Search engine optimization?  It can literally mean the difference between your site being one of the most popular search destinations with millions of hits a day to being seen by only the very few most profligate searchers.  In today’s online world, almost all users utilize a search engine, the most prominent of which is clearly Google, in order to find website or service they seek.

So when Google announced this week that it is updating its search algorithm to downgrade websites that have frequent occurences of piracy on their sites, some stopped to take note.  For the sites that receive more take down notices, Google will award a lower relevancy and result ranking, meaning that illegitimate sites will be pushed lower and legitimate sites are pushed higher in the results.  This translates directly into fewer and more hits given the same search, respectively.  Now remember, Google is not actually evaluating the sites themselves, only the number of take down notices that a particular site receives.

Many critics, however, met the announcement with only a mediocre response as many of Google’s staunchest opponents–those that have since Google’s inception consistently levied critique on Google as a major facilitator of copyright and trademark violation–claimed this is far too little to help purge Google’s infringement sins.  In some ways, their critique is warranted as the downgrading does nothing to shut down sites but only to help promote legitimate content.   In other ways, however, it will hit these illegitimate sites right where it hurts: the bottom line – a place that has been hurting for many of the media companies most affected by the announcement with whom Google would like to curry favor on the eve of the launch of Google Play.

So what’s the big deal?  Does any of this matter?  Certainly, it is an interesting phenomenon that Google is venturing ever more into an analysis of the validity and legitimacy of the content of sites included in its search results.  Whether or not there will be any effect on the fight on piracy or whether this move by Google will simply facilitate the spread of illegal material to new sites remain to be seen.

Still, the bigger question is what is the proper role of search engines in monitoring, promoting, or otherwise evaluating the merits of the sites that are evaluated by their algorithms?  Should Google take such a forefront approach, or should it simply promote well-crafted relevancy, regardless the moral or legal nature of the user’s search?  Also, should it use correlations like take down notices into account?

Perhaps it is time for one of the biggest companies to flex some of its muscle to promote legitimate content.  Or maybe it is precisely because of its size Google should leave the moral and political debate outside of search relevancy.  What’s the right answer?  Try googling it.

Tim Van Hal

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One Response to Pirates Beware! Google is Downgrading

  1. Raymond Rufat says:

    This is funny to me. It seems like Google is being incredibly hypocritical by downgrading sites solely based on the takedown notices they receive. The takedown notice legislation is in place so that the websites themselves are not penalized for hosting infringing content, so long as they take it down. YouTube, owned by Google, probably receives more takedown notices than any website out there, but somehow I don’t think Google will let their algorithm downgrade YouTube.