The SEO world erupts into hysteria whenever Google rolls out another algorithm update. With most algo updates, we know what we should do: better content, fewer keywords, higher quality links, unoptimized anchor text, etc.
However, when it came to Google’s Pirate Update back in 2012, which was designed to algorithmically penalize pirate sites, we weren’t quite sure what to do. Was this just a slap on the wrist for pirate sites, or are there lessons that all SEOs and marketers could learn?
Now, several months out from Pirate’s most recent update, I want to take a look at the impact and make sure we understand what’s going on.
Piracy’s History As A Search Issue
First off, for all you algo alliteration fans, “Pirate” starts with a “P.” Unlike penguins, pandas, and pigeons, however, the term “piracy” is more intentional and less abstract.
Piracy is a major problem. Although companies like Warner, Sony, and Disney aggressively fight piracy, they’ve had little success in defeating the biggest culprit of all: Google. Obviously, Google isn’t producing the pirated content, but they are distributing it — in a manner of speaking. At the very least, Google’s index makes pirated content findable for those who search.
Hollywood influencers such as Ari Emanuel have spoken out against Google’s facilitation of pirated content. Emanuel’s bottom line? “Stealing is a bad thing.” Thus, Google needs to get rid of it.
Google’s Pirate Update shows that they’re listening and responding to such concerns. But what has the impact been? Here’s what we know so far:
1. The Pirate Update Penalized Websites That Received A High Volume Of Copyright Violation Reports
Want to sum up the update in one cogent phrase? Read the heading above. The algorithm seemed to have a pretty simple, two-fold goal:
- Find sites with lots of copyright violations.
- Lower their ranking.
Before the Pirate Update, someone searching for “watch world war z” may have seen a site with pirated content ranking high in the search results. Now, however, the user sees this:
Take a look at daily traffic loss from several major pirate sites (Iso, Kickass, Torretnz):
The biggest losers, according to Searchmetrics, included the following sites: free-tv-video-online.me, movie4k.to, mp3skull.com, myfreemp3.cc, kickass.to, and others.
Many sites experienced more than a 96% drop in search visibility, such as free-tv-video-online.me:
You can still access the pirate sites. You can even find them in Google’s index, as long as you’re using branded search terms.
What you won’t get is as many major pirate sites in your organic results for organic queries such as “watch [movie] online.”
Can you still find and access pirated content? Absolutely. Moz.com noticed that the “dramatic drops in ranking [happened] to a relatively small group of sites,” so there are still plenty of other, smaller torrent sites that are doing just fine.
2. The Update Helps Reinforce The DMCA
If “Pirate” sounds too whimsical, you can call this update the “DMCA Penalty.” DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton on October 1998. The law makes it a criminal offense to produce and distribute anything that is protected by digital rights management (DRM).
Digital rights management is the technology that tries to prevent people from stealing digital content. Obviously, it’s not foolproof — so, trying to distribute content that is protected by digital rights is criminal.
Not everyone who distributes it is guilty, specifically Online Service Providers and Internet Service Providers. They are protected by the Safe Harbor provision (DMCA 512) in the law.
3. Piracy Is Still Out Of Control
Evidently, Google’s algorithm isn’t foolproof. There are plenty of smaller piracy sites who don’t have the algorithmic onus of DMCA takedown requests. They’re doing pretty well in the results.
Volume Nine SEO explains how the big losers have given rise to some smaller sites. The image below from TorrentFreak demonstrate pre-Pirate results; the results on the right are post-Pirate.
In fact, I can use a typical pirate-style query to watch a popular movie.
In two clicks, I can watch all two hours and twelve minutes of American Sniper, full and free. Movie4k.to isn’t in the search results, but there are plenty of others places I can get my pirated movie fix.
Piracy sites are interested in protecting themselves from piracy takedowns, and they’ll even sponsor links that advertise IP protection and identity masking.
Google’s stance against piracy is admirable, and the Pirate Update is a step in the right direction. Still, it’s impossible to eliminate every site in violation of copyright laws. TorrentFreak.com explains the conundrum:
Ironically, the changes will also drive a lot of traffic to smaller unauthorized sources for the time being, but these will also be demoted as their takedown notice count increases.
And as their takedown notice count increases, more sites will rise to take their place….
5. Google Has Had Two Pirate Updates
October 2014 isn’t the first time we’ve met Pirate. It’s been a while, but the first Pirate Update dropped on August 10, 2012. The goal of the update was to penalize websites “with high numbers of removal notices.” What are “removal notices”? That refers specifically to copyright removal notices.
As the world’s largest index of information, Google gets a lot of complaints. Many of these complaints have to do copyright laws. Copyright laws are complex, but the basic idea is simple: If you created something, you don’t want other people distributing it without your permission.
What does this mean, practically? It means that copyright owners or reporting organizations find stuff in violation and ask that it be removed and/or taken out of search results. Google has to field millions of such requests.
