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Google Outlines Search-Algorithm Tweaks to Thwart Piracy

Sites with large number of DMCA takedown complaints now appear lower in results, according to Internet giant

Google, which has been blasted by Hollywood and other content owners for not doing enough to purge links to pirated material from its dominant Internet search engine, says it’s taken new steps to make search results more copyright-friendly.

In a white paper released Friday updating its anti-piracy efforts, Google said that earlier this month it improved its search-engine algorithms to more effectively demote sites in its rankings that have received a large number of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices — something the MPAA and others have been urging Google to do for more than two years.

In addition, Google said it recently enhanced “autocomplete” and “related search” functions to prevent terms “closely associated with piracy” from appearing in those results, and that it has introduced new advertising products to further promote authorized sources of content in search results.

However, in the 26-page report (available here), Google maintains that the best way to battle piracy is for content owners to distribute their works via legitimate digital services.

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“Piracy often arises when consumer demand goes unmet by legitimate supply,” the company says in the report. “As services ranging from Netflix to Spotify to iTunes have demonstrated, the best way to combat piracy is with better and more convenient legitimate services. The right combination of price, convenience and inventory will do far more to reduce piracy than enforcement can.”

Asked for comment on Google’s report, an MPAA rep said: “Everyone shares a responsibility to help curb unlawful conduct online, and we are glad to see Google acknowledging its role in facilitating access to stolen content via search. We look forward to examining the results of Google’s algorithm changes to see if they reduce the appearance in search results of stolen content and the sites that profit from it.”

The RIAA, for its part, said it “will be evaluating how these steps measure up. We look forward to working with Google and other search engines on additional initiatives that bolster creators and the fan experience.”

In 2013, Google received about 224 million DMCA takedown requests for links in its search results. It removed 222 million of those, and the average turnaround time in responding to copyright-removal notices is less than 6 hours, the company claims.

Based on that data, starting this month, Google has “improved and refined the DMCA demotion signal in search results.”

“Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in search results,” Google said. “This ranking change helps users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily.”

However, the company noted, it doesn’t remove pages from results unless it receives a specific removal request for a given page — and doesn’t block sites categorically from results. “Even for the websites that have received the highest numbers of (DMCA) notices, the number of noticed pages is typically only a tiny fraction of the total number of pages on the site. It would be inappropriate to remove entire sites under these circumstances,” Google said. Furthermore, Google said, it’s vigilant about preventing abuses of the DMCA removal process and that it rejects inaccurate or unjustified copyright-removal requests.

As far as making legitimate sources of copyrighted material more visible in search results, Google called out its recent introduction of an ad module in the right-hand panel, that appears in searches for certain movies, TV shows, musicians, albums and other content. For example, a query for the artist “Lorde” on a desktop will display a panel for the artist on the right-hand side of the page. “Within that panel we may show ‘Listen now’ links from advertisers like Spotify or Beats Music,” Google said.

The search giant also is serving ads based on piracy-related search terms. For example, the queries “expendables download” or “expendables torrent” returns an ad format at the top of the page linking to downloads from Google Play, Vudu and Amazon.com. The example Google cited is not merely hypothetical: This summer, a high-quality copy of Lionsgate’s “Expendables 3” hit torrent sites more than three weeks before the film’s theatrical debut, resulting in more than 5 million downloads from piracy sites.

“While relatively few users search in this way compared to root queries like ‘expendables,’ we are happy that these new ad formats are driving traffic to legitimate sources of media,” Google said.

In the report, an update to the anti-piracy white paper released last year, Google also outlines other measures it has taken to fight piracy.YouTube’s Content ID system — which identifies copyrighted material and gives owners the option to remove it or serve ads against it — has produced more than $1 billion in revenue for partners in the last seven years, according to Google. In fact, it says that more than one-third of ads served on YouTube now come via Content ID, which is used by 5,000 studios, TV networks, record labels and other copyright holders.

Google also noted its July 2013 agreement with the White House’s Office of the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC), along with Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo and other ad networks, to commit to policies prohibiting advertising from piracy websites. At the time, the MPAA criticized the announcement as insufficiently addressing a narrow subset of the piracy problem and because it place a disproportionate burden on rights holders.

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