horowitz and is actually a much better lyrics experience than most of its ringtone scam-filled competitors. After apologizing to Google, the search giant has restored some of Rap Genius’ SEO juice.

But thanks to a mobile app with its own internal search engine, Rap Genius could become less beholden to Google. Now its hard-core users will access it from their homescreen instead of web search. While Rap Genius will probably always get its new users and a ton of its traffic from Google, the app could give it some protection in case Google starts showing its own lyrics boxes on search results pages.