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.
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.
“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.”
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 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)
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.”
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.
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.
- Android Market Becomes “Google Play,” Reflects Google’s Multiplatform Content Aims
- Google Updates Link Warnings To (Sort Of) Clarify They Can Be Ignored (Maybe)
- Links: The Broken “Ballot Box” Used By Google & Bing
- Google Removes Piracy-Related Terms From Instant Search
- If Google Was New York City & Online Piracy Was Knock-Off Handbags…
- You Can’t Watch SNL’s Hilarious “Downton Abbey” Sketch Legally Online, So NBCUniversal Pirates Itself
- Google Asked To Take Down Over 1.2 Million URLs Last Month From Search Results
- Major Entertainment Groups Accuse Google, Bing Of Directing Users To Illegal Content
- RIAA Accuses Google Of Not Doing Enough To Fight Piracy, But May Be Guilty Of Not Doing Enough Itself
- How YouTube Will Escape Google’s New Pirate Penalty
- Google: Many Popular Sites Will Escape Pirate Penalty, Not Just YouTube
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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