Song lyric pages were once a sure-fire cash cow. But what Google once giveth, hath taken away
For years, song lyrics have provided resourceful online marketing pioneers with a solid source of easy income. But for many, the past two years have seen the boom go bust. One reason for their demise? Google’s in the same business. In an Online Marketing Rockstars’ exclusive, we sat down with an operator of one of Europe’s largest song lyric sites, who gave us the inside scoop on the industry’s rise and subsequent fall, while also providing us with current figures on his traffic.
While you may not expect it, for years the most frequently searched term on Google was “lyrics.” Yes, more frequently searched than porn. Users searching for song lyrics were an enormous traffic driver on Google. The story goes back to the wild-west days of the early web, when in the mid-00s young website creators saw the trend early on and turned it into a lucrative business. In fact, the lyrics SEO scene is a part of online marketing’s “primordial soup.” They created and optimized lyric sites to get them to appear at the top of Google’s search results. It generated tons of traffic—and lots of revenue.
SEO and sweet 16
For the most part, the young “lyric SEOs” were kids, still in high school. One of them is Yvo Schaap from the Netherlands. When Schaap launched CompleteAlbumLyrics.com in 2004, he was a spry 18 year old. Initially, he says, it was just an experiment. “I was interested in using databases to create websites. My first such attempt was actually a database of song lyrics,” Schaap told OMR.
Getting content for lyric sites does not cost much, as the lyrics are either posted online by the bands themselves or by hardcore fans. Then simple software does the rest, reading out and aggregating the lyrics automatically. “I built a scraper and had 20,000 songs within a few days. Shortly thereafter, I had over 100,000,” the now 31-year-old Schaap told OMR. “I think everyone went about it like that.”
While most of the others had yet to register the power and influence of Google, Schaap experienced and profited from the search engine’s power directly. “If I was able to land a first-place ranking for a song by, say, Eminem or Rhiana, it meant at least 100,000 visitors a week.”
Flash widgets and thousands of backlinks
Based on that realization, he started learning about the finer points on how Google works. “Back then SEO, which stands for search engine optimization, was not a very widely known term.” He quickly recognized that the key growth levers for SEO are backlinks. He then programmed a widget using Flash allowing users to embed self-scrolling song lyrics on their profiles on MySpace (don’t laugh—it was number one at the time) and other platforms. “It may sound silly now, but we thought it was cool back then,” says Schaap. The best part for Schaap was that by embedding the widget, users would automatically create a backlink to CompleteAlbumLyrics.com.
The widget helped Schaap generate thousands of links and continue improving his Google ranking, but it didn’t take long for competitors to start using similar widgets. Nevertheless, such methods enabled Schaap to push his site’s reach up to ten million unique users per month in just a few years—and Google supplied the bulk of the traffic. “I think every song-lyric site now generates roughly 90% of its traffic through Google.”
From teenage angst to media titan
Schaap is not the only teenager to accumulate a reach over a million in no time at all with a lyrics site. Metrolyrics, which continues to be one of the largest song lyric sites today, was founded by then 16-year-old Milun Tesovic, a Bosnian-Canadian. Another heavyweight, AZLyrics, was presumably founded by Val Katayev, who immigrated to the US with his parents from Uzbekistan. Katayev presumably launched the site in the year 2000 at the ripe young age of 18.
In the German-speaking world, too, there are examples of youngsters turned media magnates seemingly overnight. Songtexte.com, the site with the largest projected reach for German song lyrics today, was founded in 2001 by three Austrian high-school buddies Thomas Gabriel, Stefan Fussenegger and Michael Sparer. Magistrix, another example that continues to enjoy a great deal of success today, was also founded in 2001 by German Julian Kornberger at the age of 16.
If you happened to be a young and clever lyrics SEO pioneer at the time, you figured to make a great deal of money through easily generated reach. Especially the peak-performing ringtone business figured to create substantial revenues. “I generated 60 percent of my revenue from ringtones, especially with ringtone subscriptions,” says Schaap. It was obvious that if a user found a website using Google that there is a strong chance that they would be interested in the corresponding ringtone. “That was a great opportunity for making money,” says Schaap.
