The Pirate Update: Google Will Penalize Sites Repeatedly Accused Of Copyright Infringement

Has someone filed a large number of DMCA “takedown” requests against your site? If so, look out. There’s a new penalty that may cause you to rank lower in Google’s search results. It joins other penalties (also called “filters” or “updates”) such as “Panda” and “Penguin.” We’re dubbing this one the “Pirate Update” as it’s aimed at copyright piracy.

Hollywood Hates Google

Google posted about the penalty here. Originally, we called it the ”Emanuel Update” in honor of Hollywood mogul Ari Emanuel, who helped prompt it. “Pirate” is a clearer name, so we’ve switch to that. But here’s the role Emanuel and Hollywood played in making the Pirate Update happen.

Google has had no lack of criticism from the entertainment industry over the past few years, criticism that’s also caused some content owners to hold back on doing deals with the company.

Ari Emanuel, from AllThingsD

One of the most recent flare-ups came at the D Conference earlier this year, when Ari Emanuel, co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor, groused that Google could filter out pirated content if it really wanted to. He said:

I don’t want them to censor results, but they have a bunch of smart guys there that can figure this stuff out….

Look, Google can filter and does filter for child pornography. They do that already. So stealing is a bad thing, and child pornography is a bad thing.

It’s well worth watching the video of his discussing this, which starts around 47 minutes in here. Google later responded saying things weren’t so easy. Said Google, as coveredin AllThingsD:

“I think he was misinformed, very misinformed,” Google’s Susan Wojcicki responded today onstage. “We do not want to be building a business based on piracy.” As compared to child porn, which people can generally recognize on sight, Wojcicki said, “When I see content, I don’t know if you own the copyright.”

Detecting Pirates

But as it turns out, there is a way that Google can guestimate if there’s copyright infringement happening, by making use of Digital Millennium Copyright Act “takedown” requests.

These requests are one of the ways to get content removed from Google. Anyone can file a request. It’s not proof of copyright infringement. It’s merely an allegation, and one that can be challenged. But Google evaluates each request, and if deemed valid, content is removed.

The requests are a pain to file, and they only remove an individual web page. If you’re a big entertainment company, it’s like playing Whac-A-Mole. But now, Google’s shift will change the game from a page-by-page basis to a site-by-site one. Beginning next week, a site will a lot of requests against individual pages will find all of its pages ranking lower in Google. From today’s post:

Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.

Why Now?

Why not do this before? Personally, my own feeling is that Google — now a content distribution company that really wants partnerships — has finally decided it needs to deal with the embarrassing situation of pirated content showing up in its results (this happens at Bing, too, but Hollywood generally doesn’t care about that). For its part, Google says the change is only now happening because it finally has the data it needs:

Since we re-booted our copyright removals over two years ago, we’ve been given much more data by copyright owners about infringing content online. In fact, we’re now receiving and processing more copyright removal notices every day than we did in all of 2009—more than 4.3 million URLs in the last 30 days alone. We will now be using this data as a signal in our search rankings.

What’s A Valid Request?

But what if someone files a complaint that Google upholds, even if it’s not? Actually, that will happen. “Valid,” as best I can tell, simply means that someone filed the right paperwork and that Google didn’t receive a counter-challenge. From the post:

Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law. So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won’t be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner. And we’ll continue to provide “counter-notice” tools so that those who believe their content has been wrongly removed can get it reinstated.

Then again, it also seems like even if the paperwork is valid, Google does, on occasion (about 3% of the time) still refused to honor them. It gives some sometimes funny examples of this here.

Who Will Get Hit (& Why YouTube Won’t)

If you want a sense of what sites are likely to be hit, Google told us this page at its Google Transparency Report site showing domains with the most requests against them is a starting place:

Google clarified, however, that just because a site is on that page doesn’t mean it will be hit with a penalty. It’s just a general guide, said Google, to what it means when it talks about sites getting a lot of notices.

It’s important to note that the page only shows removals from web search. What’s missing? From the site:

  • Requests for products other than Google Search (e.g, requests directed at YouTube or Blogger) are not included.
  • Requests submitted by means other than our web form, such as fax or written letter are not included.

YouTube itself is the target of many DMCA requests and removes content all the time. Technically, it should be prone to being downgraded by the Emanuel Update, as a site that has many DMCA requests against it. In reality, that’s unlikely to happen. To understand more about this, see our separate articles, How YouTube Will Escape Google’s New Pirate Penalty & Google: Many Popular Sites Will Escape Pirate Penalty, Not Just YouTube.

The Pirate Penalty

That leads back to the name. Reacting to complaints about content farms and poor quality content clogging its search results, Google released the Panda Update in February 2012. Periodically, it is run (on a roughly monthly basis) to decide if there is new content that should be penalized or poor sites that have improved.

