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Can Google Use Your Content With No Attribution?

Recently my research had me looking up something called a cleanroom. The only “cleanroom” I had ever heard of was the one my mom yelled at me about when I was a kid. And unless you work in the tech or pharmaceutical industries, you might be just as confused as I was. Which means you might try googling, what is a cleanroom?

Which will give you this:

Cleanroom image

That insert with the definition? That’s Google’s Knowledge Graph at play, and it will show a definition for any word you ask the meaning of. The definition was helpful, so I clicked on it. I wanted to read more.

But nothing happened.

That seemed odd. Usually, if Knowledge Graph grabs information from around the web, you can click on it to go to the source. So I tried expanding the Knowledge Graph with its pulldown, and found all sorts of additional detail—but still no link.

I switched to Wikipedia and life went on. But in the back of my mind, I kept wondering: how can Google show me an answer from someone’s content, without attributing it?

Knowledge Graph and Copyright

Plenty of companies have objected to having their content grabbed by Google’s Knowledge Graph, but this has always gone nowhere. Google’s claim is that a fact can’t be copyrighted, and that’s true. But if they use your exact wording, scraped from your site, then they’ve taken your original content. Google uses two methods to deal with this:

  • They use only a short snippet taken from your website, which is “fair use” of copyrighted material.
  • They include an attribution link, so that your site may benefit from extra traffic.

But the cleanroom definition is different. And with similar searches—“what is a spaceship?”—I found the same thing. Whole definitions lifted from somewhere, with no link. Where were they coming from?

It turns out the answer is the Oxford English Dictionary. Google has been taking all definitions from them since 2011. And sure enough, look up “cleanroom” on the OED website and you get an exact match.


By offering Oxford Dictionary definitions with no link, Google appears to be taking traffic away from the owner of the content. Google does not own the Oxford Dictionary, and seems to have no control over it (indeed, they had to offer to “reach out” to Oxford about a controversial word definition). I also tried to find out whether Google is simply paying the OED for the right to use its content. If so, it has never been publicly announced.

That leaves us with the unsettling possibility that Google has decided it can take dictionary definitions from their copyright holder and use them as it sees fit. Which suggests, of course, that the same thing could happen to other sorts of content—like the informational pages your own business offers.

Protecting Your Work

For business, the main concern isn’t so much infringement as such (it can be good for business if your content is copied all over the web) but traffic. Knowledge Graph in any form can keep people in the search results instead of clicking through to your company, even if a link is provided. Without the link, the traffic is effectively stolen.

Ultimately, I think copyright law will be the arena where this problem is hammered out. If search engines offer verbatim answers without links, sooner or later there will be a lawsuit. In the meantime, even though you cannot stop Knowledge Graph, you can at least influence how your brand is presented there:

  • Make sure you have an up to date, regularly monitored Google My Business account; this is where Google draws basic information about brands.
  • If there is a Wikipedia page about your brand, check it regularly for non-factual information. Wikipedia is another major source.
  • Ask your web developer to add schema markup to your side, which is code that talks to search engines. This markup can offer Google a definition of your brand or a summary of the page, which it may grab in Knowledge Graph results.
  • Search your keywords regularly, and pay attention not just to your search rank but also to any Knowledge Graphs that show up. Is your informational content being used? Is it linked?

If you need help with any aspect of your web presence, from the markup on the page to the content and SEO, give us a call. EverSpark will give you a free consultation and get you on the road to big traffic.