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The Best Search Results are the Legal Ones

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Last Friday, Google published its new How Google Fights Piracy report with details of the improved methods Google is using to combat piracy across a variety of its services. While the report itself is an impressive overview of the many policies and protocols Google has put in place, as well as the results of such protocols, most notable are the three ways Google has reformed search over the last year: demoting sites with many DMCA takedown notices, removing piracy-related autocomplete terms, and improving ad formats.

The report notes that in 2013, Google received just over 224 million DMCA requests for Google search results and they removed over 222 million of them, with an average turnaround time of six hours or less. But in addition to removing these infringing pages from search results (whether through its content removal webform or the Trusted Copyright Removal Program that allows trusted content owners to submit bulk takedown requests), Google has improved and refined its search algorithm to rank sites in part by how many removal notices it has received. Consequently, sites with high numbers of removal notices are demoted to lower search results. This ranking change helps users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily.

In addition to demoting infringing sites from the search results, Google is now taking similar steps with regard to its autocomplete and related search programs. Autocomplete is a convenience feature in Google Search that attempts to “complete” a query as it is typed, based on similar queries that other users have typed. Related Search shows queries that other users have typed that may be similar to the current one. Now, Google has removed common infringing terms from autocomplete (i.e., searching for “Game of Thrones” will no longer pull down autocomplete terms such as “free” “torrent download” etc.). The same is true of “Related Search” queries.

Finally, Google has a number of new advertising products which further promote authorized sources of content in search results. Searches for movies, musicians, albums, etc. on Google will often return a panel on the right-hand side of the search results. These provide users with facts, images and quick answers to their queries. Within these panels, advertisers can quickly enable users to watch or listen to content online. For example, a query for the artist “Iggy Azalea” on a desktop will display a panel for the band on the right-hand side of the page. Within that panel users see “Listen now” links from advertisers like Spotify or Rhapsody. This also includes infringing-focused queries: when users search “Gone Girl free” or “Gone Girl download” the ad panel is moved to the top of the search results and includes links to the legitimate viewing sources (e.g., Amazon, Google Play, VUDU) that carry the product.

And indeed, this is an effective and innovative step. Research conducted by Michael Smith at the Technology Policy Institute demonstrates that users are more likely to purchase legally when legal links are highlighted in the search results. Even those users who initially search on terms related to “piracy” (e.g., including “torrent” or “free” in their search) are also more likely to purchase legally when legal links are highlighted in search results (compared to not being highlighted at all).

Of course there are no simple solutions and piracy websites will likely take steps to avoid some of the countermeasures put in place by search engines. This is why it will be important for the content industry, search engines, ad networks, and other stakeholders in the Internet ecosystem to continue to work together to identify problems and work to reduce piracy.

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About the author

Michelle Wein is a Trade Policy Analyst at ITIF, specializing in the connections between international trade, innovation, intellectual property and economic productivity.