10 Questions Answered About Google’s New “Pirate Penalty”

Dark Question MarkYesterday, I talked about Google’s upcoming “Pirate Penalty” that will attempt to demote copyright infringing sites in favore of legitimate alternatives. This will be done by looking at the number of copyright notices that Google gets about a domain and factoring that information into the results.

This is a pretty big about-face for Google, which previously had refused to do any demotion on the basis of copyright infringement allegations, saying it was impossible to reliably spot such infringing material.

However, the move has also raised a lot of difficult questions and Google, frustratingly, is being very opaque about the nature of this penalty (as it is with most of its algorithm changes). However, from Google’s announcement and additional information that has come out about the penalty, we can answer or at least make a good guess at many of the key questions about the penalty and what it will likely mean for websites, both those that infringe copyright and those that enforce theirs.

1. What is Google’s “Pirate Penalty”?

On Friday, Google announced in a very short blog post that it will be adding an adjustment to its algorithms designed to devalue sites that receive a high number of “valid copyright removal notices”.

Previously, Google would, as per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), remove links that were alleged to be copyright infringing from its search engine following a valid DMCA takedown notice. However, while the individual URL would be removed, the rest of the site would remain unaffected. As such, even sites with hundreds of thousands of uRLS removed from the index would see their other pages ranked as if there were no notices at all.

Google is now taking the number of “valid” copyright notices into consideration when determining the ranking of a site. As such, sites with a large number of notices will be lowered in the results, even on pages not specifically targeted as being infringing, and, theoretically, legitimate sources will rise.

2. How is Google Doing it?

Google recently revamped their DMCA process to improve automation and record keeping. The results of their efforts can be seen in their copyright transparency report, which lists who is filing DMCA notices and what domains they are filing against.

According to Google, this is the data that makes such a penalty possible and is what they will be basing it off of. However, it’s worth noting that this data only encompasses information from DMCA notices sent to Google search and only those sent via the form. Those sent on paper or to other Google services (such as YouTube) are not included and may not count toward the penalty.

Many of the details are unclear, such as how man notices must a site receive before it is penalized? And hhow long does a site have to file a counter-notice before a notice counts as a strike? However, those details are likely to emerge over time.

3. Why is Google Penalizing on Copyright Grounds?

If you listen to Google, they simply say that they are doing it now because they just recently became able to. However, the updated DMCA process has been in effect for about two years and there has been a great deal of pressure on Google from outside sources to take action against such sites.

There are many theories as to why Google is taking this step now. One simply states that Google is looking to partner up with major copyright holders and many of the larger organizations, in particular the MPAA, felt that Google wasn’t doing enough to purge their search index of known infringing sites. This makes sense as Google is increasingly becoming a content company rather than merely a search one.

However, it’s also possible that this penalty might, in Google’s mind, help improve the quality of most search queries. While infringing URLs, including those not individually reported, might get a lot of SEO strength from inbound linking, most visitors want and trust legitimate links more.

4. How Severe Will the Penalty Be?

It’s difficult to say and it stands to reason that the severity of the penalty will be based on the number of notices received. More notices means a more severe the penalty.

However, Google has stated that the penalty will not include dropping the site from the index completely. This means that, no matter how many copyright notices a site receives, URLs not mentioned directly in DMCA notices will not be removed. This also means that the sites will be available using the “site:” function and other queries that might be less competitive.

5. What Sites Will Be Effected

It’s difficult to say for certain, but Google’s Transparency Report provides some pretty good clues.

The sites that get the most Google DMCA notices tend to be sites connected with piracy, specifically piracy of content owned by major copyright holders. This includes cyberlocker, cyberlocker search sites and Bittorrent sites.

In fact, Pastebin, at a quick glance, isthe first major non-file sharing site on the list and it, as of this writing, comes in at about 170.

In short, the impact will be, almost certainly, on the shoulders of various file sharing sites.

6. Will YouTube Be Effected?


At first it was believed that YouTube would be spared because YouTube DMCA notices would not count against them. In short, you can not file a search DMCA against YouTube, Google directs you to YouTube for such filings, With no DMCA notices against YouTube on record, it would have been spared.