This year, in April, Google released the Penguin Update, another filter. This one also runs periodically and is especially designed to go after sites that overtly spam Google.

Google hasn’t given the coming DMCA-based update a name. It doesn’t always name its updates and filters, and I’m sure it won’t in this case. So, we’ve taken the lead.

Google might argue, as it has done with Penguin, that Pirate isn’t even a penalty at all but rather an “adjustment.” The sites hit by Pirate won’t be penalized. They just won’t be as rewarded when the new system kicks in.

Adjustment or not, my guess is that it will feel like a penalty to the sites hit. They’ll drop from the first page of search results and effectively be invisible. Chances are (I’m checking on this, this will be a signal that’s periodically checked, so that if a site seems to have received fewer requests over time, it might see its rankings get restored.

Postscript: Google said it was too early to detail how the process will work and that it will be “adjusting as we go.”

False Accusations?

Meanwhile, the crazy world of Google’s search results gets even crazier. Now, aside from worries that people might point bad links at a site to hurt it, publishers can worry about DMCA requests, as well.

At least with the DMCA requests, they’re far harder to file and put the person doing the targeting on the record.

Public Knowledge, a digital rights group, has come out with a blog post that’s fairly well-rounded, voicing concerns but also reassurances. From the conclusion:

If Google’s new policy helps users find legitimate sources of content, protects the valid interests of copyright holders, and doesn’t penalize lawful sites, then it’s a win all around. But any new system such as this has potential dangers and unintended consequences, and can be abused. Google is undoubtedly aware of this–but it remains to be seen how it will respond to problems that arise, and whether it will continue to put the interests of users first.

The EFF, another digital rights group, is more worried. In a blog post today, it says in part:

In particular, we worry about the false positives problem. For example, we’ve seen thegovernment wrongly target sites that actually have a right to post the allegedly infringing material in question or otherwise legally display content. In short, without details on how Google’s process works, we have no reason to believe they won’t make similar, over-inclusive mistakes, dropping lawful, relevant speech lower in its search results without recourse for the speakers.

Takedown requests are nothing more than accusations of copyright infringement. No court or other umpire confirms that the accusations are valid (although copyright owners can be liable for bad-faith accusations). Demoting search results – effectively telling the searcher that these are not the websites you’re looking for – based on accusations alone gives copyright owners one more bit of control over what we see, hear, and read.

It’s worth noting that this change won’t drop the sites from Google. It’ll just make them harder to find, almost certainly for common terms poeple might use, like the name of a movie or a song, perhaps for things like the name of a movie or song plus a file format. But for those who learn to dig the right way, they’ll still uncover these sites, at least pages from the sites that haven’t been formally removed by DMCA requests.

The Major Search Change Omitted From Google’s Press Event

One thing I find very disturbing. Google trotted out a major press event earlier this week to talk about all that’s new in its world of search. We got told about things like a new Google Search app for iOS and a trial of Gmail results within regular search.

But there was no time to mention Pirate? No time to cover with the assembled press what’s arguably the biggest search news Google announced this week?

Google told me the details for the DMCA filter were only finalized this morning. Even if so, it feels like this could have been discussed at the press event, rather that pushed off to a Friday afternoon. That comes across as Google hoping those who worry about this new system being abused or some type of censorship won’t be noticed.

Oh, they’ve noticed. But come Monday, they’ll have moved on to the latest iPhone rumor. If Google’s going to get a black eye over this, chances are, it will be brief.

Making Hollywood Happy

Don’t get me wrong. There are some good reasons why this might be helpful. I’m not in favor of pirated content getting rewarded in search results, especially when so much of it can be linked to crappy ads and potential malware.

From The Oatmeal’s must-read comic, “I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened”

I sure think, like others, that Hollywood and the entertainment industry itself would solve much of the problem by making more content available. The Oatmeal’s “I Tried To Watch Game Of Thrones” comic is a great illustration of this.

But this is probably a necessary move by Google to get the entertainment dinosaurs to do more. At least they can’t just keep blaming Google rather than their archaic distribution models. The MPAA, by the way, has already praised it. From The Guardian:

The move was welcomed by the entertainment industry Michael O’Leary, senior executive vice-president for global policy at the Motion Picture Association of America, said in a statement: “We are optimistic that Google’s actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites and other outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe.”

RIAA is favorable and headlines its statement, incorrectly, that this is a plan to “better prioritize” licensed music. From the statement:

Today Google has announced a potentially significant change in its search rankings that can make a meaningful difference to creators:  sites that are the subject of large numbers of copyright removal notices may be ranked lower in search results than before.  This should result in improved rankings for the licensed music services that pay artists and deliver fans the music they love. This change is an important step in the right direction – a step we’ve been urging Google to take for a long time – and we commend the company for its action….

