Google Search Changes Will ‘Visibly Affect’ Piracy Site Rankings

by Stuart Dredge

Google is preparing a new tweak to its search engine to ensure that some of the most ‘notorious’ piracy sites are less likely to appear when people search for music, films and other copyrighted content.

A previous promise to do this in 2012 has since proved controversial, with music and movie industry bodies regularly claiming Google did not follow through on that promise. This time round, Google says the results will be noticeable.

“In August 2012 we first announced that we would downrank sites for which we received a large number of valid DMCA notices,” wrote Google’s senior copyright counsel Katherine Oyama in a blog post published on Friday (17 October).

“We’ve now refined the signal in ways we expect to visibly affect the rankings of some of the most notorious sites. This update will roll out globally starting next week.”

Oyama did not give details on which sites are being demoted, or by how much their demotions will affect their rankings – the attribute that determines how close to the top of its results a site appears when people search for relevant keywords.

Her announcement was made as Google published a new version of its How Google Fights Piracy report, which was originally launched in September 2013 as a defence against claims by music and film rightsholders that Google was not doing enough on this front.

Oyama also said that Google has been testing new ad formats that show links to legal digital music and video services when people search using keywords including download, free and watch; and removing terms from its autocomplete feature if they “return results with many DMCA demoted sites”.

DMCA notices are the key to much of this: they’re the takedown requests sent by rightsholders (or anti-piracy companies acting on their behalf) to Google alerting it to links that lead to what they believe are infringing downloads or streams.

“In 2013 we received just over 224 million DMCA requests for Google search results,” explains the updated report, which claims that the average time taken to deal with these requests is less than six hours.

“We ultimately removed 222M, which means we rejected or reinstated less than 1% after review because we either needed additional information, were unable to find the page, or concluded that the material was not infringing.”

That’s individual links, but the latest change to Google’s search algorithm will focus on entire websites.

A guide to those most likely to be affected can be found on Google’s online transparency report, which ranks sites by the number of takedowns it has received: RapidGator, 4Shared and Dilandau are the top three in the last year, with more than 7m DMCA notices each.

British music industry body the BPI was the most prolific takedown-sender in 2013, with 43.3m notices. Its chief executive Geoff Taylor has regularly criticised Google for not doing more to tackle piracy, but he welcomed the announcement.

“When fans search for music or films, they should get legal results – it’s as simple as that,” said Taylor in a statement that added he was “encouraged” by Google’s latest action.

“If these new steps help guide more consumers to services like Spotify, Deezer and iTunes, which give back to music, instead of to fraudulent torrent or hosting sites, then they would represent a step forward for artists, labels and all those trying to build a thriving music economy online.”

However, the BPI would like to see rival search engines Bing and Yahoo follow suit, while also pressing for Google to delist entirely sites that have been “ruled illegal by the courts”, and to be faster at removing “pirate apps” from Android’s Google Play store.

The delisting request refers to sites that have been blocked by ISPs in the UK after the BPI secured high court orders: The Pirate Bay in 2012, Kickass Torrents, H33T and Fenopy in February 2013, and another 21 sites in October 2013.

Google may push back against pressure to delist sites from its search engine, however.

“Even for the websites that have received the highest numbers of notices, the number of noticed pages is typically only a tiny fraction of the total number of pages on the site,” claims its updated report. “It would be inappropriate to remove entire sites under these circumstances.”


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