Google’s money-generating gray area
Another monetization pillar was by Google’s Adsense ads. “Adsense was a reliable source of revenue for song lyrics,” says Schaap. This was due to the fact that not only were website operators earning on every ad click, but as the marketer behind Adsense, Google was as well. Google embedded Adsense ads on numerous lyric sites, which almost certainly secured it a massive sum during the lyrics boom—and that although web operators rarely paid a dime to the lyrics’ copyright holders.
In 2008, Schaap was contacted by Internet entrepreneur Brad Greenspan who, among other things, was involved in founding Myspace. With his company Live Universe, Greenspan wanted to bundle the largest lyric sites to better exploit the monetization potential. Live Universe flew in Schaap, who was studying in L.A. at the time. He agreed to the sale, but declined to comment on the amount of the buyout. “I made a good deal,” he says. And as he continued to be in charge of content after the sale, he retained 50% of subsequent revenues.
Penalized for duplicate content
But the steady source of income quickly ran dry—due to “mismanagement” by Live Universe, according to Schaap. Just a few months after the sale, three of the five lyric sites purchased by Live Universe were blacklisted from the Google Index, because they were hosted in the same server and they offer nearly identical content. CompleteAlbumLyrics.com is among the three sites penalized.
Schaap then occupied himself with other topics for a time, but after a year he returned to the lyrics game. “I still owned the directlyrics.com so in 2009 I started another lyric site.”
By then, however, the market is crowded, much more than it was in its early days. Schaap, though, knows what he has to do: “To compete I have to differentiate myself from the others.” So he opts for quality over quantity and concentrates on a smaller number of songs. This time he doesn’t use a scraper, but rather creates an archive himself. “I added one song after another by hand.” To this day, directlyrics.com only offers approx. 10,000 song lyrics, while some of the competition offers millions of songs.
Unpublished songs as SEO levers
A decisive lever that helps directlyrics generate traffic despite the strong competition is attributed to the fact that Schaap’s site created pages for songs and albums before they were released. “I read tons of music blogs and always created a subpage for new songs immediately. One example was Bruno Mars’ hit “Uptown funk.” It was first released on November 10, but by October 30, Schaap was able to set up a URL for the song on directlyrics. As being first has a positive effect on Google’s rankings, Schaap is able to land the number one spot in many countries, which resulted in 13.2 million page views. “Today, they’d call it a growth hack,” Schaap says.
It is tactics like these that enable his relatively small catalog to amass significant reach, peaking at 20 million unique users per month. Unsurprisingly, that had a significant impact on the monetization. “Soon we were making roughly $100,000 in revenue a month before expenses and taxes,” says Schaap. But with the notable exceptions of hosting and personnel costs for an editor and freelance blogger, his expenses do not figure to have been too high.
Visitors eclipse ten figures
While directlyrics.com has amassed over a billion total visits, the lyrics business has gotten a lot tougher in recent years. Schaap says the ringtone business underwent significant regulation in the USA and that afterwards ringtone purchases and subscriptions could no longer be charged to cell phone bills. Generally speaking, consumer interest in ringtones has been in steady decline since 2007. Schaap has since engaged in marketing partnerships, which sell brand advertising for $15–$20 CPM, and has also continued using Adsense.
There were also several other simultaneous developments going on that forced not only directlyrics, but everyone in the lyric page business, to professionalize their business and to clean up their practices. One such factor was musicians, trade organizations and copyright holders going after copyright infringement by the lyric sites. In 2007, the US-based National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) issued their first warnings to site operators. Suits and trials soon followed.
“There was then an industry-wide movement to obtain licensing rights,” says Schaap. “It wasn’t easy at first to purchase the rights. I wouldn’t have known who I needed to contact.” A few years later, Gracenote and Lyricfind (site operators themselves) established themselves as the go-to brokers for rights to song lyrics. Schaap signed a deal with Gracenote in 2010. “That cut into my revenue significantly, with a major portion going straight to licensing.” But there was a silver lining: Google was aggressively policing the industry, meaning that if you were clean, you would stand to profit.
Major trials for rights
In the years that followed, there was a significant increase in action taken by the music industry against site operators. Live Universe, the company that bought CompleteAlbumLyrics, lost a major court case in 2012 against several publishers and music labels and had to pay a fine of $6.6 million. In 2013, there was a study aimed at locating the 50 “worst offenders” among lyric sites; the NMPA then pursued legal action. Today, anywhere from 90–95% of all lyric sites are clean according to Schaap. Many, like LyricFind, or Italian company Musixmatch, still sell licenses and perform the role of copyright collective.