But by taking this common-sense step and treating copyright in a way that’s consistent with the search firm’s approach to other forms of activity on the Internet, Google has signaled a new willingness to value the rights of creators.  That is good news indeed.  And the online marketplace for the hundreds of licensed digital services embraced by the music business is better today than it was yesterday.

One thing’s for certain. Hollywood, including Ari Emanuel, will be hearing about Google’s move to make this change over and over again in the weeks to come, directly from Google, as content deals continue to be hammered out.

By the way, if you’re really trying to understand all this algorithm, update and filter stuff, see our Search Engine Land’s Guide To SEO and Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors pages. Also see the articles below for more background on some of the topics I’ve covered.

Related Articles

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: Pirate Update | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Jeremy Morgan

    This perfectly reasonable given the requests are valid. That’s the trickiest part. But the likelyhood of competitors being able to generate a lot of valid DMCA requests against your site just to hurt you is pretty slim. 

    What this really means is, more spam removed from the index which is better for the rest of us.

  • Jeffrey Purdon

    Am I missing something, or won’t this have an enormous impact on YouTube showing up in Google search…

  • Matt

    That’s exactly what I thought. YouTube is probably the site that gets the most DMCA request, and if it’s not it’s got to be pretty close. 

  • almondj

    Maybe I missed something, but how is Google finding the DMCA notices? Are they submitted to Google by the claimant?

  • Jeffrey Purdon

    Looking at that list from Google’s own transparency report, makes the Top 100. Will Google punish its own content hosting platforms as part of this update? Google was an opponent of SOPA because it held platforms responsible for user-generated content. I imagine that most of the sites penalized by this update would claim that they just provide an innocent service, and that they shouldn’t be blamed for what some of their users choose to do with the platform. I know, Google isn’t a government and they can do as they please with their service for whatever reasons they have. But it seems a little hypocritical of them, doesn’t it?

  • bradthomas

    I can’t believe these Hollywood scumbags like Ari Emanuel comparing child porn to pirating movies???  Unbelievable. It’s no wonder people refuse to give them money and choose to steal them…

  • Michael Martinez

    If the YouTube takedown requests are filed through Google’s Websearch DMCA form then they SHOULD be held against YouTube.  However, if they are filed directly through YouTube then they should NOT be held against YouTube.  Presumably Google can only use the data collected through its Websearch submission form to assess quality signals for the SERPs.  People should not expect or demand more than that as it would be unfair to do so.

  • Liv Jones

    Good idea in theory, however considering Google’s poor execution of the last 2.5 years, I suspect that this will only benefit those that game the system, creating more anarchy than without it. For the love of God, what happened to Google???

  • Danny Sullivan

    There’s a good argument that if Google is going to penalize other sites that do video hosting, then just because it has a separate for reporting infringement on its own video hosting service, that shouldn’t give it some type of web search penalty immunity.

  • Jeff Safire

    Danny – thanks for this informative article. Suggestion: Ditch your current spell/grammar checker for one that can spell.

  • Travis Prebble

    This ought to be interesting. Within the first 1000 results, we have: (as in Viacom)

    Will Google whitelist certain domains or will their algorithm use a ratio of total URLs to reported URLs in determining the signal strength?

  • Rebecca Lehmann

    Might as well be called the Funnyjunk Update… The Oatmeal rejoices. 

  • Mike_Smitty

    I’m sorry, I stopped reading after Ari Emanuel compared stealing to child pornography.

  • Joe Youngblood

    I agree, but YouTube did a good job in recent years steering the industry to their own reporting form. It’s unlikely they would do that for smaller video hosting websites, especially considering the DMCA complains typically come from copyright troll firms, not the copyright holder themselves. So YT and the current big guys will get sparred, but any new video hosting website or smaller one might get nailed.

  • Joe Youngblood

    most pirate websites run on word of mouth and social media. organic doesn’t do much, especially from an engine known to track your search history. I would venture to guess this would have little effect on that industry and a larger effect on the social websites and user generated content websites. two prime targets for Google’s own properties.

  • Gary Bisha

    All you have to do is post a project on mini freelance asking people to post a copy of your  content on competitor forum. Then file DMCA complaint against the website. Repeat it for many Web 2.0 sites.

  • Danny Sullivan

    I’ve been writing very fast today, Jeff. I usually go back several time and read-through to catch things. If you spot something, please let me know.

  • Ricky Shah

    The big battle is coming. I know this is a kinda good strategy to curb piracy, but it would also lead to hefty DMCA complaints. Google should also penalize sites that indulge in wrong accusation. But again, how will Google decide that? 

    Let’s hope that Google will roll out the algorithm soon. It will be interesting to see whether ‘hit blogs’ will able to recover or not from such adjustment or penalty.

