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.