Last August, Google announced a rather large change to its search algorithm: For the first time, it would begin weighing the number of DMCA copyright takedown request a site had received. The move was seen as a nod to pressure from the RIAA, MPAA, and the like, who felt Google was needlessly abetting copyright theft by indexing The Pirate Bay and the like.
Google noted that an inherent issue with letting takedown notices affect search results is the fact that "only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law." So while Google said it's willing to change its ranking, it also said it wouldn't remove pages from its search unless they receive a valid copyright removal notice from the copyright holder. It seemed like an okay compromise at the time, but now six months on the RIAA says the change hasn't done a darn thing.
The RIAA released its newest Google scorecard today, and this is what the group says is the key takeaway: "Six months later, we have found no evidence that Google’s policy has had a demonstrable impact on demoting sites with large amounts of piracy. These sites consistently appear at the top of Google’s search results for popular songs or artists.” And here's what I'll call the key graph:
That note about YouTube is interesting, if only because it's hilariously anecdotal. Still, according to the RIAA's report (PDF), the RIAA has sent millions of takedown requests to Google, with a few sites receiving over 100,000 requests, often for the same songs, over the last six months, and many of them are still showing up in top spots in search.
The RIAA's survey, which involved running searches for 50 of the most-searched songs, found that sites offering downloads and other copyright-infringing activity were routinely still in the top 10 search results, and often in the top three. On the other hand, legit sites like iTunes and Amazon were regularly farther down the rankings. The RIAA also found that in 88 percent of searches for mp3s and downloads of tracks, Google's autocomplete filled in "incertain terms which are associated with sites for which it has received multiple notices of infringement, thus leading to illegal content."
That led the RIAA to conclude with a wonderfully smarmy quote: "In other words, whatever Google has done to its search algorithms to change the ranking of infringing sites, it doesn’t appear to be working." And really, the RIAA has a point. Finding copyright-infringing material is no problem with Google. But is that really Google's fault?
From the RIAA: "Average % of time a site for which Google had received more than 100,000 copyright removal requests appeared in the top 10 search results for [artist] [track ] download or [artist] [track] mp3 for 50 popular songs."
The RIAA calls for Google to "immediately" fix the problem, but Google is surely loathe to make drastic changes to its gazillion dollar algorithm. And how much of this is Google's fault? Its algorithm isn't actively designed to promote copyright infringers–apparently, it's actually the opposite–but it's still an algorithm, and thus there will always be those who are better at the system than others.
In some cases, like that of Spotify and iTunes, they aren't even trying. Both services run in external programs, which is hardly SEO friendly. That the RIAA is blaming Google for those services not getting more love might make one think that the RIAA isn't sure how Google works, but that's a bit unfair.
The question is whether Google should be adjusting its algorithm to give more weight to legitimate sources than SEO-friendly, highly-popular download sites. It seems like a fair ask, although the RIAA comes off as more than a bit demanding, and Google's also certainly wary of messing with commerce rankings in search after all of its FTC troubles. Google's likely to take some sort of action in response to the RIAA, because that's how things work, but until download sites get eradicated totally, the RIAA's not likely to be content.