Google's killing the sites that serve up song lyrics

By Caitlin Dewey

Finding the lyrics to your favourite Foo Fighters song is getting easier, as Google continues to devour the web. Photo / Getty
Finding the lyrics to your favourite Foo Fighters song is getting easier, as Google continues to devour the web. Photo / Getty

If you're a child of the '80s or early '90s, you probably have fond memories of sites like AllMusic: places that finally made it possible to memorise the latest Oasis or Foo Fighters or Backstreet Boys, even if the CDs did not come with lyrics.

Alas, Google may have just delivered a crippling blow to the web's decades-old lyrics industry: The search giant/plundering tech carnivore has inked a multi-year deal with the licensing clearinghouse LyricFind, which will let the search giant display the full song lyrics for millions of artists in a "knowledge box" module at the top of the search page.

No longer will you have to click through to sites like AZLyrics or SongMeanings.com - which has those sites pretty worried.

"We are indeed very concerned about the fact that Google is going to provide song lyrics directly on its search results," said Yigal Ben Efraim, chief executive of Stands4, which owns Lyrics.net. Eight of 10 people who visit that site get there after Googling a song lyric, which does not bode well for the site's prospects.

Efraim was not totally blindsided by the Google move, mind you - Google has been experimenting with lyric panels for almost two years. And Stands4, which also owns a portfolio of reference sites, is well-acquainted with Google's ability to casually decimate long-standing websites when it decides to expand: Efraim's Definitions.net, like the better-known Merriam-Webster.com and Dictionary.com, took a significant hit when Google began displaying definitions directly in search. (Similar claims of harm, and reduced competition, have been made regarding Google's incursion into spaces occupied by Wikipedia, Yelp and TripAdvisor.) Google did not immediately respond to The Washington Post's request for comment.

For lyrics sites, though, the fallout could be particularly dramatic. The industry was suffering, anyway, Efraim said: Ad-blockers have cut into his revenue, and lyrics licenses - which all sites must have, lest they attract the wrath of the National Music Publishers' Association - are very expensive.

Much like dictionaries, lyrics sites rely almost entirely on search traffic to stay afloat. The top three sites - AZLyrics, MetroLyrics and LyricsFreak - all get between 90 and 91 per cent of their traffic from search, according to SimilarWeb. Any impact to that traffic could wreak havoc on their bottom line; just look at the damage one week of depressed Google-search placement did to Genius.

Lyrics sites are not giving up, of course - they are just evolving to do things that Google doesn't (yet). Lyrics.net employs a small editorial team to encourage community and discussion around its songs. MetroLyrics is barely recognizable as a lyrics site anymore: Bought by CBS Interactive in 2011, its homepage now lists "hot songs," a la Billboard, and news items about Alicia Keys, Selena Gomez and Rihanna.

Still, the future remains uncertain: It's hard to compete in a marketplace where one company not only does a great deal of production but owns the primary means of distribution, too. In a signal of battles to come, perhaps, Google's new lyrics boxes link out to promotions for its own paid music service.

"The bottom line ... is that most small content publishers are very worried about the future," Efraim said. "And for good reason."

- Washington Post

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