How Are Google’s Anti-Piracy Search Policies Working?

It’s been a few months since Google announced a new initiative designed to lower search results for web-sites reported for piracy.  According to Google, legitimate sites would move up and pirate sites would move down:

We aim to provide a great experience for our users and have developed over 200 signals to ensure our search algorithms deliver the best possible results. 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. This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily—whether it’s a song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify.

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.

At the time, Google’s announcement  seemed encouraging, despite their careful use of the more flexible phrase “may appear lower” as opposed to “will appear lower.”  Now that some time has passed, I thought I’d do a random search to see how well Google’s new algorithm is working to thwart piracy.  I decided to do a fairly generic search using the terms “watch free movies online.”  I did not specify a time frame or put the search terms in quotes.  This was the result.

Result for search “watch free movies online”

The first two results were “sponsored results” (shaded in pink) which direct users to legitimate sites Yideo and Netflix.  However, the top two non-sponsored sites are sites offering pirate links.   I clicked “LetMeWatchThis” the second non-sponsored result.  That took me to this landing page which entices users with an array of movie poster thumbnails from current releases (many haven’t even been released on DVD).  I chose to click on a thumbnail for film that is scheduled to be released next week on December 4th, 2012–The Odd Life of Timothy Green.

Below a short summary of the film, there’s a list of 30 links to watch/download it.  I did not examine each and every link, but aside from several “sponsored” links, most point to sites known to host  pirated films.

Ignoring the first one (it’s a sponsored link that leads to an illegal pay-to-watch site) I clicked on the link to “Sockshare” a popular cyber-locker site (one of many to flourish in the vacuum left by Megaupload’s shutdown).  After clicking the link, and navigating past an ad (remember these pirate sites are in the business of making money off stolen content) I arrived at an embedded, full stream of the film.

Remember, according to Google’s explanation of its new policy, “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.”  With this in mind, I decided to check Google’s “transparency report” to see how often this particular domain had been reported for copyright violations.  According to these results, there had been more than 10,000 requests for the URL to be removed.

 

I also checked the value of this website using and found this:

If these Alexa statistics are accurate, it’s safe to say that operating this particular pirate site is a lucrative endeavor indeed.  It’s long been notorious for its illegal links.  The fact this site comes up second in a Google search for  to “watch free movies online” is certainly a factor in their robust  income. Despite Google’s pledge to begin “using this (copyright infringement reporting) data as a signal” to adjust search rankings, their new algorithms don’t seem to be penalizing this site in the least.  To the contrary, it seems this site is being rewarded with a plum ranking resulting in plump profits.

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that, despite lip-service to the contrary, not much has changed when it comes to Google aiding and abetting websites that profit from piracy.

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