Google Adjusts Search Results To Appease Copyright Owners

Googling for illegal access to movies or music? Starting today, those links will begin to slip down the results list. The search giant has revamped its algorithm to take into account complaints about copyright infringement. 

In a blog post on Friday, Google explained that, among the 200 signals it uses to rank pages, the search engine will start factoring in "valid copyright removal notices" and said that sites with lots of them "may appear lower in our results."

At first, it wasn't clear whether Google would give special treatment to its own sites, such as Blogger and YouTube, both of which are known to host (or at least link to) copyrighted material like music and movies and are subject to their own internal copyright claim procedures. As it turns out, those sites aren't exempt from the algorithmic adjustment, but are unlikely to be affected by it, since Google uses so many other signals when weighing a given site's rank. 

Google's Most Radical Move Yet to Enforce Intellectual Property Rights

The change marks the most significant move made by Google yet in its quest to boost its standing among big content companies and copyright holders. For years, Google has been viewed suspiciously by record labels, movie studios, television networks, and book and periodical publishers, who criticize the company's role in facilitating copyright infringement. Google, the gateway to the entire Web for millions of users, does its best to index every page on the Internet, including content that may be objectionable or even illegal. 

But now Google is much more than a search engine. Even though it still gets most of its revenue from search ads, the company is establishing itself in other markets, from mobile software (and now hardware, thanks to its Motorola acquisition) to futuristic, augmented reality glasses that aren't on the market yet, to cars that drive themselves.

One key area that Google is jockeying to dominate is content. It's actively transforming YouTube from an amateur repository of amateur video clips to something resembling a gigantic television station. It launched its own digital music storefront. It's also hoping that future iterations of its Google TV streaming set-top box will be a hit with consumers. Crucial to the success all of these initiatives - and the advertising revenue they promise - is Google's relationships with content providers, with whom it must sign expensive licensing deals in order to stay competitive. 

That's why Google has been getting more serious about tackling copyright infringement. Last year, the company proudly touted the progress it had made in implementing new anti-piracy measures like scrubbing piracy-related terms from search autocomplete and responding more quickly to copyright infringement complaints. Some big content industry groups, like the RIAA, were not impressed with Google's efforts. While Google has tweaked autocomplete, expedited takedowns of infringing content, and tightened the screws on AdSense advertisers who host illegal content, this week marks the first time it has tinkered with its organic search algorithm on behalf of copyright owners.

That's huge. The way Google's search engine functions is the company's bread and butter, raking in tens of billions of dollars every year. That it would monkey with its cash engine to placate potential business partners speaks volumes about Google's renewed priorities. 

Ripe For Abuse? 

Discouraging illegal behavior like piracy is a reasonable goal for a company. Who can argue with that? However, Google's effort to demote infringers in search results could be abused by copyright holders or even by fierce competitors. Just as marketers routinely try to manipulate Google's search results and Universal Music Group sends bogus takedown requests to YouTube, this change could invite nefarious attempts to game the system. 

Abuse could come from record labels or movie studios, who zealously guard their intellectual property. There's certainly a precedent for that. Or it could manifest itself in the form of low-level warfare between competing businesses, each trying to rig search results to its own benefit.

As ever, Google must balance the interests of content owners and business partners with the sensitivities of its users, who will balk at any sign of censorship or restrictive policies. If nothing else, this shift will test that balancing act.