At a conference earlier this year, Hollywood big wig Ari Emanuel suggested that Google could do more to thwart digital piracy by helping to ensure that pirated content doesn't find its way into the world's largest and most popular search engine.

At the time, a Google executive called Emanuel's suggestion "very misinformed" and noted that identifying who owns content is not always an easy task.

But apparently behind the scenes, Google was far more amenable to the concept than it indicated publicly. In a post on Google's Inside Search blog on Friday, Google SVP Amit Singhal announced that the company has launched a new update that may ensure Google's top executives get invites to all of Hollywood's red carpet events.

The blog post explained:

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.

The implications of the Emanuel Update

Given Emanuel's comments earlier this year, Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan has dubbed Google's latest update the Emanuel Update. And if you didn't find much to like in recent updates, like Panda, there's probably not much you'll like here either.

Although on the surface it would appear that the Emanuel Update will be far more limited in scope, consider this: according to Singhal, Google is "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."

The big question: just how many of those copyright removal notices are legitimate? The answer: who knows? What we do know: some -- but not all -- rights holders are overly aggressive and some simply refuse to recognize the concept of fair use. Obviously, there's no way for Google, which isn't judge and jury, to confirm the legitimacy of millions of DMCA takedown notices each month, so its use of these notices as a ranking signal seems more than a little flawed.

As the EFF notes:

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.

Wait: there's a catch

If Google simply applied a penalty across the board to any site that generates a higher volume of DMCA takedown requests, one of Google's most valuable properties, YouTube, would be in trouble. But as you might have already guessed, Google has carved out a caveat that will leave YouTube unscathed.

When Search Engine Land's Sullivan asked Google about the implications of the Emanuel update vis-à-vis YouTube, he received the following response:

We’re treating YouTube like any other site in search rankings. That said, we don’t expect this change to demote results for popular user-generated content sites.

As Sullivan sees it, this isn't a very convincing response. "I just don’t see that. There’s no way to treat YouTube — or Blogger — like any other site in the search rankings, when those sites have special takedown forms that don’t allow their alleged infringing activity to measured [sic] up against other sites."

His argument is a good one, but pragmatically it doesn't really matter. What Google says, goes. And in this case, publishers have been warned: for better or worse, Google's algorithm is now a tool to be used by copyright holders and the question is not whether we'll see abuse and collateral damage, but how much of it.

Patricio Robles

Published 13 August, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (6)

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John Waghorn

John Waghorn, Content Marketer at Koozai Ltd

I think it’s good that Google are now doing more to control this issue. Legitimate music download and streaming services should be higher than the illegal downloading sites anyway in their results pages. The music industry has evolved massively since the introduction of digital formats and of late it continues to struggle. A lot of it is about regaining control by giving the user the music they want in the format they want it in and getting something back financially. Illegal download sites are damaging the record labels, the artists and the music industry, so I personally think this is a step in the right direction.

about 6 years ago


Wayne Bowman

Brilliant, all we have to do now is bombard Google with copyright removal notices for all our competitors.....let the games begin!

about 6 years ago


Elvis Arias

yet another reason to start using rel=author

about 6 years ago


Hannah Norman, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai Ltd

Surely it was a bad move to remove the DRM on songs from iTunes? Wouldn't a better solution have been to have tracks bought on legitimate sources all given a version of DRM that is signed to the user? That way it can be used on whatever device the user owns/has an account on and would reduce the illegal downloads.

Obviously there would still be illegal downloads however if all music is signed to a user it would take more effort by whoever plans on ripping it to get it done.

The only reason Apple ditched the DRM on tracks was because of industry pressure. It should have been the other way and there should have been pressure for digitally signed music throughout!

about 6 years ago

Luis Pires

Luis Pires, Director of eCommerce and eMarketing at Bosch - Siemens Home Appliances LLC

It baffels me that the entertainment industry does not see that the internet is here to stay and, eventually, someone always figures out a way to overcome all barriers. Also, why don't the big names in the industry (read studios and networks) take advantage of the superior quality of their products and charge for that quality. Make it open and profit from it. The music industry has learned their lesson after much pain. Hello CBS, your coverage of the Olympics was poor, to say the least. Many would have paid $4.99, per event, for on demand, quality programming to his / her computer.

almost 6 years ago


Adrian Boro

Im wondering if you would or are using rel=author as one way to make sure you are ok with google.

over 5 years ago

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