But there was another development that really made life difficult for lyric SEOs: Google’s updated algorithms. With Panda in 2011 and Penguin in 2012, Google purged the index of substandard sites. Basically, if a site has interchangeable content, the updates affected it directly. Many site operators try to gain an advantage through additional content that is more or less unique: music news, quizzes and communities. It’s a strategy that directlyrics.com also undertook. “We had to because otherwise we never would have been able to differentiate ourselves from the competition.” To outside observers, however, a majority of the additional content just looks like a kind of alibi.
For years, the branch has undergone a great deal of professionalization and consolidation. Many of the early players in the wild-west days are no longer around. But there some major players are still standing, the largest of which are AZLyrics, Lyricsfreak and Metrolyrics. Some not only try to create additional content, but are also trying out completely new strategies and traffic channels. Musixmatch, for example, released an Android app that displays the song lyric while the song is playing. Rapgenius, a hip-hop lyric site, started using Genius, a service that generates added value by allowing users to add comments to a lyric.
All in all, the lyric-site sector had to accept numerous changes to the industry that led to fundamental questions about the long-term viability of their business model. Since late 2014, Google began displaying song lyrics directly in the search results, which diverts the traffic away from song lyric sites. A study conducted by Searchmetrics showed that 2014 was a disaster and that many site operators had a loss of visibility in the upper double digits.
45-percent decrease in traffic
But the worst may yet be to come. This past June, Google announced a licensing agreement with Lyricfind which demonstrates how important Google views the sector. Yigal Ben Efraim, chief executive of Stands4, which operates Lyrics.net, told the Washington Post that “we are indeed very concerned about the fact that Google is going to provide song lyrics directly on its search results.” Apparently, site operators had already been feeling the effects in the months before. “In 2016, we lost 45% of our traffic in Q2,” says Schaap.
German operators have apparently not yet suffered the full extent of the shakeup like international providers. “songtexte.com has not seen a decrease in traffic—if anything it has increased. Google rewards the quality and blend of content,” Thomas Gabriel tells OMR. In July, the site registered 4.92 million unique visitors according to one online media research group (AGOF) and 12.7 million visitors according to another (IVW).
A lawyer based in Liechtenstein acted as the site’s official operator from 2008 to November 2013, when Magic Internet, a subsidiary of German media company Pro-Sieben-Sat1, took over songtexte.com. Since the takeover, the three founders, including Gabriel, act as service providers through their agency Molindo. Traffic has also increased heavily since the takeover, too. There is a good chance that Magic Internet linked songtexte.com on other successful portals in Germany, such as Myvideo or Ampya. Gabriel confirmed that there were indeed “synergy effects, especially with Ampya.”
Is the German market set to bust?
There is, however, the distinct possibility that the German market will soon face the music, too. OMR conducted tests, which showed that only when adding the word “text” (the German word for lyric) to a song lyric search on does Google Germany display the lyrics directly. If the word “lyric” is added to a song lyric search, lyrics are not yet displayed directly. According to Google Trends, users in Germany do in fact search more frequently for “lyrics” than they do for “text.” If Google ever decides to make a change in Germany, a massive decline in traffic looms for providers.
Then there is also the fact that more and more users find lyrics the same place they play music—on streaming sites. Google promotes its own streaming service, Google Play, right next to lyrics in the search results. Google Play also offers complete song lyrics, as do other streaming services. Spotify, for example, had a partnership with Musixmatch for several years, but the partnership recently ended causing industry insiders to speculate that Spotify switched to Genius; Spotify has already implemented Genius on a limited basis. In the latest versions of Apple’s iOS operating software and iTunes there will be an integrated lyric function as well.
“The gold rush days for lyric pages ended when the ringtone market dried up. The death knell was when licensing became mandatory,” says Schaap. But Schaap is not angry and says he learned a lot. The income he earned from lyrics helped him finance a start-up called Fanity. With Fanity, music fans could create a personalized newsfeed of their favorite artists that combines posts from Twitter, YouTube, Soundcloud and other blogs. The project has since been shut down and Schaap is now CTO for Dutch rental property website Pararius. “It gives me a chance to do something I love, which is product development.” He still spends one hour a day on directlyrics. “The site still provides me with a nice source of income—but the operating expenses are much higher than they once were.”