Google has taken a firm stance on Internet-related piracy in a recent algorithm filter it rolled out this past week. Known colloquially as the “pirate update,” the change aims to lower the visibility of popular piracy sites in an effort to “clean up the web” and reduce the prominence and accessibility of potentially illegal enterprises.
Victims of copyright infringement, such as musicians and movie studios, are no doubt pleased about the rollout, but the update might have broader implications for net neutrality and site visibility for questionable webmasters.The update makes Google a stronger, almost judicial authority that can distribute penalties on offending sites without burdening the complex, sometimes ineffective judicial system. What that means for abiding webmasters remains to be seen.
The pirate update actually has roots in an August 2012 update that Google released as a measure against sites with multiple and frequent reports of copyright infringement, such as sites that condone or enable piracy of music, videos, and other media. Google actually uses a database from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that tracks such reports, and uses that store of information to determine whether a site is a current offender.
The most recent update, which started rolling out around October 24, 2014, is a new, complex layer of algorithmic changes that is designed to build on the existing processes. Officials from Google are hopeful that this new addition to the algorithm will catch offending sites that slipped through the previous filters, and replace any sites that were caught (but were undeserving of penalty in the first place). Like with most Google updates, the pirate update was rolled out over the course of several days, but it looks like most of the dust has already settled.
The update hit a number of torrenting and pirating sites almost immediately, and hit them hard. For example, the site torrentz.eu, a popular torrenting brand in Europe, experienced a keyword drop of nearly 68 percent since the initial algorithm rollout in 2012. Isohunt.to, another popular torrenting location, told torrent news site TorrentFreak that their traffic numbers had already dropped by about half.
The main victims of the update seem to again be sites with an unusually high percentage of DMCA requests for takedown. Compared to the changes from 2012, the recent iteration of the pirate update appears to be far more significant. Back in 2012, the update had very little impact, but today, several sites are reeling from a sharp and dramatic loss.
Getting hit by the penalty doesn’t seem to be a unanimously bad thing, however. Most pirating sites have already earned a significant reputation on their own, without the aid of search engine rankings, and will continue to draw traffic regardless. After all, Google has no authority to take sites down or even directly restrict traffic—they can only limit visibility. Pirate Bay representatives informed TorrentFreak that they haven’t seen much of an impact simply because most of their traffic does not rely on Google to be found. In fact, they claim their traffic will actually increase, since many people who don’t find what they’re searching for will seek out the Pirate Bay as a result.
Unless you’re running a popular torrenting site or a site that advocates or enables piracy, the short answer is no, you don’t have to worry about any ranking loss. Sites that have nothing to do with piracy directly will probably see no movement whatsoever. On the other hand, webmasters of piracy-related sites will have undoubtedly encountered a ranking drop already. In the unlikely event that your site fits some kind of gray area, if you haven’t already seen a significant loss of rank or traffic, you have nothing to worry about.
However, it’s worth noting that this could only be the first of several new changes the search engine giant is making in an effort to keep the web “clean,” and free from sites with questionable material. Right now, that questionable material is limited to clearly illegal or habitually disreputable businesses, but that could potentially expand in the future—we’ll cover that in more detail in our “what it could mean for the search world” section.
Google’s drive to release the pirate update and make continued efforts to try and reduce the visibility of pirating sites is not purely its own. Over the course of the past decade or so, film and music producers have been somewhat aggressive toward the search engine giant, accusing Google of not taking enough measures against piracy and demanding more strict, enforceable regulations. Hollywood and the music industry have been demanding more protection from all sides, including from the United States judicial system, but Google represented a much better opportunity. Google tends to do whatever it wants to do, but it also tends to listen when major players start making complaints.
Some industry leaders have requested the full removal of offending sites from search results, but Google appears to only be lowering their rankings, attempting a kind of compromise that wouldn’t completely eliminate the visibility of torrenting sites, but would decrease it.
Google may also be inspired to release such a change in order to simply “clean up the web,” and make it a better, more legal, more ethical place. But what would that mean for the future?
Already, Google has begun to take liberties with what it defines as “relevant” search results. For most users, a search query should lead to a simple result—the most relevant result—as a kind of question-and-answer relationship. Google has adhered to that principle very strictly, weeding out rank manipulators in an effort to preserve that relevance, and even implementing the Google Knowledge Graph to give people more relevant answers to detectable questions.
Now, Google is starting to pass new ranking boosts and penalties based on what it perceives and evaluates as “good” businesses. Local businesses with limited or negative reviews are ranked much lower than those with positive reviews, and now sites engaging in questionable legal practices are being hit with a similar ranking penalty.
On the surface, Google appears law-abiding and collectivist, using the opinions of the masses and the influence of authorities fighting against illegal activities to modify its search results. But Google holds a lot of power—they’re by far the most popular search engine in the world, and they’ve never revealed their ranking algorithm. If they wanted to start penalizing sites for lesser infractions—such as not accepting returns—they could easily hurt a lot of business owners and/or quickly set new practically-mandatory standards for every business owner in the world.
It’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing at this point, since Google has been both reasonable and beneficial to the online community as a whole so far, but the future is up in the air. With one update, Google was able to instantly squelch the visibility of an entire industry’s worth of websites, and it could easily decide to do something similar in the future. As a webmaster, keep watch for these constantly-updated standards, jump through the hoops when you can, and be on your toes for a potentially major shift in the years to come.