As the most popular search engine in the world, Google is often tasked with helping to solve problems they didn’t cause. One example of this phenomena is the global fight against digital piracy. Google doesn’t host sites with pirated material but they are often charged with not doing enough to prevent internet searchers from using Google to find sites that do wantonly copyright infringing materials. After recently facing harsh criticism about their lackluster efforts to stem piracy, Google has announced algorithm and ad format changes that should help to curb internet piracy.
Last month, News Corp published an open letter to the head of the European Commission team investigating anti-trust charges against Google, where they criticized the search giant for not doing enough to combat internet piracy. Google answered amazingly well with an open letter that addressed each of News Corps complaints with data showed how baseless the claims were. But it appears Google wants to shore up its defense against further criticism on this matter.
In essence, the update is less of an update of the algorithm than it is an update of the database (though it’s likely some algorithm tweaks will happen at the same time). When Google first ran the pirate algorithm in 2012, it was based on the most up-to-date data available, which at the time was 2011. But since Google hasn’t rerun the filter since then, new sites with pirated materials from the past three years weren’t being punished by the system. By updating the algorithm with data from recent years, Google can penalize sites the current sites that are leading sharers of pirated materials.
The pirate filter works in a relatively simplistic manner. Sites that receive a large number of legitimate DMCA takedown requests will see their site penalized in Google search results. Additionally, these sites won’t be used when Google tries to auto-complete results in the search bar. There are a few exceptions. Popular sites with a lot of user-generated content won’t be penalized for DMCA requests related to pages on their site. This means sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (obviously), and Blogger won’t have their entire site penalized for the actions of certain pages.
The algorithm update is intended to only punish offending sites, but there is some cause for everyday webmasters to be wary. One reason for concern is the haste of the algorithm change and update. If the algorithm generates a large amount of false positive, websites can become embroiled in a lengthy appeals process as their site’s traffic shrink. The basics of the pirate filter should make false positives unlikely. However, as recent missteps by Google on the so-called “Pigeon Update” show, when the company is rushed in attempts to silence critics, mistakes can be made.
When the pirate penalty was first introduced in 2012, the EFF explained the potential worries the best, if in a somewhat alarmist way (as they are wont to do).
“In particular, we worry about the false positives problem,” the group wrote in a blog post. “For example, we’ve seen the government 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.”
Besides penalizing repeat offenders with the pirate update, Google announced a new ad format that can help content producer shuttle searchers to legitimate ways to buy and watch copyrighted material. What will happen is that someone starts to type in a phrase related to watching or listening to copyrighted material, links to legitimate channels will show up below some of the autocomplete choices.
For most websites, Google’s charge against piracy shouldn’t be a cause for concern, unless they’ve received a lot of DMCA notices. Regardless, internet marketers should always keep an eye out when Google tweaks algorithms and search results.
For news about the world’s most popular search engine, read this article about Google’s changes to the power of structured snippets.