However, Google has since clarified that YouTube will be spared but so will a variety of other larger sites including Facebook, IMDB, Twitter, etc. The reason is that there is a safety built into the penalty to allow legitimate sites, particularly user-generated content ones, to escape the penalty despite a high number of notices.

Google also added that YouTube DMCA notices will be counted and that it is not treating YouTube any different than other sites. This is likely a response to anti-trust challenges against Google that accuse the company of favoring its sites over competitors in search results.

7. When Will it Start?

Google said in its announcement that the changes would start this week. However, they will likely roll out slowly and might not take effect for up to a few months.

Also, as with most Google changes, there will likely be a period of adjustment and correction so the initial results observed may not be the final ones.

8. What is the Risk for Abuse?

There’s widespread concern that this system could be ripe for widespread abuse. The concern is that it could be used by competitors to artificially lower the SEO of a well-ranking site.

The idea is simple, find a site that is doing well and file a series of bogus DMCA notices against it. Those notices will reduce the site’s ranking allowing the filer to move up.

However, this would be a very risky strategy for tearing down a competitor. The problem is that filing a knowingly false DMCA notice opens you up to a great deal of legal risk and the move can easily be countered by the victim filing counter-notices to the DMCA notices.

Though negative SEO is very real and can be a very serious problem, there are many other ways to do it that don’t expose the person launching the attack to the legal risks of a DMCA attack. That being said, I have little doubt that it will happen and someone will try it. I just don’t think it will be as widespread as many fear.

9. What Can I Do if I’m Worried About the Penalty?

If you’re worried about the penalty htting your site, there are several things you can do today to help avoid it.

  1. Register a DMCA Agent: First, consider registering a DMCA agent both on your site and with the U.S. Copyright Office. Don’t give someone concerned with copyright matters a reason to go to Google. Be the front line and be responsive to copyright issues.
  2. Join Google Webmaster Tools: Google Webmaster Tools will relay you information on any DMCA notices that your receive. This will give you the chance to respond to them, including filing counter-notices if appropriate.
  3. Control and Limit User-Generated Content: Finally, though this one might be a bit painful, you may want to cut back on what users can post to your site and be more proactive about removing infringing material. The reason is that many sites that specialize in illegal content and will likely be targeted by this penalty are in forum format. Most forums aren’t at risk, but those who give the perception of being pirate havens might be as copyright holders will target them. Patrick O’Keefe has great information on how to avoid having your community become a haven for infringement.

In short, don’t post infringing material on your site, be the front line of contact for anyone with an issue and keep track on who is filing notices against you. If you do that and respond timely, you’ll most likely be fine.

10. Should I Change My DMCA Process?

One of the bigger questions I’ve been asked is by copyright holders who are wondering if this might have the potential to change my recommended DMCA process.

The answer, at this time, is no.

For the majority of people reading this site, you’re going to be dealing with spammers, scrapers and the odd plagiarist who takes a few of your works, not rampant large-scale piracy. One or two notices against a domain isn’t likely to have much of an impact on their SEO, if any at all, and it’s much better to get the content removed completely from the (which also takes it out of Google) than to just get it stripped from the search engines.

Instead, I would reserve this approach more for sites where a work keeps reapeparing. For example, if you distribute an ebook and you can get it easily removed from a site but someone else simply uploads it later, filing notices with Google may help over time.

But for most cases, especially the first time approaching a new domain, I feel pretty comfortable the regular strategy is the best, which is to start with as close to the source of the infringement as possible.

Bottom Line

In the end, no one really knows how this is going to change the game of copyright enforcement online, only that it will change things at least some. The actual impact could be very small or it could be very large, but only time will tell.

In the meantime, there are countless SEO experts watching relevant queries and observing how things will change. I, obviously, will be reporting as things go along and updating you as to what the latest is on this penalty.

For now though, take a deep breath and relax. However, keep your eyes open, things are definitely going to shift and it will be interesting to see just how.

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