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Can Google’s Anti-Piracy Algorithm Be Used Against Your Business?

Google has been taking more anti-piracy measures, sometimes more than the copyright holders themselves These measures include spotlighting legitimate movie, TV show and music outlets, and pushing piracy outlets father down the listings. In essence, Google is making pirated media sites so hard to find that they may as well not be online. But how do they do that?

The answer is, of course, an algorithm—in this case, a special update to their search algorithm appropriately nicknamed Pirate. This algorithm has been around since as far back as 2012, but received a major update in October 2014. Since then, it’s had a major impact on the search results and made a measurable difference in the amount of traffic that goes to pirate websites. Unfortunately, it’s possible that regular businesses could suffer, too.

How Pirate Works

Google has been working for years to fight pirated content, but there are two things they refuse to do:

  • De-index websites without legal documentation. When Google takes something out of its index, it means it will never appear in search results, ever. If they do this routinely, the value of their search engine suffers. So unless a copyright owner can submit substantial documentation, Google won’t actually de-list a site.
  • Pronounce which sites are pirating and which aren’t. Google isn’t a court, and cannot make arbitrary decisions on whether a site is pirating or not. Resolving copyright disputes is not their job.

So Google needed to come up with a process that was efficient and easy to automate—without putting them into legal disputes. And they found it. The basis of the algorithm is simple: if a website gets enough copyright violation complaints, they get a penalty.

Complaints apparently come in the form of content removal requests (the form to file a request is here). While not all of these requests will result in content being removed—see above—the number of complaints a site receives is a handy measure of how likely they are to be pirating.

To be clear, just because someone files a complaint against a site doesn’t mean the complaint is well founded. Google’s reasoning seems to be that if a site gets a lot of complaints, it’s a safe bet that it really is a pirate site. At that point they will be penalized so hard they seemingly disappear from search results.

This has caused some major pirate sites to lose almost all their traffic.

Threats to Pirates and Real Businesses

The effects of this algorithm are gradual. As many commentators have pointed out, the fall of major pirate sites means that smaller, less well known ones will take their place. But as those sites become prominent they too will rack up complaints and eventually be penalized. It doesn’t get rid of piracy, but it makes running a pirate website harder and less lucrative.

Does this pose any threat to legitimate businesses? The answer seems like it should be no: if you use original or authorized content, you should never get any copyright complaints. But what if someone files false copyright takedown requests against you? Could your competitor tank your SEO?

This unfortunately seems to be a very real threat. Assaulting a competitor’s page rank is an old trick known as negative SEO, and it used to be a thing of the past. Previous negative SEO was done by linking to a competitor from spammy websites, but Google put a stop to it with their disavow tool. Now when a competitor tries this on you, you can go through a (slow and clunky) process to get it reversed.

A similar process exists for fake copyright complaints, but it isn’t nearly as well developed. Google says it will try to inform you if there is a copyright complaint against you, but it cannot always do so. If you are targeted by false complaints you can file a counter-notice, but you can’t do that if you don’t know about the complaint.

The best practices to protect your business include:

  • Making sure you have permission for all images and media used on your site. Never use images off a Google search without explicit permission.
  • Sign up for a free Google Webmaster Tools account and check it regularly. Google says it will notify you through Webmaster Tools if there is a complaint against you. This is the only way to be sure they will contact you.
  • If you find out there is a complaint against you, take action immediately. This could involve taking down content that was infringing, or filing a counter-notice or both.

Again, most legitimate businesses should never have to worry about the Pirate algorithm and we can see it as a good thing. But if your site ever experiences a sudden drop in traffic, copyright violation complaints are one more factor to consider in diagnosing the problem.