Google acts to reduce pirated content

Google is making changes to its search rankings to reduce the visibility of websites hosting pirated content, in a move long advocated by media companies.

In a blog post on Friday, Google said it was adding a new indicator to the more than 200 it uses to deliver the best possible search results: it will now take into account the number of valid copyright removal notices it receives for any given site.

"Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results," it said.

Google presented the change as a move to improve the user experience.

"This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily – whether it's a song previewed on NPR's music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify," it said.

However, media companies may appreciate it even more if sites carrying unlicensed material are forced off the crucial first page of results for Google queries.

"It's all a matter of implementation," said one media executive who declined to be named. "If it's done well, it satisfies some of what we've been asking for, for years. If it's just a show of PR, then it really doesn't move the needle all that much."

Another added: "The search folks [at Google] consider the search to be sacrosanct. That's why you have these baby steps happening. We need even more."

Michael O'Leary, head of global policy at the Motion Picture Association of America, said the MPAA was optimistic that Google's actions would steer consumers to legitimate sites rather than "rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites and other outlaw enterprises".

"We will be watching this development closely "the devil is always in the details – and look forward to Google taking further steps."

The Recording Industry Association of America said it was a "potentially significant development" for the music industry.

"This change is an important step in the right direction – a step we've been urging Google to take for a long time. Google has signalled a new willingness to value the rights of creators," said Cary Sherman, RIAA chairman.

Media companies feel Google has become more responsive of late to official complaints about linking to illegal content, following pressure in the US and Europe from the industry and lawmakers, including the postponed Stop Online Piracy Act in the US. The powers recommended by the bill were labelled "a threat to free speech" by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Google opened up a new copyright section in May in its Transparency Report – a publicly viewable online database showing statistics on its services.

The current report says it has received copyright removal requests for 4.3m web addresses over the past month – more than for the whole of 2009.

Further steps the media industry would like to see Google take include faster removal of infringing content, better tools for reporting piracy and stopping activity on its own YouTube service that encourages piracy.

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