Concerns over copyright infringement drive Google to change search algorithms

By Zach Oubre

Business on the Internet recently got a lot more interesting.

On Friday, August 10, 2012, Google announced a major change to its search algorithms that would alter the ranking of websites based on the number of copyright infringement removal notices a website receives. So, if your site has a high number of infringement removal notices, Google will rank it lower on its list of search results. Google’s announcement can be found here.

The idea is simple. When most of us search Google, we go to a site listed on the first page of our search results. So, the people and businesses that breach copyright laws in order to add content to a site presumably do so to get more Google “hits” and attract more Internet traffic. Google’s algorithm change seeks to eliminate the infringers’ incentive by pushing them to the bottom of a Google user’s search results.

The change could dramatically affect who sees what on the Internet since Google users have been increasingly more diligent about monitoring copyright use online. According to Google, the search engine now receives more than 1 million removal notices each month and removes 97% of the content specified in take-down requests. Between July and August of this year, Google processed 4.3 million removal notices – which are more than Google received in all of 2009.

There is, however, one interesting catch. Google’s new policy alters search algorithms based on “valid copyright takedown notice,” which does not require proof of actual copyright infringement. “Valid” only refers to a complaint being validly formatted – i.e., correctly submitted. Google doesn’t check whether copyrights have been harmed by a particular site. According to Amit Singhal, Vice President of Google Software Engineering,

“Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and 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, the chief concern among Google’s critics is the “false positive problem,” entities filing take-down notices without a legally valid complaint of infringement. According to the consumer group Public Knowledge, “[s]ites may not know about, or have the ability to easily challenge, notices sent to Google. And Google has set up a system that may be abused by bad faith actors who want to suppress their rivals and competitors.”

To protect against false positives, Google provides site owners an opportunity to send a counter-notice to report a false removal notice in order to reinstate the link. This may force companies doing business online to get dramatically less traffic on their sites if they lose their place in the Google search index or, at least cost businesses time and money in making a counter-claim to correct Google’s response to a false complaint.

This unfortunate result of Google’s policy change is even reiterated on Google’s help page, which previously stated: “[t]here’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index,” but has since been changed to say: “Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.”

So, baseless copyright complaints submitted in a valid Google format could be the new tool of competitors or even disgruntled former employees who happen to be Internet savvy. For those businesses that routinely search Google for their content on other people’s sites – make sure your website comes up as well.