  • Texas Cooking

    This is wonderful news, and a victory for intellectual property rights.  It’s interesting how competition has created the incentives for this, as opposed to passing a new federal criminal law.

  • Codex Meridian

    Before we fear of negative SEO now we fear of negative DMCA, hurray amigos!

  • Codex Meridian

    At least we have strong basis now for anti-trust lawsuits.

  • Codex Meridian

     These DMCA notices are not final. They can be accusations and non-substantial. If Google will be using this data, it will be seriously erroneous – the birth of SEO and honest publishers worst fear – Negative DMCA!

  • Codex Meridian

     Let’s say I created the videos (original, me as the creator),  I embed one in my site with the title exactly the same as in Youtube.

    Now the Youtube URL ranks very highly in the search, thanks to the bias Google algo that don’t reward true originators but counts only based on authority. If Google can penalize Youtube because of bad copyright reputation, I believe my original content in my site would rank well. No?

  • Fake Name

    Wait…. did Ari Emanuel REALLY try to equate listening to an Mp3 or watching a downloaded movie to pedophilia?

  • oelmekki

    So, Google is implementing on purpose an algorithm to prevent its users to find what they’re looking for ? That’s new.

    Also, I see in the list a lot of torrent websites. Justice stated that hosting torrent is *not* providing copywrited material. No worry, Hollywood, Google will apply its own justice. That, lads and gents, I call it “evil”.

  • Kevin Egelston

    That doesn’t make any sense. Sites receive illegitimate DCMA takedown notices all the time. This can be abused by filing lots of DCMA takedowns against a competitor to cause them to loose search result rankings. Not to mention we shouldn’t even be entertaining any thoughts regarding MPAA/Hollywood’s take on piracy, they are the sole cause of piracy. I will not elaborate, there is plenty of research material out there, that is if we don’t start dropping the good material search rank results due to erroneous DCMA takedown requestions. This whole thing is ridiculous. The entertainment industry needs to evolve their business model with the way technology is going and stop being fucking pussies.

  • Kevin Egelston

    Why don’t you try ditching your high horse fucking perfect spelling and grammar attitude. As long as you understood what was being conveyed, then shut the fuck up already.

  • Kevin Egelston

    Really? You think this is a good thing? Please sell all of your electronic equipment and stop using the internet.

  • Albin

    Seems to me it would make more sense to correct search by counting actual takedowns, i.e. sites that respond to DMCA notices they receive, rather than assuming any and all notices are valid copyright claims.  Innocent until proven guilty.

  • Danny Sullivan

    He was actually saying that Google has mechanisms for trying to keep child porn out of its listings. And if it can do that, why can’t it figure out a way to deal with other types of illegal content. It was a reasonable question; Google gave a reasonable response, though now it apparently has decided it can deal with the copyright detection.

  • JohnDoey

    I love how this reads as though the issue is a plague of false copyright infringement notices, and the victims are website maintainers who are too busy saving babies to ensure they are not illegally and immorally re-publishing the work of an independent musician who is dying right now from lack of health care.

  • George Michie

    Ummm, laws against copyright infringement already exist.  It is the threat of lawsuits that is forcing the industry to act.  Absent legal protections there would be far fewer inventions and far less incentive to create top grade content.  It is the existence of law that protects individuals, not the market.

  • Terry Van Horne

    Danny nice job but really! Is this a penalty or justice? I have a client that has been publishing for a long time often they are not ranking for the content they wrote. Google has been overdue in dealing with scrapers…. I hope when they are doing their copyright reviews they also remove them from AddCents as well…that would really be punishing them… and show real intent to stop this…but since that hits the bottom line…this is likely as far as it will go. But it’s the best attempt yet at actually stopping this internet disgrace! It also gives legitimate owners more power to get content removed. IMO, if the content is removed then punishment should be nothing… mistakes happen otherwise again they’ve added another arrow to the Negative SEO quiver.

  • Jay Wylie

    He didnt just compare child porn to downloading a pirated film…did he?

  • Jay Wylie

     ”Look, Google can filter and does filter for child pornography. They do
    that already. So stealing is a bad thing, and child pornography is a bad

    No, CP is a terrible inhuman act, and stealing is a pretty basic “bad” in the grand scheme of things.

  • Salomon Ptasevich

    Google is getting lame indeed, downloaders and big amount of people…if we can’t find what we want in Google we will use other plataforms….

  • Matt Bingham

    Pornography is a bad thing. Yet they don’t filter that either. maybe they should start filtering it too, Ari Emanuel.

  • Alex Bowers

    I imagine it takes more into consideration than just the amount of claims it gets. for example, the quality of the work thats on the website. Eg, won’t be done, but might be. However, I might make good points (say, tech reviews) and just use someones copywriten images. That will get penalised less than someone that does full plagarism of somebody elses page.


  • jandetlefsen

    so did i

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