6. The Pirate Update Is A Win For Media And Artists
Piracy is almost as old as the Internet itself. Ever since there was a way to distribute content, there have been sites who are willing to do so in less-than-honest ways.
Piracy hurts the producers of content, such as movie studios, publishing houses, musicians and artists. When their content is unlawfully pawned off, they lose revenue.
The more aggressively piracy is punished, the better the world becomes for everyone.
7. Getting A Page Removed From The Index Requires Valid Documentation
The Pirate Update is designed to penalize sites with lower rankings, not remove them from the index completely. According to Google:
Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law. So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won’t be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner.
Google is serious about takedowns. Obviously, they don’t publish the pirated content themselves, so it’s not as if they can erase it from the web. What they can do is remove that content from their index (which is practically the same thing) once the law has determined that a violation has occurred.
You can submit an official request using the Removing Content From Google tool.
These requests are presumably handled by Google’s legal team, which may make manual adjustments to indexed content or sites.
However, it’s highly unlikely that Google is handling the issue manually. When a request comes in, Google’s huge system automatically handles it. Only in rare cases is the issue handled with “no action taken.”
Here’s how it works. A plaintiff (copyright owner) reports a violation (usually through a Reporting Organization).
The request is swiftly handled as Google removes URLs from the index.
The removal requests rush in at a rate of over a million a day. At the time of writing, Google reported that there were more than 38 million removal requests in the past month. Over the months, the number of removal requests has grown higher and higher.
8. Google Is Serious About Piracy
I believe them. They talk about it a lot. They’ve published significant resources on the subject.
They’ve partnered with Paramount Pictures to promote legitimate popularization of content. They invented Content ID for copyright owners to manage their content. They’ve paid over a billion dollars in royalties to record labels.
But let’s not rely on Google to be the end all of copyright violations. Google has been criticized for taking an allegedly soft stance against piracy and privacy. This is legitimate criticism, but pirates will find ways to sneak in. People will find ways to get pirated content, Pirate Update or not.
9. The Algorithm Isn’t Transparent, But The Legal Process Is
Google isn’t close to being transparent about their algorithm, which is the operative feature behind the Pirate Update. Although they say that “Transparency is a core value at Google,” they’re not going to divulge exactly how the algorithm works.
They are transparent about legal issues. To ensure that they are transparent around law compliance, they share their legal notices with the Chilling Effects project. (Chilling Effects itself is not in Google’s index, which is a bit ironic.)
Chilling Effects is a massive database compiled by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. They collect, file, index, annotate and study all kinds of internet content concerns, but mostly removal requests. Since Google receives most of the removal requests, they share their requests with Chilling Effects.
What does Chilling Effects do with all this information? Mostly, they study it. They want to know who’s sending the notices, why they are submitting them, and what is done as a result. It’s more of a clearinghouse for information, which is then used by law schools for research.
Just as there are removal requests, there is the opposite — demand reports. Let’s say you get a complaint that some of your content is unauthorized. You know that your content is fine and totally authorized. What do you do? You can report it on the Report a Demand page at Chilling Effects.
You can report a wide variety of demands related to Internet removal requests:
- Court Order
- Law Enforcement Request
- Private Information
- Data Protection
What happens to the information once it is submitted? Someone may look at it. Someone may study it. But unless it turns out to be a big case, you probably won’t be featured on Oprah or national news.
Conclusion: Should You Worry?
Is the Pirate Update a major cause for concern or just another drop in the algorithmic sea of changes? There are a few different ways of looking at it. The Pirate Update isn’t a run-of-the-mill algorithm change. It’s highly targeted at a specific slice of the Internet. That being true, there might be reasons to be concerned.
Here are some possible responses.
- Yes, you should be worried. If you operate a Torrent site, then, yes, you should be worried. Are you running a risky business? If your site has been hit with DMCA takedown requests, you may be in trouble. The algorithm automatically penalizes sites that have a high volume of takedown requests.
- No, you shouldn’t be worried. For most of us — marketers, entrepreneurs, and SEOs — we have little to worry about. We’re not engineering anti-DRM technology or figuring out how to get more direct traffic to our illegal download sites. As it is, the Pirate Update affected a small fraction of search queries. The Pirate Update is not a huge threat for most of the SEO or marketing world.
But, then again, maybe you should worry. Is there any cause for concern in the grander scheme of things?
The Pirate Update has its naysayers. It’s not that the naysayers love piracy. It’s that they don’t like the massive control that Google wields. This is not a new complaint, but it is one that surfaced again in the wake of Pirate.
Jayson DeMers summed up the concern in his Forbes article:
[The Pirate Update] illustrates the raw power Google currently holds, and that’s what webmasters need to be thinking about. […] The pirate update is an example of how much power Google already has. Its decisions have a major impact on millions of businesses and billions of users, and as it stands right now, there isn’t much we, as webmasters, can do about it, other than play by Google’s rules.
Maybe we should temper our reliance on Google by investing in alternative forms of online marketing. Maybe we should be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice.
What do you think? Should you be concerned about the wider ramifications of the Pirate Update?